Tuesday, November 29, 2011

The early winter crazies

This is the time of year when I train less and less at home because it’s A) too cold outside B) too dark outside C) the squirrels have taken over the yard and they scare me. I try to go to the club building at least once a week and the rest of the time is spent doodling and working little things like fronts and finishes at home, either in the living room or in an empty upstairs bedroom. The Farmer says the cracks in the dining room ceiling are the result of this doodling. I think he is mistaken but there's no telling him that.

This is also the time of the year the dogs start driving me crazy because they’re spending too much time in the house. Usually in the evenings, after the supper dishes have been washed and I’m ready to settle down in my chair for a long winter’s nap, they get wound up and let ‘er rip. This manifests itself in a variety of ways which include, but are not limited to, climbing the walls (I am so not joking) and emptying the laundry hamper.

I finally decided Phoenix could learn to pick up his toys and put them away. We’d work up to returning purloined laundry to the hamper. I might as well have gone outside and tried to herd squirrels.

Phoenix knows how to mark and retrieve an object. He will deliver to hand. He will hold until asked to release the object. How hard could it be to get him to put his toys away in a small plastic tote?

One of these years I will quit asking questions like that.

Me (pointing at green ball): Get the ball.

Phoenix trots out of the room and returns with a blue ball.

Me: Okay. Whatever.

Phoenix: Throw the ball?

Me: No ball throwing in the house. Put it in the box.

Phoenix: Why?

Me: Because it’s a tidy thing to do. And this way no one trips over them in the middle of the night.

Phoenix: No, why no ball throwing in the house?

Me: Seriously? Our insurance guy still hasn’t gotten over the “a raccoon fell out of the garage rafters and broke the outside rear-view mirror off my van” claim. I am NOT explaining why there is a malinois-sized hole in the picture window.

Phoenix: You’re no fun.

Me (pointing to a Nylabone): Get the bone!

Phoenix trots out of the room and returns with a shoe.

Me: Look! Bone! Get it!

Phoenix drops shoe on my toe.

Me: %$#@! Look! Bone! Get it!

Phoenix brings back a Kong.

Me: Okay. Whatever. Put it in the box.

Phoenix drops the Kong in the box. It bounces off a ball, causing both to go ricocheting out of the box, narrowly missing the glass-front antique secretary.

Me: Bad Word.

Phoenix: You made me do that.

Me (teeth gritted): Look! Bone! Get it!

Phoenix fetches the Nylabone and stabs it into my leg.

Me: Ouch! $#@! Put it in the box.

Phoenix drops it. It misses the box.

Me: Try again.

Phoenix reaches in the box and flings out two balls and another Nylabone before I can stop him.

Me: Ack! No! You put things IN the box, not take them OUT!

Phoenix: You’re no fun.

Me (pointing at a toy): Get it!

Phoenix grabs the toy and gallops off with it. China rattles in the cupboard.

Jamie wanders through, picks up a bone, wanders off, drops the bone and goes back to sleep on the couch.

Phoenix gallops back, exchanges Toy A for Toy B and gallops off again. I have clearly lost control of this lesson.

Farmer (walking through the room on his way to bed, barefoot): You should teach that dog to pick up his toys.

Me: Watch out for the Nyla —

Farmer: OUCH! $#@!

Me: —bone.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Yep, the holidays are here

I baked the first batch of cut-out sugar cookies today. That pretty much rings the bell to kick off the Christmas season at our house. Baking is my favorite holiday activity.

No. Wait. EATING is my favorite holiday activity. Does that mean I am enabler for myself?

Plus, I spent this long weekend cleaning house and doing a little decorating and today I even wrapped some presents.

Having friends and family gatherings at our house for Christmas is a good excuse for me to actually pay attention to house cleaning for a couple of weeks out of the year. I usually give the house a deep cleaning before Christmas, which I keep telling myself justifies the hit and miss cleaning it gets the rest of the year.

I love having a clean house. I hate making it happen. And I know it won't last, which is very demotivating.

The most time consuming element of house cleaning seems to be putting stuff away. Some days it seems like I spend all my time putting stuff away. Once things are de-cluttered, cleaning goes pretty fast. How can two people have so dang much stuff? And what were they thinking 100 years ago when they built a house with only ONE CLOSET on the first floor!


Thanks for asking, the pumpkin pie was great. I'm honestly not that big a fan of pumpkin pie but it is the Farmer's favorite and he gave it rave views. Given that he can be a bit oblivious, I'm not sure he really knew what was going on while I was making it.


We are under siege by squirrels. Squirrels are a new arrival at our house. I don't know why we never had them before but they moved in this fall and aside from the fact they are driving Phoenix absolutely insane, they are pretty hysterical.

There were 5 of them ricocheting around the yard this morning, doing all sorts of acrobatics for no apparent reason. Is it possible our squirrels are on crack? Or is that just normal?

I should probably start a pool on how long it takes Phoenix to catch one.

I should probably start another pool on how long it takes Phoenix to start climbing trees.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

How to make a pumpkin pie

I should have titled this post “How to make a pumpkin pie while trying to induce vomiting in a dog who has eaten Bad Things.”

It started the day before Thanksgiving when Phoenix did some un-authorized snacking in the field west of the house. By the time I realized what he was doing, he was happily chomping away at some unidentified substance.

One of Phoenix’s life rules is “Eat fast. If the human catches you eating something you think is Good but they think is Bad, eat faster.” He was eating like there was no tomorrow when I finally put a stop to his fun. I really couldn’t tell exactly WHAT he had been eating but thought it might be the mummified remains of a dead raccoon he had discovered earlier.

Phoenix has the constitution of a goat and didn’t seem any worse for the wear so I put him in his crate and went to work.

I took the afternoon off from work that day and went to train. We were about two blocks from the building when Phoenix threw up in his crate. His crate is directly behind the driver’s seat so this was the equivalent of throwing up on my shoulder. Fortunately, all emissions were contained to his crate but OH DEAR GOD IN HEAVEN THE STENCH WAS INCREDIBLE.

I hit all four power windows and wondered what the odds were that he could projectile vomit right out the window. He didn’t. He kept it neatly in his crate, thus keeping the stink inside the van.

Of course I was in the wrong lane, with no access to a handy parking lot and with heavy late afternoon traffic, a fast lane change was impossible. In the meantime, Phoenix had quit upchucking and was now happily recycling his yummy tossed cookies. The only good thing about this was that the stomach-clenching stink went away.

Two blocks later, I whipped into the building parking lot, parked, jumped out, threw open R2’s back door and yanked open Phoenix’s crate just in time to see him swallow and lick his lips. Every bit of the eye-watering, reeking toxic substance was gone.

No. Wait. There was a little chunk of something peeking out from under his crate pad. I grabbed it. It was small and white and hard and sort of . . . boney? Bone? Raccoon pieces? Well, whatever.

We had a really good training session and headed home. We were a couple of miles from our house when Phoenix vomited again. OH DEAR LORD IN HEAVEN IT WASN’T GETTING ANY BETTER SMELLING. True to form, he had it all cleaned up by the time I pulled into the garage, except, again, a little piece of white stuff . . . semi hard . . . not really bone . . . oh sh*t, it was a piece of corn cob.

Suddenly it was very clear what Phoenix had been eating that morning – manure that fell off of tractor tires coming out of the cattle yard. Manure that contained stuff that came out of cattle that ate silage. Silage is made from chopped up corn, the whole plant – kernel, leaves, stalks, cobs. My dog had a gut full of corn silage, deliciously side-dressed with steer poop.

In all my years with dogs, I’ve never had to deliberately make one vomit. They all seemed to do it just fine on their own, usually when I didn’t want them to. Now that I needed one of them to barf, I had no idea how to make it happen. I had a vague notion of doing something with hydrogen peroxide but wasn’t clear on details.

I called several friends and thankfully, Michele had nothing better to do the night before Thanksgiving than consult her reference book for inducing vomiting in dogs by using hydrogen peroxide. I dosed Phoenix with 1 tablespoon (he took it well, just looked annoyed) and set the kitchen timer for 15 minutes, since this seemed to be the timeframe for expected results.

Did I mention I had to make a pumpkin pie for Thanksgiving at my mom’s the next day?

Tentatively, I got out all the pie-making stuff, keeping an eye on Phoenix. No way did I want anything coming out of him in the house.

I was half way through measuring the sugar when Phoenix gave me The Look. You know, THE LOOK.

I abandoned the sugar and sprinted to open doors, then followed him around the yard in the dark with a flashlight.

False alarm. He pooped. Sloppy, goopy poop that amazingly, matched the scent he had barfed in his crate in R2. Big surprise.

Back in the house. Back to the pie. Crap. How much sugar had I measured out? I poured it back in the canister and started over. Martha Stewart would not have approved.

It’s a good thing pumpkin pie only has limited ingredients because I was alternating between measuring with more trips outdoors in response to Malinois eye rolls and posturing.

These yielded more pooping. No barfing. Stuff was coming out of him but not from the end I expected. The 15 minute window for the hydrogen peroxide came and went without the desired results.

I finally got all the pie ingredients assembled. By that point, I wasn’t sure if I’d doubled one ingredient and left another out entirely. By that point, I didn’t care, either. I stuck the pie in the oven, set the timer and looked at Phoenix. He looked distraught. Outside we went again.

We’d been outside, sniffing leaves, walking around, visiting the cat, peeing, having another poop and looking for squirrels in the dark when I suddenly realized CRAP! The pie cooked at a high temp for only 15 minutes, then the oven temp needed to be turned down. Sprinted back to the house. Oh, good, there’s still 3 minutes on the timer. No. Wait. That’s 3 seconds. But that’s fine. Just fine. Turn the oven down. Pie is fine. I am fine. Dog is fine. Well, dog is probably not fine.

What next? Dishes. I can wash the dishes. Thought about dosing Phoenix with another hit of hydrogen peroxide. Thought about calling the emergency clinic. Thought about driving back to Iowa City. Discussed location of dead raccoon near edge of field vs. location of recently killed possum by hoop building with the Farmer. Why couldn't my dog have acted like a CARNIVORE and eaten one of them instead of indigestible cellulose? Thought about keeping hermit crabs as pets.

At that point, Phoenix stood up, stuck out his tongue, roached his back and began vomiting clear down to his toenails. Typical Phoenix. When he decides to do something, he does it. There was no time to get him through 3 doors and outside.

I have no idea what the volume of an average dog’s stomach is but I’d say Phoenix had probably tripled it.

He vomited five times all over the kitchen floor, great big stinking gobs of greenish-blackish-whitish stuff, all swimming in a slimy green liquid.

The good thing was that I could finally see what he was tossing up AND I could keep him from eating it again.

The bad thing was, you guessed it, steer manure mixed with canine stomach acid does not improve with time. The wonderful aroma of cinnamon and cloves wafting from the oven were no match for the huge wadded clumps of corn and corn husks plus an absolutely staggering amount of corn cob pieces.

Now, 24 hours later, the little beast seems fine and totally unconcerned. No more vomiting, his appetite is good and stools are returning to normal. I’ll be watching him closely in the coming days. Anything out of the normal and we’re off to the vet.

Hope you all had a wonderful and uneventful Thanksgiving with dogs who only eat appropriate amounts of appropriate things

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

The thankfulness list

It's time to count blessings. Here are just a few of the things I'm thankful for:

Jamie, 12 1/2

Phoenix, 5 next month

the Farmer

20 years with the Farmer

my “dog friends” family


microwave popcorn

living very close to sites that host multiple agility trials a year

training via e-mail with friends

group training with friends

heated seats in R2

mac and cheese

better living through chemistry

Phoenix’s UD this spring and all the lessons that have come with it

good books

good books on CD

road trips with good books on CD

classes to teach

Winnie the Cat, who is always happy in the morning

my treadmill (love/hate relationship)

summer nights, sleeping with the windows open


snapdragons, geraniums, petunias, impatiens and all the other annual flowers that give max return with minimum input every summer

perennials that look great in spite of heat, drought, insects, hail and rampaging Belgians

going to movies with friends

the ICDOC winter building

Wednesday and/or Thursday "dog nights"

flannel sheets

long underwear

hot showers

Pop Tarts with cake frosting

This list could go on and on. Happy Thanksgiving everyone. Count your blessings. There is something to be grateful for every single day.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

To shape or not to shape

When I wrote yesterday about teaching Phoenix to do “scratch” go-outs by shaping the behavior, I thought, wow, that was so easy, he enjoys doing it and it appears to transfer well to new environments. So why didn’t I shape ALL his obedience behaviors?

Well, there are a couple of reasons.

The primary one being I am not patient enough.

The way I understand it, training by shaping largely means waiting for the dog to offer a behavior that is vaguely related to what you want, then you can reward that behavior and progress until the dog eventually gives you what you want. That is probably an over-simplified explanation but you get the idea.

I always want the maximum return on my training time, so even with the behaviors I have successfully shaped with Phoenix, I did everything I could to set him up to succeed. I don’t know if this is “real” shaping or not, because I was controlling a lot of the variables and limiting some of the things he could offer. He has a repertoire of silly tricks, fun go-outs and killer weave poles, all the result of shaping.

But I think the real reason I don’t shape everything (and once again, it’s connected to patience), is that there are some behaviors that I want performed in a specific way and I prefer to cut to the chase, so to speak, in order to ensure the dog learns them the correct way right from the start with as few forays into gray zones of confusion as possible.

For me, this usually means initially luring to make the behavior happen, combined with hands-on positioning to get what I want. I’m not saying you can't get a tight tuck sit or a sphinx down by purely shaping it. I’m saying I choose not to shape those behaviors because I feel there is another way I can help the dog learn what I want quickly and clearly without allowing him to experiment with a lot of different variables. Teaching positions (sit, down, stand) and how to get from one position to another with speed and precision is a critical element in foundation training and quite frankly, I’m not willing to take chances with any variations on theme. (Maybe if I were more adept with shaping this would be different. Just sayin.’)

As soon as my dog shows me he understands what to do (example: tuck his butt forward on the sit, not rock back or roll on a hip) the luring and/or positioning will fade quickly. I don’t want them to become a crutch that we are never able to move beyond.

On the other hand, there are some skills that fairly scream to be shaped, but again it depends on the handler’s overall approach to training and what she is willing to embrace: shaping vs luring vs compulsion/force. Retrieves are prime for shaping and so is heeling. The more I learn about it, the more I want to try with the next dog.

Like any other training method, shaping is only as effective as the trainer who employs it. I’ve seen too many people attempting to “clicker train” dogs who are wandering away from them, sniffing, bored, distracted and clueless while the trainer becomes frustrated and disillusioned. I want to tell them another method might be more appropriate and yield better results in a manner both dog and handler would enjoy more. It's not about latching on to what's popular on today's training scene, it's about what finding what works for you and your dog.

If you have lousy timing or ask for too much, too fast or never move beyond rewarding the initial behavior, shaping will not yield brilliant success. Of course, you can screw up other training methods by doing the same things so it’s six of one and half-dozen of the other. Shaping, clickers and cookies are not miracle answers - they require an element of patience and clear vision on the human end of the process, as well as a dog who is capable of having an original thought and is allowed to think without being led around by a cookie.

I’ve done enough shaping with Phoenix that he’s pretty good at trying different behaviors to see what gets rewarded. It’s fun to teach him new stuff that way because he has to think and figure it out himself, not just sit in a lump and wait for a cookie to appear so he can follow it. I DO like having a "thinking" dog but there are still certain aspects of life and training where mental free-styling is not needed and I need him to understand that I will make some decisions for him about how things are done. My overall goal is a balance that keeps my dog happy to work and eager to learn.

So the bottom line on why I haven’t shaped ALL his obedience skills is that there are a lot of different ways to teach things and I think some are better suited to certain methods than others. It’s good to have a lot of tools in my toolbox and it’s good to learn how to use new tools.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Silly dog

I'll probably never be a trainer who uses pure shaping for everything but I have used it with great success on some things. Teaching Phoenix to scratch the center stanchion on go-outs is one of them. I've used about every method there is to teach go-outs and each has found great success with different dogs: the shelties loved squeeze cheese on the gate, Jamie loved retrieving his dowels and Phoenix loves to scratch.

Admittedly, this was not how I originally taught his go-outs. He started with food on the gate and that was all fine and good but I saw the "destination behavior" technique at a Laura Romaik seminar this summer and was enchanted. (Seriously. Some women are enchanted by jewelry and shoes. I'm enchanted by training methods.) So I switched. I'm all about making the work as fun as I possibly can for my dog and for whatever reason, Phoenix loves to touch things - nose touch, paw touch, you name it. So I put that to work for us.

Phoenix had been doing "scratch" go-outs with increasing enthusiasm and accuracy throughout the fall. I was eager to test them at the match we went to in Des Moines over the weekend, since he had never done go-outs there.

But they didn't have the back of the Utility ring gated. There was no center stanchion to scratch. Okay. Well then. What to do?

Before our run, I set him up a few feet from a blank wall and asked him to scratch. Apparently that behavior transferred easily from stanchions to walls because was happily scratching the wall in no time. Yes! And treat!

When we did go-outs in the ring, I marked him to his (nonexistent) go-out spot and sent him with the command "Go scratch!" This presumes he will go out and scratch the gate unless I tell him otherwise to sit, in which case he's expected to stop and sit, not keep going to scratch the gate. The turn and sit has been heavily rewarded, too, so it's pretty much a win/win situation for him. 

Phoenix ran across the ring. He stopped dead center, he turned sideways, he looked at me . . .

. . . and he pawed the air right where the center stanchion would have been. If it had been there, he would have smacked it good.

What a wonderful brilliant clever talented awesome Skinny Little Dog.

I ran out and he got a cookie and then we practiced scratching the actual wall, which he was happy to do on the next go out.

I wish everything was that easy.

Friday, November 18, 2011

The last autumn hurrah

I’ve been on the road for some sort of dog-related activity (trials, matches, lessons, group training, road trip to visit mom - yes, in my family that’s a dog-related activity) for the last 15 Saturdays in a row, going back to the first weekend in August.

I’m not sure what compelled me to get out my planner and count backwards to discover that. I guess when the opportunity arose for me to have a Saturday AT HOME I was befuddled. How did this happen? Stay home? On a Saturday? That ain’t right.

Not to worry. Phoenix and I are going to a match in Des Moines tomorrow, keeping our string of dog-activity-related Saturdays in tact a while longer.

When a friend e-mailed the match info, I admit to thinking, “Thanks but no thanks. We’re done showing for awhile. Let’s sit this one out.”

Then I looked at the calendar. It is November. The weather Saturday is forecast to be dry, clear and relatively warm. How long do ya think that’s gonna last?

I couldn’t NOT go. Yeah, it’s another three-plus hours on the road but it’s probably the last time for the next four moths that I’ll be able to jump into R2 with the dogs and hit the highway without the threat of snow, ice, freezing rain, windchills, blizzard warnings and pursuit by the Abominable Snowman.

If I made plans to go to a match in January, then we got 10 inches of snow and howling winds, I know I’d be beating myself over the head, thinking, “Why didn’t you go to that match back in November when it was warm and sunny, you freaking idiot? Your dog will NEVER get better if you just sit at home on your lazy butt.”

Yeah, my conscience gets downright nasty at times. She’s great with the guilt trip.

If I want to realize the goals I’ve set for Phoenix in 2012, we need to take advantage of every training opportunity that comes our way in the months before we head back into the ring.

Which is why I’m getting up at 5:15 on a Saturday morning and playing dodge-the-deer all the way to Des Moines — so I can work my dog in a new site, reinforce the good stuff, take note of the not-so-good-stuff and adjust my plan for what we need to work on this winter.

Time flies. Pretty soon, so will the snow. Training nights at the club building and weekend group sessions with friends will be dependent on weather and there will probably be plenty of disappointing “better stay home” nights while the roads turn to skating rinks.

I'll have some "home" weekends before long to bake cookies, clean house, wrap presents and do all kinds of fun Christmas stuff. But tomorrow, it’s one last glorious hurrah for autumn sunshine and warmth on the open road.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Phoenix, 0; Winnie The Cat, 1

Regular readers of this blog know that Phoenix has an obsessive/compulsive disorder about cats. This started when he was a baby and we had a lot of farm cats. By the time I realized his prey drive was pretty much out of control where cats were involved, he’d already been practicing some bad behaviors. Well, they were just naughty, not lethal. He chased with an almost religious zeal but he didn’t catch and he didn’t kill. Mostly because he could never focus on just one cat and tried pursuing multiple cats at the same time, which meant none of them were ever in any danger.

Over the last few years, our farm cat population has dwindled. There’s always natural attrition when it comes to semi-feral farm cats and I admit to helping it along when “cat flu” swept through the population last year. A number of infected cats made a one-way trip to the vet.

Now we have only one cat, not counting the neighbor’s cats who bop in and out. Winnie The Cat is my antique cat. She is about 15 years old and looks half that age. She is the ONLY farm cat I have ever had spayed and vaccinated who lived longer than six months after I wrote a big check for their care at the vet’s. While I had tried the responsible spay/neuter/vaccinate route with our farm cats a number of years ago, this seemed to be a death sentence for them. Inevitably, they got hit on the road, caught in engines or just disappeared in short order, taking all my carefully planned and paid for health benefits with them.

As Phoenix has gotten older (notice I did not say “grown up”), he has gotten better about behaving himself around Winnie. I worked hard this summer at “cat desensitization.” Winnie is a good cat for this because she does not run. If you are a malinois, stationary cats are not a great deal of fun. The program consisted mostly of “Look at the cat, get a cookie. Sniff the cat, get a cookie. Co-exist peacefully in the same sphere of existence with a cat, get a cookie.”

By this fall, Phoenix could actually be loose in the garage with Winnie and not engage in OCD behavior, which included, but was not limited to: active pursuit, muzzle punching or squishing (squashing her to the ground with a paw.) In fact, he occasionally seemed to go out of his way to avoid her. He spent a lot of time following me around, looking for a cookie. I was delighted. (I was also under no illusion that this behavior was transfer to other cats.) When Winnie was in a mood, she would rub against both dogs and try to wash their faces. Phoenix took a dim view of this and would flee rather than be subjected to cat indignities.

Last weekend, I was putting stuff in the van to go to an agility trial. Phoenix and Jamie were in the garage. Winnie was in the garage. I called Phoenix to put him in his crate. He didn’t come. I looked all around the van. No Phoenix. I looked under the big grain truck that is parked next to my van. No Phoenix.

Then I found him. There is a stack of four old pickup tires from 1982 (because you never know when you might need four bald tires), topped with a sheet of plywood. This is where I put Winnie’s food and water dishes. It keeps them out of the way of errant dogs running through the garage and they’re within easy leaping distance from her cat box atop a nearby old wooden telephone cable spool.

Phoenix was balanced atop the plywood sheet, which was wobbling precariously atop the tires. The whole thing had been engineered for a seven-pound cat, not a 55-pound dog. To make matters worse, Winnie had joined Phoenix and was lovingly rubbing around his legs and belly. She was trying to reach his face to wash it. Phoenix had his head stretched as high as he could, to avoid her, and the look on her face clearly said, “MAKE HER STOP IT!” I suspect he went up there in the first place to get away from her and she followed him.

Poor Phoenix. Paybacks are hell.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Agility video

Here are Phoenix's QQ runs from the weekend. Thanks, Rilda, for video-ing us! I think this breaks our "If someone tapes us we never Q but if I don't ask anyone to tape, we will Q for sure" superstition.

I'm really, really happy with the Skinny Little Dog. Aside from a very naughty start-line creep-and-scoot on the JWW run, he was sooooo very good. It helps when I make sensible handling choices and actually cue things appropriately.

Okay, there were only two tunnel traps on the Standard run, not 14. It just seemed that way. When you run a dog who has been known to fly off the top of the A-frame to run through a tunnel he saw on the other side of the course, these things become larger than life.

The blind cross at the end of the poles may not have been the best-timed maneuver in the history of agility but my wonderful dog read what I intended and carried through. Okay that's just scary - Phoenix is saving my butt.

I think what I like most about these runs is that they're not the frantic, desperate racing that has been typical of so many of our previous assaults on courses. Is it possible Phoenix and I are actually starting to communicate through an entire run?

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Wonderful weekend!

Sometimes, it doesn't have anything to do with your dog.

This weekend, I got to watch friends reach milestones with their dogs.

Bill and Airee finished their MACH! 

Tracy and Syd finished their PAX!

Marsha and Frank finished their PACH, PAX2, MXP5 and MJP5! (I think that's right? Seriously, if you finish more than 1 title per weekend you can't expect your friends to remember!)

Phoenix went 3/6 (holy freakin' cow - we had a 50% weekend!) including a QQ today. Yippee for the Skinny Little Dog!

All the title runs were exciting. It's great to see friends running with their dogs and enjoying those moments of perfect teamwork that so often elude us by one dropped bar or one too-late cue. It's dang hard to sit in the stands, not breathing, until they clear the last jump and the last QQ or final speed points are confirmed.

Congrats to everyone who enjoyed lovely runs with their dogs this weekend — there were a lot of them. There are a lot of tired dogs and happy handlers in eastern Iowa tonight.

I hope to post video of Phoenix's QQ runs soon. I'm especially proud of him for today's Standard run because he didn't take a single one of the tunnel traps and there were at least 14 of them. Seriously. Would I kid you about tunnel traps?

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Prison break

Last night, Phoenix and I went to prison. We go every year with my obedience club and give and obedience and agility demonstration that is a “reward for good behavior” kind of thing for the inmates.

The club member who organizes this annual event calls Phoenix the “Prison Dog” because she used to work in corrections and remembers the mals and German shepherds used by the guards. She says Phoenix secretly aspires to be a prison dog. Not sure how she is privy to this information but I’ve added “Prison Dog” to his list of nicknames.

Here’s part of the e-mail Carol sent to all participants before the demo:

“Hi Folks,

Just a reminder that tomorrow night- Wednesday- is the night Phoenix dreams about all year long . . . We meet at 6:30 in the prison lobby. You will need to sign in and need a photo ID. You will also sign a statement that you are taking responsibility for your dog. Don’t bring in wallets, phones, medications . . . Travel light! There will be a place to leave car keys in the building.

Its ok to bring what you need for your dog . . . treats, props for tricks, etc. Good chance Melinda’s article bag will be searched by someone who has no idea of what should be in an article bag, but would recognize a wire cutter.

We go as a group to the gym. We all hold our breath and sometimes muzzles so we all fit into the interlock. Be aware the floor in the hall can be slick for dog paws. Our program starts at 7:00. We introduce ourselves with first names only. During meet and greet-visit about your dog not about you. . . And there may be some folks who remember you or your dog from previous visits or have done community service with us. We will be out by 8:00.”

As promised, a guard searched my article bag before we went in. He also searched the canvas tote I brought to carry treats, a toy, dumbbell, water and a bowl. TG I’d left my great big gear bag at home. They would have had a field day searching that! After the manual search, both bags were put through an x-ray machine. All the handlers had to pass through a metal detector before entering the facility. This was all new this year. The dogs were neither searched nor scanned.

Giving a prison demo gives a whole new meaning to playing to a captive audience. The evening was fast and intense. We did an obedience demo and then an agility demo. The more the dogs mess up, the better the inmates like it it so there’s no pressure to be perfect. Phoenix tore the chute off the closed tunnel (it hadn’t been attached right) and I had one of those OMG moments of panic while he was rolling around all wrapped up in the chute. He popped out with help from me and Jennifer and thought it was all a grand adventure.

The evening ended with a 20-30 minute meet and greet with the inmates. This always proves that Phoenix is no judge of character because he fawned all over the inmates and got scratched and petted and thumped and was a total suck-up. The guys really enjoy the interaction with the dogs. We were told time after time, "Thanks for coming, thanks for bringing your dogs, thanks for doing this."

I haven’t taken Jamie to the prison demo for 5 years. He always liked the demo part but not the meet and greet part, so when Phoenix came on the scene, he got to go and Jamie stayed home. There is one inmate who always asks about Jamie. It’s both sweet and creepy. I mean, he remembers him by name and always asks how he is. Weird.

When we came out, the guards searched my bags again. They said they wanted to make sure I hadn't left any of those "metal things" behind. I told the guy they were too expensive to "leave behind." Clearly he's never had to pay for a set of new scent articles for a dog Phoenix's size.

Best part of the evening is hearing those door clang shut with us on the RIGHT side!

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Agility pics

I don't order pictures from trial photographers very often any more. I've got a ton of great pics taken by some talented friends and if I ever want anything "special," I know they'll work to get whatever shot I want.

But I went a little crazy ordering pictures from the DMOTC trials back in October. There are shots from some new and different angles and they make me appreciate what athletes our agility dogs are.

Phoenix is by far the most athletic dog I've ever run. Connor had lousy structure. He tried, bless his heart, but it didn't come easily and Jamie was sound but not insane about agility so he did the "pretty dog lope" through most of his career.

Then there's Phoenix . . . who firmly believes in "Go big or go home!"

Launching off the start line.
Note tongue sticking out in uber concentration

This picture says a lot.
Most of it's not good, from a handling standpoint.
Except that he DID clear the jump that's not even in the frame.
Someone needs to set her dog up better for that first jump.

This is just a fun pic.
Love the steering with the tail.

So is this.
Ears clamped back for max streamlinabilty.
(Is that even a word?)

A pretty basic tire pic.
But he's such a handsome fellow.

Phoenix loves to weave.
It baffles me.

I mean seriously.
What part of this looks comfortable?
Or rewarding?
His body is going in about 6 different directions.

And then there's the "wild eye at end of the weaves" look.

These pics brought to you by Nieder Arts Photography and my MasterCard.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Phoenix's excellent weekend

Remember back in September after the Labor Day trials when things absolutely went to hell in the ring for Phoenix and me and I swore we were going to take a looooong break from obedience and stay home and work on rebuilding our foundation and not show again until spring?

I lied.

I showed Phoenix in Open B at a UKC trial this weekend. 

After two months of playing with some new training ideas, I wanted to see if anything was ready to transfer into the ring. Phoenix already has his U-CDX, so there wasn't anything on the line. I just wanted to have a happy dog in the ring. It was an experiment. 

Phoenix was great. He trotted through the ring gate and bounced and wagged his tail all the way to the set up point. He was silly between exercises. His work was brisk, efficient and thoughtful. (I say 'thoughtful' because Phoenix will never be a frivolous dog, if you know what I mean.) He only lost half point on heeling and gave me 4 perfect fronts on Saturday, confirming my theory that when he's relaxed and happy, he understands his job and is willing to make the effort to be right.

He won Open B and went High In Trial both days, plus nice bonus rosettes for Highest Scoring Herding Dog both days.

I'd like to say all our problems are fixed and the troubled past is behind us but that would not be realistic. We've still got a lot of work to do on building the "want to" element of some exercises (especially in Utility where his confidence is not as high as with the Open exercises) but the weekend showed me that what I'm doing (letting him be right and helping him be right vs telling him his work is never good enough), is starting to pay off.

This weekend was a tremendous confidence boost for both of us. FINALLY I feel good about my training again. I feel good about going into the ring with my dog. Phoenix had fun in the ring (#1 goal achieved!) and it was beautiful to look down and see him looking back at me with a "What are we doing next?" look on his face, so different from the stress yawning, sniffing and looking away we've struggled with. He was an actively engaged partner, not just going through the motions.

Today his heeling was amazing (40 pts.) but he missed most of his fronts and finishes. This slight decrease in his second day performance tells me the obedience scene is still mentally exhausting for him and that's something to take into consideration as we train.  I'm looking for the reason behind his errors so I can address them specifically (lack of engagement, distraction, etc.), not just assume if we train "harder," those problems will disappear.

NOW we're off for about 4 months, until our next obedience trial in February, when we'll jump back into the Open and Utility rings again. I mean it this time.

Good boy, Phoenix!

Friday, November 4, 2011

Friends with cookies: good or evil?

Obviously any friends with (people) cookies are GOOD! Linda's snickerdoodles. Meg's sugar cookies! Michele's Rice Krispie treats in all their varied forms. Paula's cranberry and white chocolate chip. Vern cookies (not sure exactly what they are, they're just Vern cookies).

But that's not quite what today's post is about.

Yesterday Graydogz asked, “Do you let your friends treat your dog?”

This brings up a whole bunch of interesting ideas and theories.

In a nutshell, yes.

But there are rules.

Sigh. So many rules. So sad. Poor deprived dogs.

Rule #1: Dog cannot self-release and rush to greet Cookie Dispensing Friend when she appears. Dog must remain engaged and on-task until (if/when) I choose to release him specifically to “go say hi.” Simply releasing from an exercise is not permission to take off. If dog is a little too interested in going to say hi vs staying and working with me, I don't let him. Yep, I'm mean that way. But I'll make it worth his while.

Rule #2: If dog is demanding or pushy, Cookie Dispensing Friend has complete authorization to tell him to knock it off or ignore him. Some of my friends are mean that way, too.

Rule #3: Cookie Dispensing Friend is under absolutely no obligation to dispense cookies just because dog presents himself, drooling, in her vicinity. Petting and sweet words are perfectly acceptable substitutes.

Rule #4: Cookie Dispensing Friend is encouraged to ask dog to do something before handing over the cookie. Anything. Front. Touch. Git yer tail. Give air snaps. (This is ridiculously popular with some of my friends for some bizarre reason.) Since friends’ performance criteria may or may not match my own this isn’t exactly making the dog work for his treat but at least it’s not a total freebie just because he wanted it.

Rule #5: Dog is not allowed to start a deep and involved relationship with Cookie Dispensing Friend just because she has treats in her pocket. In other words — this is a casual “hi,” not a long term commitment.

The bottom line — for me — is that a few cookies from friends now and then aren’t going to spoil anything. This is kind of a personal thing, though, because different trainers have different goals for their dogs and while having a social butterfly might be acceptable for one person, it might not be for another. It's one of those "It depends . . ." answers.

I want Phoenix to understand that staying connected with me is his number one priority when we are working, no matter who else is around. I believe he understands this. For example: he adores the Farmer and they do all sorts of wild wrestling and silly play but on the rare occasions the Farmer helps me train, he is essentially invisible as far as Phoenix is concerned. This drives the Farmer crazy. If I had a dollar for every time I’ve heard, “Your dog won’t listen to me!”

I also think Phoenix understands environmental context: this is how I behave at the training building, at the agility trial, at the school demonstration, at the nursing home, when we visit Grandma, at a holiday party at home, etc. I also believe he looks to me for cues about what is expected if we’re in a “new” environment. If I ever felt his interactions with other people were having a negative effect on our training and performance, then I’d make some changes.

Denise Fenzi shares her thoughts on a very similar topic today at her blog, www.denisefenzi.com.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Ready? Really?

Something I’ve learned this fall is the importance of making sure Phoenix is ready before we start a training session. Just being physically present isn’t enough. I want him to be in a happy mental place, comfortable and engaged before I ask him to do anything. Frequently this means dealing with distractions BEFORE we start training.

This doesn’t mean waiting until he gets done sniffing mice out of the corners of the building or begging cookies off friends. But if he shows visible concern about nearby dogs or anything in the environment, asking him to work and then “correcting” him for making an error is not going to get happy results.

Doing that lays another layer of worry on top of the already existing dog-worry or environment-worry, which is going to contaminate whatever skill we’re working and make it even more stressful than it may have been to begin with. Experience has taught me that “make him do it no matter what” style training may produce technically correct results but they are likely to come at the expense of the dog’s enthusiasm for the project.

As trainers, we all know distractions are a part of life and a dog’s ability to work through them can determine the level of success we enjoy as a team. Knowing the difference between a fear/worry distraction and a “Squirrel!” distraction is vital to helping your dog close the gap between what he thinks is important and what you think is important. If you’ve trained for longer than five minutes, you know these two things are often miles apart!

While some dogs are instantly at home and have their head in the game no matter what’s going on around them, the reality for many of us is that our dogs need a mental warm up before they can walk onto the training floor or into the ring with perfect confidence and clear mental focus, ready to learn and perform. A great deal has been written about physical warm ups but I think the mental end of the equation gets neglected more often than not.

If your dog is a worrier, has fear issues or doesn’t settle into a building quickly, give him a bit of time to get his act together before begin your training agenda. This doesn’t mean he gets a ticket to run off and do as he pleases. He can do a quiet stay while you get your equipment organized or set up the ring. He can just sit next to you and look around. Reward him for voluntarily checking in, even if it’s just a smile and a happy word. If he’s scared of something new in the building, you can go investigate it together. He can do some simple tricks or toy play. When he seems settled and able to give you voluntary (not forced) attention, THEN begin your training session. Otherwise you’re making things harder than they need to be.

Dealing with what I call the “dingbat dog” is another thing entirely. If Phoenix is getting obsessed about another dog’s toy or wants the squirrel on the fence I’ll:

A) first make sure those distractions are not attainable (let’s NOT self-reward!)
B) make it impossible for him to obsess about the distraction, usually by running with him in the opposite direction until we’re out of the distraction zone, then producing a toy for play or asking for rewardable behaviors (making ME more rewarding that whatever else might be going on, now at a distance).
C) use a “look at that!” exercise from “Control Unleashed,” where I can reward him for acknowledging the distraction and checking back in.

None of these methods rely on traditional jerk and yank “corrections” for inattention and they help him learn that just because he wants something doesn’t mean he can have it (this is an ongoing lesson for a very impulsive dog) and if he plays MY game MY way, he’ll get a reward — even though the reward won’t be a squirrel, it WILL be attainable, unlike the squirrel.

Getting in a good place mentally before training is one more block in building the foundation of a happy, trusting relationship that you can eventually take into the ring.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Not-so-rhetorical questions

Are you a redneck if you use the heated seats in your van to keep a carry-out pizza warm on the drive home? Cuz it works really well.

Can a dog wear out a Kong? Cuz I just ordered a couple of new ones for the Belgians. Their old collection of Kongs was starting to show some serious wear and tear. Jamie isn’t quite as tough on them as he used to be but Phoenix chews on them even after whatever goodies I’ve stuffed inside are long gone. He chews and chews and chews. I shudder to think about the jaw muscles he’s building, chewing, chewing, chewing. Sometimes I swear he looks at me and smiles and flexes his jaw muscles. Show off.

What exactly is a “varmint dog”? Cuz I think I have one. You hear that term tossed around in places like the local farm store or sale barn, as in “I got me a good varmint dog” or “You’re gonna need a good varmint dog to get rid of them pesky critters.” The reason I ask is Phoenix took off after a groundhog over the weekend. Or as one might say, “He lit out after that pesky varmint.”

We were out walking. He spotted the groundhog. The groundhog spotted him. Hot pursuit followed. Phoenix ran the critter to ground in its den under some big round bales, then proceeded to try digging it out. If his career in obedience and agility doesn’t work out, apparently I could open an excavating business. He did some serious earth-moving in a very short period of time.

Groundhogs are not something to be trifled with, so I’m glad it didn’t come to that. But now I can add another varmint to the list of creatures Phoenix has pursued, caught, eaten and/or alerted to: moles, voles, ground squirrels, tree squirrels, rabbits, birds, cats, raccoons and now groundhogs. Also, he’s had a rifle fired over his head on more than one occasion and took absolutely no notice of it so I’m not sure if that adds to his “varmint dog” street cred or not.