Monday, October 31, 2011

Happy Hallowe'en!

Thanks, Marsha, for giving me something to post today!

Wow, and we call Phoenix the Skinny Little Dog!

The ancient Celts felt that on All Hallow's Eve, the veil between the worlds (living world and spirit world) was thinner than any other time of the year and spirits of the departed could pass through. Since not all of these spirits were friendly, the tradition of masks and costumes came into play so the spirits couldn't tell who was who. Fire (either bonfires or in carved jack-o-lanterns) was also used to keep evil spirits at bay.

There you go. Hallowe'en explained in a paragraph.

Boo. Have a great day and many happy tricks and treats to all!

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Bye-bye, Obedience Nazi

I’ve had lots of ideas to blog lately but never enough time to get it done. Since my morning started with an oatmeal disaster in the microwave, resulting in the need to eat a wonderful donut for breakfast instead, that might be an indicator I probably shouldn’t tackle anything very complicated today.

Phoenix and I went to an obedience show-n-go last night. I felt like our teamwork was comfortable and happy, with mutual enjoyment of the evening both in and out of the ring. He had several meet-and-greets with other dogs without getting snarky, even though a couple of shelties tag-teamed him unexpectedly for a group sniff.

After one run, a friend commented, “He looks really nice and he looks like he’s having fun. What are you doing different?” (She’s seen Phoenix and I in the ring at our ohgodmakeitstop worst so I appreciated her observation.)

Honestly? I quit being the Obedience Nazi and said to heck with getting on his case for every little thing when we train.

I don't see this as letting him "get away" with stuff but instead focusing on elements that are more important than the technical precision of obedience work.

I started obedience training in the era when using treats and toys were unheard of and the predominant theory was A) you trained your dog and B) once you felt he’d had enough “training,” you “corrected” any mistakes because you didn’t want the dog to think he could “get away” with anything. As if the dog would deliberately and maliciously do things wrong just to annoy you and “earn” a collar pop or ear pinch.

Although I’d like to think I’ve evolved light years beyond those methods, enough of the “make him do it right” mindset has lingered that it is hard for me to overlook even the smallest errors in training. I’m constantly mentally critiquing and nit-picking our performances when we train.

While this is beneficial from the standpoint of technical performance improvement, it had the unintended side effect of being toxic to my obedience relationship with Phoenix. (Our agility relationship was fine, I’ve never taken agility seriously enough to get to that level of nit-pickiness. I tend to have a much more relaxed good-enough-for-who-its-for attitude, which Phoenix responded to with enthusiasm and joy.)

No wonder the poor guy was a stress-ball in the obedience ring. He’d been told he was wrong so many times, frequently when he wasn’t confident of how to be right in the first place, he just started going through the motions, hoping maybe he would eventually get a cookie or a tug. This created the illusion of a dog who knew what he was doing but wasn’t making enough effort. Things got worse when I tried to correct him for lack of effort.

So I quit being the Obedience Nazi. I stopped looking for things that needed correcting and started looking for WHY the behavior was less than what I wanted in the first place.

Some readers will smile and think, “It’s about time.” Others will recoil in horror, thinking “But you can’t let a dog get away with making mistakes!”

It’s my choice. I tried the drill-and-correct route. The corrections weren’t harsh or abusive. But it was terribly demotivating for BOTH of us. If we didn’t in enjoy training, no way in hell would we enjoy showing.

When I stopped nagging my dog about every little error he made, we both relaxed. If he made an error, instead of a traditional “correction,” I asked him to do it again from the point of the error and helped him be successful. Then I asked for a repeat of that skill or exercise and we had a party when he got it right all by himself. Right now I'm more interested in confidence than precision. It should have been this way all along but, well, live and learn and get over it and move forward.

I started asking Phoenix “Why can’t you (fill in the blank)?” and he started telling me “Because I don’t understand what you want” or “Because I’m worried or distracted” Then I worked to figure out how to help him understand and how to eliminate the worry or deal with the distraction. I suspect some of his answers have also been "Because it's stupid and $#@!-ing boring." He's a very honest fellow.

At the match last night, he bounced on his heeling. He wagged his tail. He gave me eye contact with his ears up (ears are a big deal with him, he talks a lot with his ears). He made some little mistakes and the gal who was doing my run-through and I laughed and shouted, “Half point, who cares!”

Yeah, down the road I’ll care about the half points. But until I re-build our foundation of fun and trust, they don’t matter.

Re-thinking the whole “ring stress” scenario, when I see unhappy, unfocussed dogs in the ring, now I wonder if it has less to do with the no-cookies-in-the-ring factor and more to do with confusion and uncertainty stemming from training issues and/or lack of trust in their trainer. Ring problems are training problems first, even when they try to masquerade as something else. Training problems are a complex tapestry of relationship issues and skill issues that should not hinge on bits of cheese or tennis balls.

Of course, these are the ramblings of a 40-something who apparently can’t even cook a bowl of oatmeal without causing an environmental disaster. Tomorrow, I’m not taking chances. They make Pop Tarts for people like us.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Decisions, decisions

Our sensible weekend was a great deal of fun. The thermometer on R2 read 28 degrees when we left home Friday morning so I’m really glad we didn’t try to be tough and camp, although the weekend ended up being overall warmer than expected. Staying at the Motel 6 didn’t provide any good stories — although they tell me I was at the QUIET end of the building and missed the dumpster diving and the late night sidewalk cook-out.

The only bad thing about the motel (and I hesitate to call it truly bad), was that they’ve upgraded the rooms and replaced the carpet with laminate flooring. Good from a cleaning standpoint but bad from an old-dog-trying-to-jump-onto-the-bed standpoint. Jamie really had a hard time getting onto the bed as his hind legs went out from under him on the smooth floor. That would be enough for me not to stay there again if he was with me.

The courses were consistently beautiful all weekend long, not a single “OMG did you see THAT?” course among them. Phoenix and I were 2/6 for the weekend, with one Standard Q and one JWW Q. Of course, they were on two different days.

Being the slow learner that I am (i.e., have to make a mistake, learn from it, then go out and make a brand new mistake), I have come to the reluctant but obvious conclusion that I suck at analyzing courses. With Connor and Jamie, this didn’t matter so much because let’s face it, they weren’t fast by anyone’s definition and I had plenty of time to fix things in mid-run before they got totally screwed up.

Phoenix has taken that handling approach, chewed it up, thrown it in the dust and stomped on it. With him, the margin of error is a fraction of a second and if he’s already committed to a wrong course, there’s essentially no turning back. I’m not big on screaming at him for a call-off (although I admit to doing it from time to time) because A) it means I wasn’t doing my job in the first place B) it makes me sound really stupid and C) he probably isn’t going to listen anyway.

But I always seem to realize, while he is sailing over an off-course jump or into an off-course tunnel, that once again, I am at the wrong place at the wrong time saying the wrong thing.

Maybe it’s not that I’m so bad at analyzing courses, it’s just that I’m not always in touch with the reality of finding the best way of handling them for me and Phoenix. I can see how I WANT to run the course (with my perfectly trained and highly skilled dog and my impeccable handling) but that’s not always the same thing as how I SHOULD run the course (with my dog who is extremely athletic but probably only moderately skilled and running with a handler who frequently leaves much to be desired) if I want to have a snowballs chance of Q-ing. Sometimes I think I need someone to smack me upside the head and say "What are you thinking?" BEFORE I commit some kind of handling stupidity during our run.

I walk the course and I hear a dozen different ways to handle any given part. Cross here. Cross there. Blind cross. Don’t cross. Get lateral distance. Stay close. Layer. Don’t layer. It seems like I choose the wrong approach about half the time but it always seems like the absolute right approach at the time I decide to do it. Sometimes I wonder if I’d be better off just doing the opposite of what I think is the “right” way.

I tend to watch people whose dogs have the same running style as Phoenix and follow them when I walk a course (great, I’m turning into a psycho agility stalker). I don’t necessarily want to copy their every move but I am definitely interested in their approach. It’s great if I can watch a number of dogs run before we do but seems like most of the time these days, trials start with big dogs and I end up being one of the first to run in the 24” class. So much for being able to learn from others’ mistakes!

One thing I try to do on every course is have a "looser's challenge" — if we have already NQ'd, I'll try something I would never dream of trying if we were still Q-ing at that point. Amazingly enough, sometimes these work really well and it's good to know, hey, we CAN do that.

I know even the "super" handlers don't make the right decisions about every single course and it's encouraging to see some of the top people in the game make less-than-ideal decisions, too. They just seem to make them a lot less frequently!

We have another agility trial this coming weekend and I'm looking forward to yet another opportunity to practice better course-reading and decision-making skills. Not to mention a projected abundance of goodies - since we were restricted on bringing in "outside" food to last weekend's trial. But first I have to replace all the Halloween candy I snuck out to the van to eat.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

A sensible weekend

The Belgians and I are going to an agility trial this weekend. We are not camping.

We talked about camping. Well, the dogs didn't talk much. My friends and I talked about camping.

We all wanted to camp. We could camp right at the site. It would be inexpensive. It would be fun.

Sort of. Right up to the point where we froze to death or suffered cardiac arrest in the shower house.

Eventually, sensible minds prevailed. This is somewhat of a first for our group. We may be crazy but we're not stupid.

After camping on the autumnal equinox weekend back in September when Mother Nature decided it would be funny if night time lows were about 20 degrees below normal, I think we all realized that while bad decisions make great stories, they also make for very unpleasant overnight conditions and what may have been great fun when you are 25 loses a bit of its appeal when you are 45.

So we're camping at the Motel 6. Probably not as many good stories will come out of this. But you never know. The last time we stayed at this particular Motel 6, there was an incident involving margaritas, an overflowing toilet and having to be transferred to the only room left available - an handicapped room - which ironically was the most difficult room in the entire motel to access.

You just never know what's going to happen next.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Best part of life in the Midwest

One of our neighbors has cancer. He's been in and out of the hospital a lot this summer and fall. Today, a group of farmers from the township got together to harvest his corn crop. There were about 40 men who donated their equipment, fuel and time. They showed up shortly after dawn with combines, wagons, grain carts and semi tractor-trailers to haul the grain to the elevator. They will get done in one day what might normally take a couple of guys about a month.

This is the best part of living in the Midwest. Yeah, we're generally a pull-yourself-up-by-your-own-bootstraps, independent sort of people who don't expect everyone else to come rushing to help when things are bad. We'll handle it ourselves, thank you.

But sometimes you need help. That's what neighbors are for. It's good to live in a place where people care.

Monday, October 17, 2011

The ice cream theory

Phoenix and I are rediscovering brief training sessions. I realize “brief” is a relative term. For me, 15 minutes or less is brief. For some trainers, 15 minutes is barely a warm up. For others, 15 minutes would be an eternity.

I have always been used to “long” training sessions and I’m blaming it on my young and impressionable years as a kid enrolled in the 4-H dog project. Our leader told us to train our dogs for 30 minutes every day. I think our leader was desperately hoping this would cause us to work our dogs for 10 minutes every other day. (Believe me, if you've had any experience with 4-H kids and dogs, you know EXACTLY what I'm talking about.) She wasn’t reckoning on my parents, who took her at her word and enforced the 30 minutes of training a day, whether my dog and I needed them or not.

Now, with 4-H years behind me, I realize the length of a session is less important than my dog’s response to what we’re doing.

I want to leave Phoenix wanting more, which means quitting when we’re having a grand time and things are going super good. This is hard because when things are going super good, I want to keep going so we can practice more super good stuff.

Of course, repeating stuff seems to eventually lead to variations on theme as the dog’s performance either disintegrates from boredom or physical tiredness or he starts re-inventing the wheel because he doesn't get WHY we're doing it over and over and over (and for many dogs "Because I told you to" doesn't cut it). Pretty soon, the super good stuff isn’t so great and you can either start making corrections (for problems you’ve created in the first place) or quit in frustration.

It’s kind of like eating a big ice cream cone. The first half tastes really, really good, then you eat the rest of it just to keep it from melting all over your car’s upholstery, not because you really want it. I want our training to always be like the first half of the ice cream cone.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

More questions than answers

A good friend’s dog tore her ACL at agility class last week. In the last few years, this is the seventh dog I know of who has had an ACL injury. All were dogs who competed in agility, although not all the injuries happened while training or trialing for the sport. About 50 percent happened in an agility setting while the other half occurred in daily life – leaping for a ball, jumping off the deck, etc.

 Veterinarian, author and seminar presenter Chris Zink says most severe ACL tears (those requiring surgery in order for the dog to regain use of his leg) are not the result of one specific accident – like landing badly after a jump – but the result of an accumulation of many small tears that take place over time as the dog's body has been stressed. All those little slips, tumbles, face-plants, fly-offs and the like can catch up with your dog. And of course it’s not just little agility injuries either. Dogs bang themselves up as a matter of daily routine.

 I’m not pointing my finger at agility. I’m not blaming the sport, the instructors, the equipment, the judges, the courses or anything else. I love running agility and I love watching Phoenix fly over a course at top speed.

 But I wonder, as agility has evolved from luring dogs slowly over obstacles with cookies to today’s very advanced handling systems emphasizing speed and distance, are we breaking our dogs without realizing it? Will we see more dogs sustain injuries during training or trialing as the skill level required to get a clean run becomes more demanding? 

 Ironically, handlers today are more aware of the importance of their dog’s physical conditioning and of warm-ups and cool-downs than ever before. Instructors teach skills so the dogs can run fast without being reckless. We’re thinking about our dogs’ safety more than we ever did and we know we CAN run fast and be safe.

 But the fact remains – dogs are getting hurt. How many times have you heard someone say, “Sparky is going to the clinic for rehab because he hurt his (fill in the blank) at training last week” or “Brownie won’t be running for awhile because he came up lame after the trial last weekend.” How many handlers do you know who are constantly taking their dogs to the chiropractor or acupuncturist or giving medicine to relieve pain incurred because of an agility injury?

Accidents happen. That's a fact of life. They’re nobody’s fault, they’re just accidents. No one is going to hold their dog’s paw and say, “Slow down, darling. You’re running too fast.” It’s our dogs’ nature to go as fast as they can and being the adrenaline junkies that we are, we love to see it and push for even more speed.

But I wonder how long today’s competitive agility dog will be able to run as compared to 5 or 10 years ago? There’s no right or wrong answer, I’m just curious. Even with advances in training techniques, diet supplements and physical therapy for canine athletes, we're putting a lot of wear and tear on their bodies, even if it doesn't show on the surface.

I have yet to hear of an obedience dog (a dog who does obedience only, no other sport) tearing its ACL (although it could certainly happen). Obviously, obedience is a much less physically demanding sport. In the course of a three-day trial, a dog entered in Open and Utility would jump a grand total of 12 jumps and these would not be taken at top speed. Contrast that with an agility dog who might take 30-plus jumps each day if entered in Excellent Standard and JWW at an AKC trial. That number might double if you run in FAST and Time2Beat as well. A dog entered in multiple classes could conceivably fly over (or jump badly or crash through or land on or avoid entirely) about 150 jumps or more on a 3-day weekend, not counting time spent on the practice jump.

Phoenix is an incredibly athletic dog. He turns in fast, showy performances on the agility course and I think, from seeing our videos, that he is a cool dog to watch. There are thousands of dogs like him, fast, a little crazy, leaping and running with all their heart. They slip, crash, fall, mis-judge and get up and keep going. They are having the time of their life. Dogs live in the moment. They may not tell you something hurts until after the fact.

Phoenix is almost 5. He’s in awesome shape. I want to be able to say the same thing when he’s 7 and when he’s 10. When the time comes, I want to drop him from regular to preferred and keep enjoying running with him at trials. Of course I want the Q and being the fastest dog in the class is always fun. But most of all, I want his performance career to be long, safe and pain free. If that means not always pushing the envelope to get every last drop of speed or not asking him to turn himself inside out to make a turn, that’s fine with me.

I would never tell anyone how to run their dog. Everyone has their own personal goals and knows what is best for them. There are no right or wrong answers. 

Friday, October 14, 2011

This is why I have gray hair

Well, actually, I don't have gray hair. I have pleasantly light brownish, sun-streaked sort of hair. But left to its own devices, it would probably be gray. And getting grayer by the minute.

I came home from work earlier this week and the Farmer said, "I got hit by lightning today."


Really, this is not the sort of thing one expects to hear when one asks, "And how was your day, honey?"

Then he admitted he hadn't actually got hit by lightning but lightning did hit a tree about 50 feet away from him and the blast was so powerful it knocked him off his feet. He said chunks of bark and limbs went flying. So did he. He thought he'd broken his wrist because he landed on it when he fell but it turned out to just be really bruised. It wasn't even raining at the time, although a thunderstorm cell was starting to push into the area.

Of course I gave him my best "safety first" lecture, the same one they gave us at National Weather Service storm spotter training. Lightning is dangerous! A couple of hundred thousand volts of electricity coming out of the sky is not going to do anyone any favors.

Being a typical man, the Farmer obviously needed a near death experience before listening to anything his wife tells him. I reminded him about the JW Memorial Training Building I am going to build with his life insurance policy if he goes out and does something stupid like actually getting hit by lightning the next time. He gave me the big eye roll.

Here's a scene from a much less stormy day this fall. The Farmer is at the top of the grain bin steps, checking the grain level while unloading soy beans from truck to bin.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Random training thoughts

Phoenix and I have enjoyed some great training time through September and October. I know this is partly because I don’t plan to enter him in Open/Utility again until spring, so there’s no “gotta fix this by next weekend” pressure. (I really hate that self-inflicted pressure, it often ends up doing more harm than good.) We’re just relaxing and taking time to address a few things that need some patient long term work. We might do Open at a local UKC trial next month just for kicks.

Part of what we’re doing with training is new, part isn’t. A lot of it has to do with rewards: what kind, how often, when to use them and when not to. Food (reward-based) training isn’t evil but I know I’ve used it badly in the past. That’s the big problem with using food - it’s a powerful thing and it’s sooooo easy to fall into really bad habits with it and let it get in the way of developing an honest relationship with your dog.

It’s hard to write clearly about relationship issues because everyone views their relationship with their dogs differently — we all have different dreams and expectations for them in terms of daily life and ring achievement. Yes, I would like Phoenix and I to be competitive in obedience but it’s not my number one priority right now. It’s been amazingly easy to put that on a back burner while we work to re-establish the simple basics of trust and fun that we lost somewhere between his CDX and his UD.

I never thought much about the relationships I had with my dogs until I realized Phoenix and I weren’t clicking like my previous furkids. I’ve screwed up (but not damaged beyond the point of no return) my relationship with him by putting too much pressure on him to perform before he was ready (even though I thought he was) and by letting my disappointment show too much when things didn’t go well, not realizing what a sensitive, emotional little beast he is. Throw in a complete misunderstanding of some of his behaviors and we had the perfect storm of confusion, doubt and mistrust that sent us crashing into an obedience black hole in spite of finishing his UD this spring. We weren’t a complete train wreck but I didn’t have the happy, flowing ring work under any conditions that marked my relationships with Connor and Jamie.

A lot of what we’re doing this fall is addressing some issues that have absolutely nothing to do with working on technical obedience skills. I’m pretty sure that while Phoenix loves his mama and adores her as an agility handler (although she’s not always a very good one), he is reserved and hesitant when it comes to trusting her as an obedience partner. I don’t think he is being dominant or willful or any other kind of “naughty” dog. There’s no “correction” in the world that can fix our problems.

I think one of our biggest issues came from doing too much formal work, which I thought was the yellow brick road to success. Instead of creating a dog who worked with confident focus, all I did was convince Phoenix he could never be right, was always causing me some degree of displeasure and that obedience was a pretty dull job that made Mom unhappy. Great fun, huh?

With that in mind, we’re spending a lot of time flipping between formal (1/4 of the time or less) and informal (3/4 of the time or more) work in our training sessions, which are short, sweet, to the point and do not happen every day. We might do an informal dumbbell retrieve, an informal glove retrieve, play tug with the glove, do a formal drop on recall and then do a formal go-out, releasing to a food reward for scratching the stanchion on command.

Phoenix KNOWS how to do the exercises. He doesn’t need to be beat over the head by endless repetition. He needs to view them as fun, not drudgery, which was where we were getting bogged down. It’s easy to tell someone to “make it fun” but it’s hard for me to break out of a 15-year habit of doing pretty much everything with a calm, serious, formal approach. Granted, this worked just fine with Connor and Jamie — with Phoenix, not so much. I’m really not a lampshade-on-my-head type of person so I feel like I’m reinventing myself to a certain extent.

I’m laughing more, trying a few new approaches and not taking training so seriously. I’m learning to see Phoenix’ stress reactions for what they are — not defiance but discomfort because of a new environment or a strange dog coming too close — and responding in a way that helps him deal with that stress.

Our autumn training time is precious. Daylight is dwindling. In a few weeks the time will change and training outdoors in the evening after work will end until spring. I need to clean out the spare bedroom that serves as our indoor training room at home. We can work fronts and finishes, lots of tricks, small heeling doodles and signals and retrieves down the hallway. The Farmer points out this means there will soon be more cracks in the dining room ceiling.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Fall fun

Yesterday after work, the dogs and I went to the Amana Park. We had a short training session, since there were about a million flies buzzing and biting. We have cattle and manure at home and don't have that many flies! I almost wondered if there was a body stuffed into one of the trees.

I wanted to work signals but the flies were so bad Phoenix was nearly dysfunctional. He would do each signal, then start snapping his teeth. It took me a while to figure out he was snapping at flies. It didn't help that the darn things were biting me, too. Between his snapping and my swatting, it was not conducive to much quality time working signals.

We did some heeling and retrieves and those went much better. I guess flies can't bite you when you're a moving target. I did a lot of racing him out to the dumbbell and glove (guess who won?), then turning and letting him chase me. I wasn't going to stand still and be fly bait!

These pic aren't too great in terms of exposure. This is what you get when you shoot into the sun on a late October afternoon. But the dogs had a great time.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Trick or treat

A lot has been written about “high value” vs “low value” treats but my experience is that my dogs have eaten leftover bits of ribeye steak, salmon fudge, shaved deli luncheon meat, string cheese, hotdogs, Charlie Bears, bits of toast, cold cereal, peas and their kibble with the same level of enthusiasm — like they are starving creatures who haven’t been fed for weeks. I suspect they might eat drywall and roofing nails with equal levels of delight, although I have no intention of testing that theory.

I don’t totally buy into the theory of “high value” treats, not just because the dogs' enthusiasm level doesn’t seem to change between Cheerios and garlic chicken but because I’m not sure my dogs have ever actually TASTED their treats in the first place.

The first two dogs who shared my adult life were shelties and while I hate breed stereotyping, shelties really do eat anything. And they eat it in a hurry. There is no leisurely savoring of flavors or appreciative sniffing and chewing. It’s just in and gone. Snap, snap. Got more?

I always joked that Jamie was so food driven because he was raised by shelties. He spent a number of years with Jess and Connor and apparently they imprinted upon him the importance of 1) eat everything you can get 2) eat it fast 3) demand more 4) steal it if you have to.

When Phoenix arrived, his breeder told me he was the “slow eater” of his litter. Dear God in Heaven, I was scared to see how the other puppies ate because putting a bowl in front of him triggered some cosmic vacuum that sucked his meal and anything else within a four-foot vicinity into his maw.

In short, I have never had a picky eater. This is a blessing because it’s convenient to grab whatever treats are at hand without worrying about having the “special” treat that is the magic cure to all our training problems. (If only it were that easy!)

That’s not to say I haven’t pulled out the “big guns” from time to time when I hoped to make a statement about a particular skill or exercise. While I suspect this may have been more to make me feel better about it than increase any potential learning by my dogs, I do recognize that leftover prime rib ranks much higher than Cheerios.

The classic stand-bys of string cheese and hot dogs may be viewed as boring by the gourmands among us but I’m not sure my dogs have ever met food they thought was boring. Like any reward, it’s what the dog thinks that counts.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

A perfect autumn morning

This morning I planted tulip bulbs while the dogs chased squirrels. Squirrels are a relatively new presence at our house. I don't know why we never had any before. We just didn't. Now we do. And they drive Phoenix crazy. Crazier. Whatever. Jamie is fairly oblivious although he'll give it the ol' college try now and then.

Fortunately for the squirrels, they have taken up residence in the trees outside of the dog yard. This means Phoenix can run the fence and squeak and bark and spin and ricochet off the house all he likes. No squirrels will be harmed while entertaining the malinois.

Once I got the tulip bulbs in the ground (three different varieties - early spring, mid spring and late spring), we went for a walk at the nature trail. 

I played with the idea of getting this year's Christmas card picture taken but it didn't happen. Although if I don't get anything better in the next two months, you may be seeing this one in your mailbox in December. 

Do I have the only two dogs who will alert on falling leaves? Granted, there were a LOT of falling leaves on this fine breezy morning but you would have thought pork chops were falling from the sky.

Phoenix was still in squirrel mode.
Or looking for more pork chops.
You never know with him.

Phoenix: Didja see that? SQUIRREL!
Jamie: My brother is a doofus. See my ear flick in annoyance.

Now there's homemade mac and cheese in the oven for lunch and I hope to get some more garden clean-up done this afternoon. We're going to run out of these gorgeous sunny, 80-degree days eventually.

Friday, October 7, 2011

Winter is coming! Winter is coming!

In spite of the fact we’ve had temps in the mid-80s for the last week, I know this isn’t going to last. In fact, all this heat and sunshine is getting a bit tiresome. How do people in Hawaii deal with it?

The outlooks for the 2011-2012 winter have been released. For people like me, who enjoy obsessing about the weather, this is fabulous stuff. Yes. I’m a geek. I should have studied meteorology, not journalism.

I love the changing seasons and am not sure I could live in a climate where a season change was marked by a temperature swing of 10 degrees and perhaps a passing cloud. Guess I like it a little more extreme. I haven’t lived in the Midwest all my life for nothing.

So here ya go., the Farmers Almanac and have put their best and brilliantest minds to work at figuring out what this winter is going to be like. Enjoy.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

My doofy dog

A few days ago I was working in the kitchen when I heard a weird noise in the bedroom. I went to check it out and found Phoenix with his hind feet on the bed and his front feet on the nearby window sill, wiggling, wagging, squeaking and staring with rapt attention at something outside the window. This is not unusual behavior. While I frequently think he sees things that are not there, who am I to say what he is looking at?

The window was open (it was a very warm day). The screen had been neatly sliced from top to bottom and was flapping in the breeze.

My theory (with no proof to back it up and Phoenix isn’t telling) is that my darling, sweet, clever baby dog was squirrel hunting from inside the house, got carried away, smacked the screen with a paw in his excitement, snagged a nail in the screen and ended up splitting the darn thing right down the center.

No big deal. The screen needed repaired anyway, from where the Farmer stuck the end of a ladder through it earlier this summer while working behind the house.

Silly boys.

And for all his excitement over the squirrels, it never occurred to Phoenix that he could have jumped out the window. It’s a ground floor bedroom so only a two foot drop to the ground. He could have been off on a lark to have his way with the squirrels or whatever other invisible creature he was hunting.

Some days I am really happy to have him think outside the box. Other days, I’m really glad he doesn’t.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Playing with shaping

I’ve never done much with shaping when it comes to dog training. Oh, sure, a few things here and there but it’s never been my go-to technique for teaching obedience exercises. In fact, I think the only two things I have ever seriously, intentionally shaped were Phoenix’s weave poles and the “four feet in a box” trick — so I know it does work.

His weave poles are a thing of beauty - consistently fast and accurate. He rarely misses an entry, providing I do my part as a handler. The “four feet in a box,” well, that got me a dog who still tries to put all four feet in anything that faintly resembles a box. He’s nothing if not entertaining.

Earlier this week, I got home late from work one night and wanted to do something with Phoenix but didn’t have the ambition to tackle anything that might require a genuine expenditure of mental or physical energy. So I decided to try shaping him to go lie down on a crate pad.

Within three minutes, Phoenix was racing to the crate pad and plopping down on it. All with nothing but a clicker and treats. I didn’t say anything but “Yes!” and “Good boy!” as I delivered the food.

His progression was to poke the crate pad with his nose, bite it (this is standard operating procedure when presented with any new challenge), paw at it, put his front feet on it, put all four feet on it, sit on it and finally, lie down.

I was amazed at the speed at which he tried and discarded new behaviors to see what got rewarded and what didn’t. It was clear he liked doing this sort of thing and I enjoyed watching him work to solve the “problem” I’d presented him with.

His quick learning could be a reflection of several elements: Phoenix is a brilliant dog (high probability). I am a brilliant trainer (much lower probability). Phoenix already knew how to lie down and knew he might be rewarded for lying down, so he brought that to the table. He also knew how to “go” somewhere, since in the context of daily life and Utility exercises, he understands that going to specific places (crate, outdoor kennel, grooming table, into the van, go-out spot) gets rewarded. And since he’d never seen a crate pad laying on the patio before it was pretty obvious this was a special object and thus the focus of whatever was going on.

Was this truly shaping since he already had the necessary skills to perform this behavior and only needed to assemble them? The credit goes to his flexible little brain, since I was not saying anything or pointing to the crate pad or doing anything to indicate what I wanted except rewarding incremental moves toward the final desired behavior. He put it together on his own.

Will I start using shaping as a training tool for everything now? Probably not. Will I use it more? Possibly. With winter just around the corner (I’m firmly in denial, it’s been in the low 80s with blazing sunshine here all week!), I’ll be looking for mental games to play in the house when it’s too cold and dark to work outside.

Monday, October 3, 2011

How to get a puppy

I am NOT getting a puppy any time in the foreseeable future but it’s always fun to dream. Several friends have gotten puppies this year and I got to thinking about all the different ways dogs come into our lives.

Even when we don’t have immediate plans to add another fur-kid, it’s fun to play the “next dog” game and explore all the possible combinations of breed, age and gender that intrigue us. I’ve always felt that dogs come into our lives for specific reasons. In other words, we get the dog we are meant to have.

When all is said and done, there are a number of ways to acquire a dog.

1) The Great Plan — doing research, getting references, choosing a breeder, waiting for the desired breeding to take place, waiting for confirmation the breeding took, waiting the litter to be born, waiting for the litter to grow up, waiting to be sure the breeder feels there is a puppy in that litter that is a good match for your criteria. This is how I got Phoenix.

2) The Great Plan Gone Awry — you ricochet from one breeder to the next in an agony of decision making when planned breedings either don’t take or only produce litters of one or two. This is how I got Jamie.

3) The Great Plan On Time Delay — you choose a breeder and/or a line and you wait. And wait. And wait. Two years later, you get a puppy.

3) The “I wasn’t looking for a puppy but now I’ve got one” plan —this happens when getting a puppy is absolutely the last thing on your mind but you see a litter a club meeting or a friend says, “I know of this great litter . . .” and before you know it, you’ve got a puppy. That is how I got Connor.

4) The Sunday night surprise — “Honey, I’m home from the trial weekend and guess what, I got a puppy!” I have friends who have done this. They’re still married. Or whatever.

5) The “Here, foster this dog for awhile” plan. The alleged foster dog moves in and never leaves.

6) The “I found her in a ditch” plan. Seriously.

7) The “Screw good sense, I’m buying a dog from a newspaper classified.” And it seems to be working out.

8) The pet store puppy. Not going there.

9) The rescue/animal shelter dog. I cannot say enough about the truly beautiful relationships I’ve seen develop from difficult beginnings.

10) The “inherited” dog who comes to live with you when a relative/friend/neighbor can no longer care for it and trusts you enough to give you their precious best friend.

Oddly enough (I’d say great minds think alike but that may be pushing it), over at her blog, Denise Fenzi has a very well-written post about what to consider when picking a puppy. I need to print and post it on my fridge because I know, too, that what I WANT in my next dog may not be anywhere close to what I NEED.

Saturday, October 1, 2011


Several folks have asked lately how Jamie is doing since his diagnosis with Inflammatory Bowel Disease back in January. I'm very happy to say he's GREAT!

Some people have also asked "How did you find out it was IBD?" so I'll review our journey, which began about this time last fall.

IBD is one of those things you never think about until your dog gets it. For me, it was one of those weird, rare diseases that "someone else's dog" got. I knew dogs with IBD and I knew dogs who had died from it, but when Jamie's symptoms began last October and November, it was the furthest thing from my mind.

In fact, I was pretty sure he had stomach cancer. Stomach cancer in Belgian tervuren is nearly epidemic. It presents in tervs at something like 20 percent higher than the normal canine population. It's also high in Belgian sheepdogs (although not as high as tervs) and is practically non-existent in Belgian malinois.

Jamie's symptoms started mildly. He occasionally vomited, occasionally had diarrhea, occasionally wouldn't eat. It wasn't every day, just now and then. A trip to our family vet yielded a possible diagnosis of acid reflux. We went home with meds to treat the symptoms (we'd done no diagnostics yet so at this point, that's all we were doing - treating symptoms).

Initially, this seemed to help. The vomiting and diarrhea episodes were further and further apart and his appetite seemed regular.

Of course, that didn't last.

Before long, he was back to regular vomiting and his appetite was becoming increasingly picky. He got to the point he would take the boiled egg off his breakfast kibble and place it to the side of his bowl. What previously elicited delight and drooling was now relegated to "yuck" status.

A return to the vet yielded blood work that showed nothing out of the norm. A change of meds to address a possible ulcer was the next step.

This helped. Sort of. Kind of. And eventually, not really. Jamie was losing weight. He was mildly lethargic. He ate very little. If he did eat, he vomited. If he didn't vomit, he had diarrhea. Our vet referred us to the emergency clinic in Iowa City. After preliminary diagnostics, the vet there felt it was a bacterial overgrowth in his gut. Jamie spent the night in ICU and came home the next day, re-hydrated thanks to IVs and with a massive dose of antibiotics.

This whole journey was a roller coaster. One day we were up, the next we were down. Just when I thought we needed to go back to the vet to pursue the problem, he acted and ate just fine. Soon as I thought he was fine, he crashed.

Jan. 6, 2011 (one of those dates that you remember just because) Jamie vomited and it was laced with blood. He also began having bloody diarrhea. Off we went to the emergency clinic to start the panel of diagnostics that eventually resulted in the IBD confirmation.

Initially, everything was normal: bloodwork, x-rays, ultrasound. There were no tumors, lumps, growths, foreign bodies or ulcers. He was perfectly normal. Except that he was literally bleeding from both ends, wouldn't eat and was now a walking skeleton. Jamie was spending several nights in the ICU, hooked up to IVs to keep him hydrated and living.

I was seriously starting to wonder if this was going to be the end. You never envision your dog's possible death until it smacks you along side the head that neither he nor you can go on living this way.

The final diagnostic was an endoscopy. This would allow the vet to see the condition of his digestive tract and take biopsies from various spots along the way to be evaluated in a lab at the Iowa State University (go Cyclones!) vet school.

It is my understanding that an endoscopy and the subsequent biopsies are the only way to confirm Inflammatory Bowel Disease. You can study the symptoms and make an educated guess (well, if you're a vet and qualified to do that sort of thing) but IBD symptoms mimic so many other conditions, if you want a definitive answer, the endoscopy is the only way to get it it. In addition to going down his throat to look at his stomach, they also scoped through the rectum to look at the large intestine.

The vet who did Jamie's scopes said his esophagus was the only part of his digestive tract that looked normal. His stomach and intestines looked, in her words, "like raw meat." The entire surface was raw and bloody. The texture was pebbled, like cobblestones.

Poor guy. If he managed to eat food and keep it in his system, he couldn't digest it. He was getting no nutritional value from what little food he managed to eat. Left untreated, this certainly would have killed him.

Treatment was A) prednisone B) restricted diet and C) prednisone. A lot of prednisone.

Due to a clinical mis-labeling, Jamie started at 50 mg of pred twice a day. This seemed like an absolutely ridiculous amount and after counting the available tablets they sent home with me, I called back to the clinic to question the dosage. It was supposed to be 25 mg twice a day.

Thanks to the pred, Jamie ate like the proverbial horse. I think he would have eaten horse if he could have gotten hold of one. His diet was restricted to a single protein source (venison) and a single carb (potato).

Over the next 5 months, I was able to gradually taper down his dosage of pred: 20 mg twice a day, 15 mg twice a day, 10 mg twice a day, etc., until he was taking 2.5 mg every other day. We were now back under the treatment of our family vet and she cautioned that Jamie might take pred for the rest of his life.

By May, he was very stable. He stopped throwing up, his stools were normal, he loved food again and he had regained his Belgian joi de vrie. We stopped the pred completely, with the caveat that if his symptoms flared, he would go back on it.

His diet continues to be restricted but that's not as bad as it sounds. There are a LOT of venison and potato dog treats available on the market, plus Natural Balance makes a canned venison and potato formula that is great for stuffing Kongs. And Jamie is lucky - the Farmer and I both love potatoes so he enjoys "table scraps" of baked, boiled, mashed, fried 'taters.

Almost six months later, life is good. Jamie still has IBD, it's not something that can be cured, only managed. He was diagnosed at a moderate level of the disease, at the midpoint between mild and severe. There's no telling how long it had been chewing away at his gut until the symptoms grew strong enough for me to notice.

I felt horribly guilt - why hadn't I noticed this sooner? Why hadn't I pushed for more diagnostics earlier? Why didn't I just cut to the chase and have them do the endoscopy first thing instead of spending six weeks treating symptoms and running tests that were non-conclusive?

Well, realistically, very few of us are going to run out and do a $1,300 procedure just because our dog throws up. Knowing what I do now, it WOULD have been the right thing to do but how in the world could anyone have known that? Certainly not me or any of the vets that treated Jamie along the way. The route we took was sensible, moving from the least invasive to the "last chance" tests.

I remain in awe of the medical advances now available to our pets. And I can't say enough good things about the vets who treated Jamie. As a whole, I found them more compassionate and genuinely caring than several of the cardiologists and other medical staff I encountered when hospitalized with my irregular heart beat a few years back.

And I am very, very happy Jamie is still with me, spending his twilight years dozing on "his" leather couch, pestering his little brother and giving "butt gooses" as he sees fit.