Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Autumn colors

There's frost in the forecast for the weekend and we'll probably have a hard freeze in the next couple of weeks but for now, my flowers still look great. Well, some of them have taken a beating over the summer and it's time for them to go away but apparently these don't know the end is near.

Snapdragons are one of my favorite annuals. They can take a light frost and keep on blooming. There were tons of little bees and big bumblebees buzzing around yesterday afternoon when I took these pics. You can see one of the little guys sitting on a petal.

Love, love, love my miniature roses. They are tough as nails. I added two pink ones this spring (thanks, Michele!), but the Russian sage fell over on top of them. They're fine but not photograph-able. That sage is out of control. Yet another thing on my gardening to-do list - whack the sage.

Coleus will not withstand any kind of frost so I'm enjoying this while it lasts. Isn't the color wonderful? This plant has been through wind, drought, hail, grasshoppers and crazed malinois and still looks this great.

I bought a little container of cheap asters a few years back, no idea they'd be this big and pretty. The bees LOVE them. The whole plant was buzzing in the sunshine yesterday afternoon.

I'm fixing this picture in my mind to think about in January.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Going camping

Camping at the DMOTC agility trials last weekend was one of those things that fell into the “You really should have known better but you did it anyway” category.

We’ve had a mild and pleasant September here in Iowa with nighttime lows in the 50s. That is perfect weather for camping. So of course, the weekend I planned to sleep outdoors in a tent, the lows immediately dropped to the low 40s and upper 30s. That is perfectly ridiculous weather for camping in a tent and any sensible person would have recognized that.

But we did it anyway.

The group included me and a couple of other friends who are veterans of camping with dogs. We are the sole remnants of the original band of agility gypsies who used to pitch tents on the shores of Saylorville Lake in late September. The number has dwindled over the years as the agility gypsies have apparently wised up and now all camp at the Motel 6.

The weather was clear and dry and we enjoyed annual camping traditions like building a campfire, getting chased around by the smoke, having a potluck meal, eating more toasted marshmallows than is probably healthy and laughing like loons about a lot of things that normal people probably wouldn’t think was funny at all. Spam. Ha-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha!!!!!

See what I mean?

Then it was time for bed. I was nothing if not prepared. I changed into my sleeping attire: sweat pants over long underwear, wool socks, a turtleneck sweater under a sweatshirt and a fleece jacket. I jammed a stocking cap on my head, which let me tell you, made me the poster child for sexy camping chic. The Farmer didn’t know what he was missing by staying home. Or maybe he did.

I crawled onto an air mattress covered with a fleece blanket, pulled another fleece blanket over that, pulled an unzipped sleeping bag on top of everything and then realized - I can’t move. Fleece sticks to fleece like Velcro. It was clear that I’d better get comfortable because changing positions was not something to be undertaken lightly.

Jamie flopped on one side of me. Phoenix flopped on the other side. I looked at him. He looked at me. I asked him if he’d like to sleep under the blankets. He gave me a malinois sneer. Okay, fine. I knew that wouldn’t last. Phoenix is a firm believer in creature comforts.

Ten minutes later, he slithered over me like some weird furry reptile and began burrowing under the sleeping bag. Uh-huh. Thought so. I covered him up and we all settled down for a long winter’s nap. Technically that was the first full day of autumn and I thought it was a little snarky of Mother Nature to throw unseasonal overnight lows at us.

Really, sleeping in a tent when it’s that cold isn’t bad at all. I was warm from tip to toe, Phoenix cuddled close under the blankets and Jamie sprawled in furry splendor atop the sleeping bag. I don’t know how he did it but every time I checked him, he was warm as toast and seemed to defy the elements. This is the dog who pants in January so I wasn’t really surprised.

We had a variety of sounds to keep us entertained: raccoon fights, coyotes howling and people from other campsites who were either fighting, howling or singing. It all sounded the same. The sound of walnuts launching themselves from nearby tree branches woke me up at regular intervals. After a couple hours of that, I thought they had morphed to the size of coconuts or bowling balls. How can something so small be so loud?

The part that sucked was getting up in the morning. First, I had to dislodge the dogs, who like to greet the pending dawn by dancing on my head. Then I had to peel myself out of my fleece-induced Velcro state. Then I had to get off the air mattress, which, predictably, was not quite as fully inflated as it had started out the night before, leaving me lurching around like an unbalanced drunk.

Once I found my shoes and flashlight, got leashes clipped on the dogs and unzipped two tent doors, we stumbled out into the predawn darkness and headed for the shower house.

There I discovered that showering when it’s 42 degrees is highly over-rated. Never let anyone tell you otherwise. It wouldn’t have been so bad if the water had been A) warm B) ran in a consistent stream and C) warm. We were camping in a conservation area and they take their conservation seriously in Polk County.

The showers are those annoying timed affairs where you push a button and the water runs for a minute or so, then it stops and you have to push the button again. I am sure this discourages lengthy water-wasting showers. This is all fine and good except the button in my shower stall shut off after about 6 seconds (yes, I timed it), leaving me to lather, rinse and repeat with one hand while continually smacking the button with the desperation of drug addicted rat in a lab experiment.

That was truly one of the most unpleasant experiences of my life and the fact that it was self-induced doesn’t change it any. Trust me, I did not repeat the experience Sunday morning and settled for washing my hair in the sink. I may be crazy but I’m not stupid. If anyone got close enough to tell I hadn't showered that morning, they were going to have bigger problems than any lingering eau de dirt horse arena.

The second night, I amped up the human snugness factor by zipping up the sleeping bag and sleeping inside it, with the blanket over the top. The combination of fleece jacket vs flannel-lined sleeping bag was no better than fleece jacket vs. fleece blanket and any bodily motion met with great resistance.

Phoenix wasted no time curling up under the blanket. Jamie was delighted to discover he could now re-arrange the blanket as he saw fit. Which meant wadding it up in a ball and flinging it as far away from him as he could get it. Phoenix and I both took a dim view of this. By morning, the Skinny Little Dog had managed to scratch open the sleeping bag and maneuver himself inside it. He didn't really fit but it didn't matter since I couldn't move anyway. The blanket was covering a lot of him and a little of me and Jamie was the only one who looked happy.

We’re done camping for the year. I have lots of happy memories of pleasant evenings with friends, perfectly toasted marshmallows, mesmerizing campfires, snuggly dogs and near hypothermia experiences. Who knows what next year will bring.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

A top 10 list

Here are the top 10 ways to tell if you've been running agility and camping at Jester Park for three days.

1) Everything you own smells like campfire smoke, including your dog and your van.

2) You slap your knee and dust puffs out of your jeans.

3) Enjoying the sounds of nature while camping includes a screaming raccoon fight at 2 a.m.

4) Enjoying the sounds of nature while camping includes listening to the coyotes howl at 1 a.m.

5) Enjoying the sounds of nature while camping includes listening to the drunken yahoos a few campsites down singing "Happy Birthday" for the seventh time in two hours.

6) You have damp camping gear draped across all the furniture in the spare bedroom.

7) You took a shower in an unheated bath house on a 42 degree morning and can safely add the experience to your F-It List (Rhymes with Bucket List) of things you never want to do again in your life.

8) You came home and took the longest, hottest, soapiest shower you can remember.

9) By Sunday, your jeans could run an agility course by themselves.

10) By 6 p.m. on Sunday, you've done 4 loads of laundry.

Okay, 10 isn't enough.

11) You learned that wearing a fleece jacket while crawling into a flannel-lined sleeping bag means you won't be able to move. Whatever position you collapse in is how you're going to stay all night because fleece sticks to flannel like velcro.

12) You're sitting at the computer at home, your dogs walk by and you catch a whiff of campfire smoke.

13) The most beautiful thing in your house (after the shower) is your bed.

14) You got to watch the vast number of penguins . . . err . . . pelicans . . . migrating on Saylorville Lake.

15) What happens in the tent, stays in the tent.

16) You've eaten more roasted marshmallows in the last two nights than you have since this weekend  last year.

17) You've eaten so many roasted marshmallows, you can elaborate at length about the style and technique used to achieve a delicate brown with slightly puffed top.

18) Camping in a tent when overnight temps drop to 40 can be a very snug and toasty experience if you observe proper protocol for layering blankets, sleeping bags and dogs.

19) The malinois prefers to be included in the base layer.

20) The tervuren should be applied to the top layer. He may re-arrange all layers to suit himself with little regard to other occupants of the tent.

21) This may lead to dissention in the ranks of the lower layers.

22) Doing a happy dance on the air mattress at 5:15 a.m. is highly frowned upon by the human element.

23) The canine element does not care.

24) When it's 41 degrees outside, getting up in the morning is a genuinely unpleasant experience.

25) Genuinely unpleasant experiences tend to spark new and creative uses of the English language.

Thursday, September 22, 2011


I intended to write about the Port-A-Potty that nearly flew off its trailer while going down the road in front of me but that will have to wait. Sometimes, things just hit you out of the blue (hopefully not a Port-A-Potty) and you feel compelled to share your epiphany with everyone. Or at least that's how it works for me.

Yesterday afternoon Phoenix went to see the chiropractor. He has a standing appointment when a chiropractic vet from an eastern Iowa practice does a “house call” at a local training building and saves a bunch of area people the approximately 100 mile round trip to his clinic.

Anyway, Nix and I went early, because I wanted to train for just a bit before his appointment. That would free up the evening for packing for the weekend and watching the season premiere of “Criminal Minds.” Important stuff.

All I wanted to work were articles and gloves - 10 minutes, max, in keeping with my "less is more" approach. It was such a lovely afternoon, several people who had arrived before me were hanging around outside the building. Nix and I went inside. He had done two (informal) articles with speed and happy attitude when a couple of people and their dogs came into the building. They sat down on one end of the building, very politely, with their dogs not being disruptive.

The change in Phoenix was phenomenal.

He went from being up, bouncy and totally engaged to tense and slow. His body carriage changed. His whole demeanor went from “This is fun!” to “Oh crap.”

I’ve known for a long time that he has no use for most “strange” dogs. He doesn’t have a lot of use for many dogs he knows, either. He has a few doggie friends (two lab girls, a pack of field spaniels, a couple of shelties and a pomeranian, go figure) but otherwise, prefers to pretend other dogs do not exist.

I didn’t realize, however, how much impact the simple presence of other dogs had on his work until seeing the stark before and after contrast yesterday. He was extremely concerned about the new dogs in the building. He wasn’t dysfunctional. He was still working and it was passable but certainly not the dog I’d had 2 minutes before.

He wasn’t distracted in the usual sense. He didn’t want to go see the people and dogs but their presence was clearly disturbing to him. He started giving me slow and sloppy responses, exactly what we’d experienced in the ring.

Hmmm . . .

A few months ago, my reaction would have been “correct it.” Even though my correction wouldn’t have been harsh, I wouldn’t have let him “get away with that.” At least I learned enough from our summer training to know this was not the answer.

Instead, I asked him for the barest element of the exercises, a simple retrieve. When he fronted with the glove and dropped it, body posture still obviously stressed, I laughed at him, grabbed the glove, ran around the building with it (safely away from the dogs and people) and let him chase me and eventually catch the glove. We did the same with articles.

I let him make the choice: fret or play. He lightened up visibly. The focus shifted from the strange dogs to me. No food or toys were needed. No correction was involved. Chasing me and getting to play tug with the glove and article became the reward. If he hadn't responded well, I would have backed down to something he COULD do successfully, maybe just simple attention.

When I thought he was relaxed and back in a comfortable place mentally, I asked for a semi-formal article (sent him from a stand facing the pile, goosed his butt on the way out, asked for a front but no finish and let him leap up an grab the article), then a semi-formal glove (same thing) and ended the session. He was much happier and he was trying. Not perfect but who cares.

Phoenix seems to be a dog who understands WHAT to do but hits a lot of mental walls that inhibit his ability to do it. Just making him do it wasn’t going to help him deal with the elements he found disturbing. By not turning it into a confrontational “me vs. him” situation, I think (again, time will tell), I moved us one step up the ladder in terms of “Hey! Isn’t it more fun to play with ME than worry about THEM?”

Don’t know why it took me so long to figure this out. To paraphrase Thomas Edison, I haven’t failed, just found a lot of ways that don’t work.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Feet, weather, training and a mission statement

The foot ligaments: are better! Not at 100 percent yet but I think with timely applications of adrenaline and ibuprofen I’ll be able to run Phoenix this weekend. The swelling is pretty much gone, my foot is still kind of bruised-looking and definitely sore, but if I wear stiff-soled shoes, I can walk without pain. Give me another 36 hours and I’ll be able to sprint like the wind. Or something like that.

The training: What exactly AM I doing with Phoenix’s obedience work now? At the moment, we’re on the “less is more” plan. I’m making it a point to keep our daily sessions at 15 minutes or less. And I’ve quit training every day. OMG! THIS IS HARD FOR ME! I’m a training junkie and always had dogs who felt the same way. We could train FOREVER. Phoenix thinks that much training, for a dog who knows what he is doing, is highly over-rated.

While some trainers might argue “But he HAS to understand that he HAS to do it,” I think the “We will train as long as I want to and you will like it” approach is counter-productive for where we are right now. I’ve been down that road. Yes, I absolutely agree the dog has to understand that non-compliance is not an option, but he also has to WANT to do the work or all the HAVE TO in the world is not going to create the kind of teamwork I want. If you get the WANT TO, the HAVE TO is kind of a non-issue, providing the dog understands his job.

So we’re doing less training but we’re doing it with more intensity and stopping while whatever we're doing is absolutely the most freaking fun either one of us has ever had. Talk about hard! When things are going so well, I want to keep going. But I want the game to stay fresh and fun and grinding him into the ground just to prove the point that I can MAKE him do it is not the answer.

Something that helps is keeping a training journal. I’ve done this for years, but now I use it to pinpoint what I want to work each session and how I want to make it challenging or new. This keeps me from trying to work everything at once (over-training, ugh), which seems to be my training default, and also helps make sure we work each of the Open/Utility exercises on a regular basis. Left to my own devices, I would totally ignore the moving stand and broad jump. Just because I can. Because they are stupidly, deceptively simple. And they need to go away.

The weather: sounds awesome for camping this weekend. With an extra blanket. And long underwear. And thick socks. And I’ll probably be sleeping in my stocking cap, something that hasn’t happened since the ice storm power outage of February ‘07.

The weather dudes can’t seem to agree on nighttime lows, which are ranging from 38 to the mid 40s for the weekend. Well, I camped one year in the spring and the water froze in the dogs’ water buckets. We lived.

The mission: when I started ExerciseFinished, I never intended it to be a training blog. And it isn’t, because there’s always of bunch of weird crap on here that is just reflections of my life and has nothing to do with dog training.

But when I do write about training, I truly hope my thoughts, experiences, reflections, etc. can help trainers with the same kinds of issues to reasonably think things through, not just follow the training approach that often seems to value making the dog perform no matter what - instead of trying to figure out what the dog really needs in order to give a happy, willing performance that is not based on constant cookies OR fear or pain avoidance training.

In keeping with these thoughts, you might like Denise Fenzi’s new blog, She is much of the same mind and expresses it in a more sensible and organized fashion, unlike my rambling discourses.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Smarter than the average bear?

A lot has been written about the intelligence of dogs and most of it has been written by people who know more about the subject than me. But Jennie’s comment last week about how intelligent dogs are harder to train than “slightly dim” dogs got me to thinking. Here are a few of those thoughts. As usual, I probably have more questions than answers.

Remember the study that came out a few years back that said border collies were the smartest breed? Ask any BC owner and they’ll tell you that doesn’t mean they’re automatically a breeze to train or live with!

Measuring canine intelligence is a dicey proposition and too often we tend to decide which breeds are smart or not by the numbers of each represented among winners in the obedience ring. Somewhere along the line, the ability to win in the obedience ring has come to equate a higher level of intelligence.

Of course this is ridiculous. Folks who have played the obedience game with an open mind know every dog is an individual and words like smart or dumb often reflect the person holding the leash much more than the dog.

A more accurate declaration would be “Easier to train” equals “Wins in the obedience ring.” There’s a reason golden retrievers, not whippets, dominate the obedience scene. How many times have you heard someone say, “I’m getting a golden/sheltie/fill-in-the-blank next time because they’re easy to train”?

I think most folks would agree, some breeds ARE easier to train than others, especially for higher-end competition where tiny performance details may separate the top four winners. At a recent trial I attended, golden retrievers accounted for nearly 2/3 of the entry in Open and Utility. This is not an accident. They are well suited for demanding obedience competition.

Notice I did not say some breeds are EASY to train. I said EASIER. Even if done well, with patience, respect, realistic goals and a lot of time, training ANY dog to the UDX level or beyond is never easy. It takes a tremendous amount of effort and dedication on the handler’s part to make it happen. And that’s never easy. If it were, everyone would have an OTCh.

But some breeds seem to excel, while others rarely make an appearance in the obedience ring. Is it because certain breeds are so mentally superior they understand what we are trying to communicate in spite of our clumsy and often flawed training efforts? Or is it because they don’t object to the constant repetition/correction approach some trainers feel is necessary? Or because they are willing to tolerate heavy-handed training methods that would have other breeds saying, “Screw this, I quit.”

I’ve always felt that the relationship between dog and trainer was more responsible for a team’s success than the dog’s genetic material. But let’s not deny the facts — if you get a puppy from a litter with OTChs. going back for generations on either side of the pedigree, chances are that puppy is going to be extremely “trainable,” regardless of the breed.

The pedigree proves that genetic line is mentally predisposed to successfully work with humans and physically able to do so for long enough to earn high-end titles. This is a wonderful thing. Breeders would be foolish not to make it part of their programs and exhibitors who enjoy that particular breed would be foolish not to recognize it. Does this mean everyone should rush out and get a golden retriever or sheltie from a specific kennel so they can "win"? Of course not. Not unless you truly, truly love goldens or shelties. But if you love Fluegelhunds, then keep loving and training Fluegelhunds.

I don’t think an OTCh.-loaded pedigree necessarily means those dogs are “smarter” than dogs who might not be achieving on such high levels - they are just very amenable to working happily with humans and have been trained by experienced owners, leading to a high rate of success, as measured by titles and scores, in competitive venues. Which, ideally, is what many of us want.

We often don’t recognize intelligence when it’s living with us. The “slightly dim” dog is willing to keep repeating things over and over, exactly the same way each time, while we tell him how SMART he is, while the “smart” dog may start asking questions or re-inventing the wheel or doing God knows how many crazy ass things that make the trainer think “What is WRONG with that dumb dog?”

Looking back at the dogs I’ve trained as an adult, I think my shelties were of average intelligence but they possessed a joie de vivre for training and showing that amplified it. I do feel my Belgians have been on the higher end of the intelligence scale (some of their problem solving has been freaky scary) but Phoenix is by far the most difficult dog I’ve trained. Although a lot of that is of my own doing, he is a free-thinker, creative, inventive, pushy, sensitive, reactive and absolutely un-interested in doing the same old, same old day after day. This is not a recipe for an "easy" dog to train.

He can be a total sweetheart or a complete challenge to live with. One thing is for sure, now that I’ve come to realize he needs more from me than commands and consequences, our training is NEVER boring.

Regardless of how brilliant or dim-witted we think our dogs are, we need to be more invested in building a relationship with them that allows us to learn together. Phoenix has made it very clear that I need to learn more about HIM — not just what I can train him to do — before our obedience ring work is going to improve.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

You might be a redneck if . . .

. . . you've ever used vet-wrap to keep an ice pack in place. Yep. That's my foot with an ice pack vet-wrapped around it.

You might be a middle-aged woman if  you pulled ligaments in your foot by . . . get ready for this . . . it's crazy wild . . .

 . . . standing up.

In keeping with my long history of getting hurt in odd ways (vacuum cleaner handle in the eye, bungee cord to the face, etc.), I have once again found a totally ridiculous way to get hurt without trying.

It happened at the school program I did with Phoenix on Thursday. We were almost done. The kids were petting Phoenix and I was crouching on the balls of my feet, giving him treats, which was totally stupid because A) Phoenix adores kids and B) crouching like that is really hard on my knees. It was about to be really hard on something else, too.

I stood up and something in my left foot went POP! Ouch! WTF??? SOB!!! The pain was incredible. Like someone had driven a truck over my big toe. I seriously could have thrown up. But image is everything. We finished the program, with me balancing on one wobbly leg. Then I limped out to the van, took Phoenix home and went back to work. My foot hurt so bad I called the local clinic.

"There's not much we can do for toe injuries," the nurse said, her tone of voice clearly indicating that unless it was hanging by a flap of skin or had a bone poking out of it, I should just hang up and get on with my life.

It FELT like a bone was poking out of it. It felt like red hot nails were poking into it. She asked how it happened and I tried to explain that one minute I was fine, then I stood up and well, that was that.

"Sounds like you've hyper-extended your big toe," the nurse told me. Apparently this happens when you have a sudden shift of weight or balance and your toes end up trying to compensate for your whole body. It's fairly common in athletes.

Yeah. Ha-ha. How common is it in middle aged women giving dog obedience programs in the library?

"You've probably pulled or torn some ligaments," the nurse continued helpfully. "There's really nothing to do but put ice on it, elevate it and take an anti-inflammatory. And stay off it. It will take a week or two to heal."

A week or TWO? Stay OFF it? Yeah, sure. 

Oh, and I was supposed to keep flexing it so it didn't stiffen up.

Flex it? I wanted to cut it off!

TG the Granger agility trials aren't THIS weekend or I'd be hiring a rent-a-handler. Let's see . . . two runs a day times three days . . . Michele, Rilda, Tammy, Marsha, Paula and Tracy . . . that comes out nicely. If the boys want to play, Jeff, Terry and Bill could take a turn.

As it turns out, I THINK I'll be okay to run my own dog next weekend. The last 48 hours have been pretty crappy but my foot feels a lot better today. Do you know how hard it is to ice and elevate a foot? You can elevate a foot or you can ice a foot but doing both at once is not easy. Hence the vet wrap idea (thanks, Renee!). 

The part of my foot that hurts most is the right half, top and bottom. That part was so swollen by Thursday night my toes couldn't even touch the floor. It's bad when you can't touch your toes. It's even worse when your toes can't touch the floor.

Thanks to gimping around at work Thursday and Friday, my entire foot ached by the end of the day. The right side hurt from the pulled ligaments. The left side hurt from me walking on it funny. My left knee hurt from the awkward way I had my foot propped up on my desk at work (finally, an excuse to put my feet on the desk!). And the right side of my body was complaining because the left side was out of kilter and it was being asked to over-compensate.

Seriously, if you had told me when I was 20 that life after 40 was going to be like this . . .

Friday, September 16, 2011

Kids say the darnedest things

The school programs yesterday were fun. Phoenix has done demos for community groups, Kiwanis, etc., but not for a bunch of kids who would laugh at him. He loved it and was quite the goofball.

The kids had a problem distinguishing between German and Belgian shepherds, though. I am probably getting paid back for posting the funny script from Hogan's Heroes about Belgians being smarter than Germans.

Here are a few of the best quotes from yesterday:

Girl: “What kind of dog is he?”
Me: “He’s a Belgian shepherd.”
Girl: “Oh. So he’s not a REAL shepherd.”

Boy: “What kind of dog is he?”
Me: “He’s a Belgian shepherd.”
Boy: “What kind of a dog is THAT?!”

Boy: “We have a German shepherd, too.”
Me: “Phoenix is a Belgian shepherd.”
Boy: “We have REAL German shepherd.”

Boy: “What kind of treats are you giving him?”
Me: “Cheese.”
Boy: “You need to give him more. He’s too skinny.”

(This one is my absolute favorite)

Boy: “How many dogs do you have?”
Me: “Two.”
Boy: “So the other one is a normal dog?”

Thursday, September 15, 2011

I can't help it, I have to . . .

In case you have zero interest in college football, the huge Iowa-Iowa State rivalry game was last Saturday. The Iowa Hawkeyes are usually the kick-ass powerhouse and the Iowa State Cyclones are usually the kickees. But not this year! I graduated from Iowa State so need to wave my cardinal and gold pride one more time.

Moving on to other things - I love Jennie's comment from earlier this week (Sept. 13, Obedience Stereotypes). She wrote (paraphrasing here): truly intelligent dogs are harder to train than slightly dim dogs. I love this concept! And I seriously want to explore it further, just not today. No time.

And no, it isn't going to be hard for me to give up obedience trials between now and April because there are only two obedience weekends I would have entered anyway. If Phoenix and I were totally rocking our teamwork, I might be willing to travel a bit more to pick up some other shows, but given that our current status is very un-rocking, I'm content to put trialing on hold. Besides, we've got tons of agility trials to go to, so not like we'll be staying home for the next 7 months.

Later this morning, Phoenix and I are going to the local high school to give a program. Actually, we'll give three 15-minutes programs. Phoenix hasn't ever done the school scene but he is such a dork about kids I'm have no doubt he'll enjoy it.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

The 7-month vacation

Well, it's not exactly going to be a vacation.

But Phoenix and I are staying out of the obedience ring for the next 7 months. That's not a magic number, it just happens that a lot of the nice local (day trip) trials start in 7 months (April) and I'd like to start showing him again then.

April. That seems like years away. We've got a lot to do between now and then!

A lot of people have asked what I'm going to do in terms of training now. I've gotten lots of suggestions, ranging from give him a year off from obedience to try rally to get a puppy.

You people are funny. Really, really funny.

I do not think I could go an entire year without training obedience. Seriously. I can train less, do fewer and shorter sessions. But I cannot NOT train. Working with my dog is like an addiction. If I miss a couple of days, I start craving it, needing a fix. I treasure the time we spend together and that's even more important to me now, as Phoenix and I face the challenge of re-establishing that obedience is something to be enjoyed, not something to be endured without enthusiasm and constant reminders that he's not doing it well enough to suit me.

Rally. Hmmm. Theoretically, I have nothing against Rally. It has its place. I will not be in that place with Phoenix until they stop cramming Rally courses into 40 x 50-foot rings where there are only three steps between stations. It seems counter-productive to teach a dog to heel with power and impulsion, then take him into a ring where he has to stop or turn just as he hits his stride. But maybe that's just me.

Finally - get a puppy. While I have no doubt that would shake Phoenix out of his funk (whether it would be for good or bad is anybody's guess), it would also throw our entire household into chaos and upheaval. I'm so not ready for that! I promised Jamie that I would not get a puppy while was still with me. I want to enjoy his senior years and I know if I get a puppy, Jamie would slip quietly into that place where old dogs simply exist on the fringes of the household while the younger dog(s) demand all the attention.

So what are we going to do?

I'm shifting our focus from "re-training" to "re-animating."

There is no doubt in my mind that Phoenix understands how to do the Open and Utility exercises and how to do them well (straight, fast, clean, smooth, etc.) That may seem like a profoundly foolish statement from a dog and handler team who hasn't managed to pass Utility since finishing our UD last spring and has, for all intents and purposes, fallen completely to pieces.

But in keeping with my theory that Phoenix has lost the "want to," thanks largely to me putting so much pressure on him that he felt he could never be right so why bother (once again, what I TAUGHT was not what he LEARNED), he doesn't need any more "training." He's been "trained" to the nines and that has not gotten us to a good place.

He needs to know he's right. With previous dogs, I could always tell when they had a "light bulb moment" and figured something out - they KNEW they were right and there was no stopping them after that. The confidence and joy in their work carried into the ring and they were brilliant. Somehow, I missed that with Phoenix even though he showed me he had mastered the skills and could do the exercises. He never had the light bulb moment where HE knew he could do them and that I was truly pleased with and proud of him.

In other words - I'm going to get off his case. Training is going to be much less formal. There will be rewards but he will work for them, no luring, no over-treating, no cookies for no reason. Well, maybe a few. Because he's awfully cute. Especially when he does that Malinois tooth clack thing. Mal owners know what I'm talking about. (Do other breeds do that??)

My immediate goal is to have a happy dog in the ring. Not a perfect dog. Not a dog who never makes a mistake. Just a dog who enjoys his job and is happy to make an effort to do it with me. Once we have that, I'll decide where to go next.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Obedience stereotypes?

I hate breed stereotypes. You know, “Shelties are shy,” “Rottweilers are mean,” “Hounds are stupid,” “Toy dogs are yappy,” etc.

My two un-favorites are “Tervs have no work ethic” and “Malinois have rotten temperaments.” Guess they forgot to tell Jamie that when he got his OTCh. or Phoenix when he was giving the wheelchair-bound, special needs person kisses to their mutual delight over the weekend.

Most stereotypes are perpetrated by people who have never lived with or trained the breeds they’re passing judgment on. Yeah, there is probably a grain of truth (a single, tiny grain) in each statement because heaven knows not every single dog born on this planet has exceptional temperament and intelligence but automatically condemning a dog because of his physical appearance is the product of ignorance.

You and I know better than to believe blanket stereotypes and we spend a lot of time trying to show John Q. Public that how a dog is treated and trained usually has more influence on the final product than the dog’s genetics.

Sometimes I wonder if we need to transfer a similar approach to training methods. How many obedience “stereotypes” have you followed blindly, never questioning them, even though you’ve never tried any other method to see if it might work for your dog because you were afraid that would be against the "rules"?

Here are a few "rules" I followed without question for years before Phoenix started changing things:

• You can’t let your dog “get away” with anything. (By the time you realize he’s gotten away with something, well, um, he’s already gotten away with it and it’s too late to do anything about it.)

• You have to show your dog who’s the boss or he won’t respect you. (Respect and fear are not the same.)

• You have to make him do it. (Yeah. Right. And what if you can’t? Then what?)

• You have to teach a forced retrieve or your dog will never be a reliable retriever. (No. You don’t.)

There are probably more that I can’t think of at the moment. If you're running up against a brick wall in your training, maybe it's time to re-think some of those "carved in stone" rules.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Things that make me crazy

Granted, there are a lot of them.

Most of them have to do with my job.

Which is stupid, because I should just shut up and be happy I have a job.

I am happy I have a job.

It involves dealing with the public a lot.

Which makes me crazy.

This morning Funeral Home A sends me an obituary for the paper.

This afternoon, they send me a revised copy of the obituary.

An hour later, they call me with changes to the revised copy. 

An hour after that, they e-mail to say oops, we sent it to you by mistake and the family doesn't want to pay to have it run in your paper.

Which leaves me wondering at what point did anyone actually TALK TO THE FAMILY or let them proofread the obituary before sending it out.

See what I mean?

This happens all the time.

Thing number two: we have been without an editor at our paper for six months. I have absorbed a lot of the editor's duties. I have not absorbed any of that position's salary.

We finally hired a new editor. He started today. He is in his office. The lights are on. I presume he is home. People keep giving me his work, like he is not there. This is not making either one of us feel very good. It is making me want to hit someone very hard with a large, blunt object.

But I am not a violent person. I smile. I say, you need to give that to Brian. Brian is the new editor. I am not Brian. I am no longer doing Brian's work. Well, actually, I am still doing a fair amount of it. I hope that will change soon. I am not holding my breath.

And finally, crazy-making thing number three: what ever happened to commitment? 

I scheduled an interview a week ago. Before I hung up the phone, the party I was going to interview said, you'd better call us that morning to see if we're going to be around that day.

WTF? I thought we just made an appointment. Why WOULDN'T you be around? That's why I called to MAKE the appointment in the first place, so we could find a time that was mutually agreeable.


Okay. Done. Rant over. Still crazy. 

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Autumn rituals

One autumn ritual for me is showing at the Des Moines cluster. I'll get to that in a minute.

Another autumn ritual is the Iowa State Cyclones vs Iowa Hawkeyes intrastate college football rivalry. I would be acting in a manner very unbecoming an Iowa State graduate if I didn't take this moment to let you know that the CYCLONES KICKED MAJOR HAWKEYE ASS ON SATURDAY AND WON AFTER THREE OVERTIMES! 

This from a team who is the perennial underdog in the rivalry and usually slinks home with their tail tucked between their legs. Fans sigh and mutter "There's always next year," although we know next year will probably bring more of the same. Hell, we're just happy if we get on the scoreboard and it's not a total shut-out. Cyclone football is not exactly the powerhouse of the Big 12.

Okay, back to the Des Moines shows. The Belgians and I set off on Friday morning with R2 loaded to the ceiling. I think he looked like one of those clown cars where you open the doors and everything comes flying out. I just hoped we made it to Des Moines before anything started popping out of windows or the sunroof. You laugh but I had show gear and camping gear for 2 big dogs and 1 person for 3 days. Just getting packed and loaded up was a major undertaking.

The camping was great. Perfect weather - dry, sunny days and cool nights. Since my Mountain Hardware tent is still on the DL after breaking a pole last fall (um . . . I had a whole year to fix it . . . guess THAT didn't get done) I ended up using the very first tent I ever bought, a cheap little Coleman. It's a great little tent but obviously for use only during fair weather only. If it had rained, things wouldn't have been pretty. The rain fly is a silly little affair that barely covers the screen mesh on two sides.

It was wonderfully cool at night and Phoenix decided he liked sleeping UNDER my unzipped sleeping bag with me. Too funny. I've never had an "under" dog. Jamie thinks it's still too hot when it's 35 degrees and no way does he want to be covered up. 

Saturday, Phoenix and I entered Versatility and Wild Card Utility. Before going into Versatility, I let Renee take Phoenix to warm him up. It was another experiment. It was NOT the type of warm up that seems to be fashionable in some parts of the Midwest - handing your dog off to someone who basically abuses it for 10 minutes then hands it back just as you go into the ring. Renee had him do some heeling and finishes and play a little, then delivered him to me as the judge called our number. The goal was to have him happy to be in the ring with me. Even though he likes Renee and she wasn't being horrible to him, he's very much MY dog and was happy to get back to me.

It worked! He WAS happier in the ring and gave me some good attitude and some definitely improved work. We even had a trot-in after the drop on recall (yay!) and a passable Glove #3 turn (double yay!). We ended up placing 3rd out of 10, which was just icing on the cake as he already has his VER title and I'd entered just to work on ring attitude.

We did Wild Card Utility later and used the same approach. It didn't work quite as well the second time. I think Phoenix may have just been pushed to his limit by then, as the show site is very, very demanding and overwhelming in terms of noise and congestion. Ironically, we ended up winning the class with a score of something like 135 points, which was pretty hysterical. His go-outs remained good but the directed jumping part was broken. I'm not sure if it was sensory overload or if he had trouble seeing my signal against a very busy background. He also got stuck on the first article. It was in the center and he was standing with his front paws in the center, working the outside of the pile. On the second article, the judge asked if I would like it back in the middle again and I said absolutely! Phoenix did a better job of checking the WHOLE pile, not just the outside and found it right away. It's great when judges really try to help and aren't just going through the motions.

After much shopping at the vendors (seriously, I need an intervention), eating cookies (the food concession bakes chocolate chip cookies fresh all day long), looking at what everyone else bought at the vendors (okay, maybe I don't need an intervention after all, I'm still an amateur compared to Michele and Beth!) and watching team, everyone headed home and the dogs and I headed to the huge Bass Pro Shop store nearby. It was late enough in the day I found a totally shaded parking spot and the dogs napped while I shopped. Again. 

Grabbed supper on the way back to the campgrounds, ate, walked dogs, crawled into the tent and fell asleep by 9 p.m. Phoenix cuddled up under the sleeping bag at some point in the night and we all slept snugly.

The only class we entered today was Versatility. We managed to have our absolutely worst ring entry in the history of obedience. He was bouncing and tugging a toy and we were all ready to go in. I turned to set the toy down and just as the judge called my number, Phoenix plopped down and went butt-scooting across the floor, hind legs sticking up in the air while two little boys ran straight at him, screeching "Can we pet your dog!!!" (Well, at least they asked.)

I got him off his butt and intercepted the two little boys (parents were somewhere in the general vicinity but basically ineffective) and stumbled into the ring. Then things got a lot better - all I wanted was "up" attitude and he delivered. He even did his signals in that zoo! Not every part of every exercise was brilliant but it was a marked improvement over recent performances. 

Several times he tried to leave the ring (odd) and he did the butt-scooting thing again between exercises. I know I'd expressed anal glands when he had a bath a couple of weeks ago but the poor guy was clearly having some discomfort. Soon as we got out of the ring I took him outside and he had a major dump. Figures. He'd already pooped once this morning and he'd been out a couple of other times and didn't have to go but guess obedience is just stressful that way.

It's good to be home.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Bye-bye, Front and Finish

As several of you have mentioned, yes, I've stopped writing for Front and Finish. I enjoyed it tremendously but after 15 years, well, it was a good run. I see on their Web site my final column did not get posted in its entirety, a bit is missing at the end, so here's the whole darn thing.


People frequently ask me, “Do your dogs sleep in your bed with you?” The people asking this question are usually not dog people. Dog people would take one look at Jamie and Phoenix and know better.

Outdated dominance and leadership theories aside, my dogs don’t sleep on our bed because they don’t fit. There are nights when our bed, albeit queen sized, does not seem big enough for two humans, let alone adding more creatures whose combined weight tops out at 110 pounds.

That’s not to say they don’t try. Like most dog owning households, we have a set of rather complicated rules governing who is allowed on the bed and under what circumstances. These rules have a certain amount of flexibility built into them. Most of this flexibility comes from the dogs’ interpretation of the rules.

When Jeff and I got married, the initial rule was no dogs on the bed because back then, we had a waterbed. Not a problem, since neither of my shelties showed any indication of wanting to sleep there. In fact, Jess was scared to death of the thing because it moved. (Jess was scared of a lot of things.)

This lasted until our farm was hit by a straightline windstorm in 1998. The devastation was immense. Jess and Connor were alone in the house during the storm. That night when we went to bed (our house was one of the few structures on our farm that escaped being flattened, although it sustained some damage), Connor jumped up onto the bed — rules be damned — curled up and pretended he wasn’t there.

“Your dog is on the bed,” Jeff pointed out. I thought we had bigger things to worry about and told him so. He got up, picked Connor off the bed, put him on floor and by the time Jeff got back into bed, Connor was already back in it, too. Conn slept on the foot of our bed for years and years after that. He was just the right size to shove my cold feet under in the winter. If he objected to this, he never said anything. When we got rid of the waterbed and replaced it with a traditional mattress and frame, the fact that Connor nearly had to pole vault to get onto it didn’t stop him.

When Connor died in 2009, I no longer had a “bed dog.” Jamie thought humans were hot, lumpy and thrashed around too much. He wanted no part of sleeping on the bed and slept happily on the floor.

The only exception was during thunderstorms. Then he would vault onto the bed in a panic, not caring where he landed or if that spot might already be occupied by a tender part of human anatomy. Jamie has been storm phobic his entire life so after 12 years, Jeff and I have both become resigned to having a terrified, 60 pound furry missile launching onto the bed in the middle of the night. Depending on the severity of the storm, being on the bed with us provides some degree of comfort. During mild storms, Jamie will curl up close and go to sleep, relieved to be safe with his people. Apparently the safety factor is much higher if one is sleeping two feet above the floor.

Jamie could have had a career with the National Weather Service. Garden variety thunderstorms in the night are met with mild trembling that frequently resolves itself once he is ensconced on the bed with human hands to touch and provide reassurance. He’ll go to sleep, enduring the hot, lumpy people for the sake of security. Once the storm passes, he’ll jump off like he was doing us the biggest favor in the world by sleeping there.

But if he is really distraught there is a great deal of fussing, shifting, stomping around (again, paying zero attention to where he’s stomping), trembling, panting and general inability to settle. Before long, my weather radio will go off with a severe storm warning that Belgian radar had already predicted.

Jamie sees no point in sleeping anywhere when there’s seriously rough weather and thinks no one else needs to, either. However he’s not content to be wide awake on the floor. He gets lots more reaction and attention from the humans if he’s stomping on them. I’m willing to endure a bit of this behavior for the sake of loving this crazy dog, but when storm induced behavior turns my night’s sleep into a trampoline routine, Jamie goes in a crate — where oddly enough, he settles almost immediately. Probably because he’s exhausted from jumping up and down on my head.

Phoenix is oblivious to storms but sees no point in being the only one who is NOT on the bed when one strikes. Once Jamie leaps up to join us, Phoenix is usually right behind him. Fortunately, Phoenix spins in a tight circle, plops down and won’t move unless bodily evicted – no panicked thrashing.

Phoenix did enjoy a brief stint of being allowed to sleep at the foot of the bed, although it was not sanctioned by either me or Jeff. Once he grew up enough not to eat the house and was allowed loose-in-the-house-at-night privileges, his main goal in life became sleeping on the bed. He was a dog on a mission. I don’t know how many times I woke up to find him perched on the cedar chest at the foot of the bed, one paw already on the quilt and one paw raised in anticipation of sneaking on the rest of the way. No doubt he thought if he crept up slowly and silently enough, he could curl up undetected and spend the night. I’m ashamed (or amazed!) to say this occasionally worked. The dog has definite feline tendencies and can move with considerable stealth for something that weighs 50 pounds and usually careens around the house like he’s been shot from a cannon.

Anyway, I spent a lot of time chucking Phoenix (usually verbally, occasionally physically) off the bed. He finally decided it was a battle not worth fighting and made a happy nest on the floor next to my side of the bed.

Once we had established that the bed was not an extension of his own personal lounging space, I would invite Phoenix to come up and cuddle while Jeff and I read or watched TV. The rule was “When the lights and/or the TV go off, the dog goes off, too.” This worked well and usually the very act of reaching for the remote control resulted in a polite exit.

That fall, when Jeff began working late hours during the harvest, I amended the “Dogs off the bed when the lights go out” rule. If I went to bed before Jeff, Phoenix could snuggle and sleep on the bed until Jeff came in, then he had to get off.

Well, that’s what I thought the rule was. Phoenix interpreted it more like “Finders keepers, I have a warm spot and I’m not leaving and you can’t make me.” He never growled at Jeff when he came in or showed any sign of resource (bed) guarding. He suddenly developed total deafness, put his head down, closed his eyes and wouldn’t move.

Jeff was usually too tired to argue with him so Phoenix thought he’d won that battle. The bed was warm and soft and the human didn’t seem to object to him being there, at least not enough to do anything about it. It was a classic example of “If you allow it, you train it.”

Then I started waking up in the middle of the night to find both husband and dog wedged onto the same side of the bed. Phoenix looked happy. Jeff, not so much. Not for the first time in my life, I realized here was another problem not of my own creating that I was going to have to solve. Phoenix simply could not be allowed to sleep on the bed full-time. He took up too much room.

Ever notice how dogs expand in every direction when they get on the bed? Phoenix was a blanket hog. He was so heavy if he rolled onto your feet, he cut off circulation. He was given to having chasing dreams (cats, I suspect) which always seemed to come to a violent conclusion. It’s cute to watch your dog dreaming when he’s laying on the floor. It’s not so cute to wake up to find him sound asleep, growling and thrashing and baring his teeth six inches from your ankle.

It took a lot of insistent reinforcing to convince Phoenix that his own bed was where he needed to sleep. I’m still not sure he really buys that but he’s gracious enough to play by our rules now.


This is my last column for Front and Finish. I’m sad. I’ve written for 15 years, since 1996. It’s been a wonderful experience but time and circumstances have a way of changing life’s priorities.

My job (which I’m happy to still have) has changed tremendously in the last year and while I’m writing more than ever for the paper, other responsibilities have been added as well and the down time that allowed me to craft these columns in spare moments has virtually disappeared. Time for writing at home? In my dreams. Household demands, helping with our farming operation, training Phoenix for his UDX career, teaching classes and the inevitable family demands have a way of occupying every available second. Funny how time can become such an elusive and precious commodity. I knew it was time to bow out when I found myself facing column deadlines with a sense of desperation, not enjoyment.

Unfortunately, my access to the digital version of Front and Finish is also severely limited. With dial-up Internet at home, loading the pages progresses at an agonizingly slow pace. After spending 8 hours or more a day working on a computer, I’m not eager to sit in front of one again for any length of time when I get home. I understand the economic pressures that led to launching the digital version of F&F but I very much miss the hard copy edition that fit in purse and training bag. I find myself in the awkward position of writing for a publication I no longer have access to reading.

Sigh. I will miss you all. I will miss Bob Jr.’s support and Teresa and Thomi’s silly comments back and forth when I e-mail columns.

Thank you for reading. As always, I invite you to share my world at

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

'This will make you a better trainer'

Random thoughts about me, Phoenix, training, the past, the future, stupidity, hindsight and forgiveness

Over the years, I’ve frequently heard people say “My dog hates obedience.” I never really understood what they meant because I’d never had a dog who hated obedience. That was something I had no point of reference for. Jess, Connor and Jamie all had hang-ups on certain exercises but as a whole, they loved going into the ring. I think this was just who they were, not the result of any brilliant training skill on my part.

“My dog hates obedience” have always been fightin’ words for me. I thought “Well, it must be your fault, what have you done to make him hate it?” Never thought I’d be asking myself that question!

Maybe that’s a little extreme. I don’t think Phoenix hates obedience. After this summer’s training experiences, I absolutely believe he KNOWS what to do, he just doesn’t have the “want to” to do it in the ring when the pressure is on. After a great deal of woolgathering on this, I’ve decided the problem is not rooted in Training Method A vs Training Method B.

I think I have managed to convince him he can never be right so why should he even bother. Wish I could pinpoint when this happened in our training but of course, it wasn’t during any particular year or at any particular level. It just happened.

Although I thought I was helping him understand what to do by tweaking, adjusting, correcting and repeating, repeating, repeating the individual skills and complete exercises, the message I was actually sending was “You’re never right. You cannot make me happy.”

Well, that sucks! No wonder the poor guy looked miserable in the ring. He was pretty sure he was being set up to fail and there wasn’t even the outside chance of getting a cookie or a ball there to offset the constant reminders that he was wrong.

Here’s one of the places I totally misread my dog: on one hand, I have Phoenix, Dog Of Steel. He is the most incredibly athletic and physically hard dog I have ever owned. No wonder the military jumps out of airplanes with malinois! On the other hand I have Phoenix, Dog of Marshmallow Fluff. He is by far mentally the softest dog I have ever trained. (Not to say he is soft in the head. I think that’s ME.)

He reads and reacts to my emotions to a much higher degree than any dog I’ve trained. Although I was trying so hard to teach him how to be a brilliant obedience dog, instead I taught him frustration. Training and showing was an endless void of performances that just weren’t good enough, all wrapped up with my disappointment in the ring. Since I wanted more than just qualifying scores, I put a tremendous amount of pressure on both of us. Neither of us handled it well!

So maybe there is another type of performance crisis in addition to the dog who can’t perform without cookies — the dog who can’t perform, no matter how careful his training has been, because he has no self-confidence?

More than once this year I’ve found myself wondering if Phoenix’s obedience career was going to end with his UD. While that wouldn’t be the end of the world, it wasn’t the picture I’d always held in my mind of our journey together. I contemplated an obedience-less future for Phoenix for about 5 minutes. Then I thought, this is absurd. I can’t NOT do obedience with him.

I am convinced beyond a doubt he knows how to do the exercises. It’s not a training problem. It’s not dependent on the show site or the time of day or who the judge is. It’s a relationship problem. You can’t correct a dog for being unhappy. I don’t think the answer is throwing cookies at him all the time but I don’t think the answer is grinding away with drilling and constant formal training, either. I refuse to show a dog who doesn’t want to be in the ring with me. I don’t care how technically perfect we might become as a team, if we can’t do it happily, then we’re not going to do it. I've never been a fan of "making" a dog do something - it's akin to dragging a terrified dog across the teeter in agility and then saying "There! He did it!"

With Jess, Connor and Jamie, building the “want to” for obedience was never a problem. They CAME with it. How did I get so lucky! (Of course, now I am clueless about what to do with a dog who DIDN'T come with it.) I could tweak their “have to” without unbalancing their “want to.” Right now, Phoenix and I are seriously unbalanced. He isn’t being deliberately disobedient in the ring. He’s doing the best he can — and given that he clearly doesn’t want to be doing it at all, I’m amazed he’s even bothering to try. He loves me even though he probably thinks I am a flaming idiot.

I never put much stock in a dog’s “desire to please” until now. My previous dogs all had plenty of desire to please — desire to please THEMSELVES. But maybe with Phoenix, he really cares about making me happy, even though I’ve been pretty oblivious to it.

So what’s next for us? We’re entered in Wild Card Utility and Versatility this weekend, then nothing after that. What exactly are we going to do in training now? First, nothing formal. Forget being OCD about everything. That’s about as far as I’ve gotten. I want to recapture that "I don't care about scores I just want to have fun" attitude I had with my very first sheltie. If that means sacrificing precision for the time being, that's fine. If we don't get the joy back, there's no need to worry about precision.

Having a dog who’s not crazy about obedience is very much a new experience for me. Everyone tells me it will make me a better trainer and I know they’re right! Oddly enough, I’m not totally devastated by the fact my dog is a total mess in the obedience ring. Disappointed and frustrated, yeah, cuz I sure didn’t see any of this coming and I really hate that I’ve put Phoenix through this. He is being very patient with me. I know he forgives me for my blundering and bad training decisions.

This is getting long. I’m babbling.

Tonight I’m going to take my tree climbing, bubble chasing, flower-pot-carrying, tooth snapping, funny, silly, goofy dog to a park. We’re going to chase a ball, do some recalls, go for a walk and enjoy the wonderful cool pre-autumn weather we’re having.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

I can't make this stuff up

The Farmer was flipping through TV channels the other day and came across “Hogan’s Heroes.” Since we are both children of the 70s and 80s, of course we had to watch it. Hogan and Klink were having a discussion about prisoners who had escaped from Stalag 13 and a neighboring stalag.

Hogan: Stalag 19 will catch their escaped prisoners much faster than you will here at Stalag 13.

Klink: Why?

Hogan: Stalag 19 has smarter dogs.

Klink: Smarter dogs? What do you mean?

Hogan: You use German shepherds. They use Belgian shepherds.

Of course, I was roaring with laughter, thinking this was the funniest thing I’d ever heard on a sitcom and the Farmer was looking at me like I had horns. That happens a lot around our house.

And my apologies to all the beautiful German shepherds out there who I am sure are just as smart as any Belgian shepherd and, from what I've seen of Phoenix lately, probably a good deal more sensible. The Skinny Little Dog has taken up tree climbing. He's not any good at it but he keeps trying to climb the big maple tree south of our house. He is sure there is a cat up there somewhere. I guess everyone needs a hobby.

Monday, September 5, 2011

A few funny photos

I just happened to be ringside with my camera when they were judging groups one day this weekend. This St. Bernard wasn't having any of it.

Love the handler's reaction. I mean really, what are ya gonna do when 120 pounds of dog says "I don't think so"?

Trust me, I am the last person who should be critiquing others' fashion choices but leopard skin print boots? Really? Oh well, what else would you wear with your leopard skin print skirt? 

We live just a few miles from the show site and got 3.6 inches of rain Saturday so the boots were not overrated. 

Today at the trial was just plain odd. Phoenix and I had possibly our worst run ever in the history of Utility, an NQ or major deduction on every exercise . . . broken only by stunningly perfect go-outs. Silly boy.

Open was much better. With the exception of refusing to release the dumbbell on the retrieve on flat.

Me: Out.

Phoenix: No.

Me: Um . . . out.

Phoenix: Um . . . no.

Me: Seriously, OUT!

Phoenix: Seriously, NO!

So he finished with his dumbbell in his mouth and seemed very pleased with himself.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

The experiment

Yesterday I showed Phoenix again. Our Utility run was not a thing of beauty but it WAS better than Thursday's. Even though we NQ'd 2 exercises, I felt like he was working a little better and giving a little more effort. 

The longer we were in the ring, the more relaxed he seemed to get. He was still pretty "sticky," not the relaxed, happy dog I ultimately want but he managed a couple of perfect exercises and had lovely straight go-outs and didn't sniff the gate this time. This tells me he was at least trying. By the end of the run, I was seeing little signs he was relaxing, like "up" ears, more eye contact and a willingness to bounce.

I realize 3 months of a new training method won't create overnight results but I had expected to see some indication that what we were doing was working this weekend, even if the finished product wasn't complete. And now I feel like I did.

Then Michele took Phoenix into Open for me. This was a total experiment. I wanted to see if any of his ring issues were connected to me and if I weren't in the picture, would that make any difference in how he worked.

I told Michele if things didn't go well and she wanted to be excused, that was fine with me. She took Phoenix outside and spent some time working heeling, drops and playing with the dumbbell. He worked for her but was constantly scanning, looking for me.

I debated about leaving the building entirely but thought maybe if I just stood in one place and stayed there, so he could get a fix on where I was, that would be the best idea.

It wasn't. In hindsight, leaving the building probably wouldn't have made any difference. And let me tell you, if I ever thought I was nervous before going into the ring, it was NOTHING compared to watching someone else take my dog in!

The judge was Phil Rustad and he was incredibly patient. It took Michele a long time to get set up for the first exercise, the retrieve on flat, because Phoenix kept circling her, scanning the crowd, and wouldn't come to heel. Once they got going, he retrieved fine but didn't front, went straight to heel, then began circling again, with the dumbbell still in his mouth.

The drop on recall followed and it was lovely, complete with front and finish. Retrieve over the high was next and again, the set up was difficult. He was circling and scanning, clearly concerned about where I was. 

He went out over the jump, grabbed the dumbbell and then turned to the crowd, scanning. He missed the jump coming back, Michele released him and Phil asked if she would like to be excused. She said yes, which was the perfect decision.

So . . . what did I learn from this? I think the biggest lesson was that Phoenix may not be the picture of ultimate joy in the obedience ring at the moment but he'd still rather be in the ring with me than with anyone else, even a friend who he likes very much and knows is a generous hand when it comes to treats. That's not to say I'm not part of the problem but at least now I know I'm not the ENTIRE problem! 

Thank you, Michele, for being part of this experiment. You and Phoenix look good together! I think with a little practice, he would happily work for her. It was fun standing back and watching my own dog in the ring, at least when things were going well!

We have today off, then back to the show tomorrow.

I'm already starting to build a new training plan for the coming months. We're definitely not going to show again until until spring (not counting Wild Card and Versatility at Des Moines next weekend) but I'm getting a clearer picture of what Phoenix and I really need to be doing (and not doing) until then. Will explore that in a future post.

Friday, September 2, 2011

What comes before Square One?

Cuz that's where we need to go back to.

I debated about posting today because I'm not sure where things are headed and as a writer, I always think I need to have a clear position to present before I start putting something into words.

I showed Phoenix in a local trial yesterday and it did not go well. I feel like all of our hard work over the summer was a complete waste of time. (Although spending time with your dog is never really a waste, is it?) He was not a happy dog in the ring. He barely managed to go through the motions. We Q'd in Open with a mediocre score. We NQ'd Utility on signals and barely skated through the rest of the exercises.

I tried hard to find something good about the day but "good" just wasn't on the agenda. I figure the purely compulsion trainers will say we just haven't worked long enough to instill the "have to" and the purely positive trainers will say "I told you so" for pulling the rewards out of the picture and asking him to work "just because."

But now I don't think it's either one of those things. He worked just as badly in the ring after 3 months of patient and constructive "no cookies" training as he worked after years of being trained generously with food. He was just plain miserable. A friend watching outside the ring said "He doesn't want to be in there." She was absolutely right.

He had been working well in training and I had high hopes that his confidence had returned with improved understanding and that he could give me some solid effort in the ring. But it didn't happen. Again, Phoenix warmed up nicely outside the ring, ears up, eyes bright, happy tugging on the leash, a few big bounces, into the ring and . . . flat as yesterday's beer.

We're entered two more days this weekend (regular classes), then two days next weekend (Wild Card Utility and Versatility). After that, I do not anticipate showing in obedience for a very long time.

After chatting with a dear training friend this morning (okay, wailing and gnashing my teeth!), I'm going to experiment and have two friends show Phoenix for me - once this weekend and once next weekend. They won't show him in all the classes, just one class each day. I don't expect this to miraculously cause him to start performing like the obedience ring is the best place in the world. Hell, I don't even know if he'll stay in the ring with them. But it can't hurt (and will probably make Michele and Renee appreciate their own dogs even more!)

Like Renee said, no matter what happens, at the end of the day, I still get to take my beautiful, amazing, smart, strong, funny dog home with me. If we need to take a break from obedience, we will. We can play more agility. We can start tracking. I will love him no matter what.