Monday, December 31, 2012

Adieu, 2012

I was going to write a long, flowery piece about all the things I learned in 2012 but then I decided none of us had that much time.

What I mostly learned in the last 12 months is to pick my own path and listen to what my dog tells me. Sounds great on the surface but harder than hell in reality when it seems like everyone around you believes they have THE ANSWER TO YOUR PROBLEMS and it clashes with what you feel in your heart. (Ha-ha, now I've probably freaked out all my training buddies who think I'm talking about them. LOVE YOU GUYS!)

I am even more appreciative of my friends after losing Rilda in October. Her death left me with a new awareness of how I spend my time and who I spend it with. People come and go throughout one's life. I believe all my friends have come (and sometimes, gone) for a reason. I value all of them.

I spent a lot of time this year wondering what I'd ever done to deserve Phoenix. He is an absolutely incredible dog. With patience (usually) and single-minded determination, he is making me learn new "rules of engagement." Often, these are in direct conflict with 35 years of training by compulsion or bribery. I have nothing to lose and everything to gain by listening to him.

A huge step for me this year has been learning to look beyond the technicalities of skill training to that undefinable quality that makes a dog and handler's teamwork sparkle with joy and energy. Oh, what a rush when you know that your dog is working, not just to get a cookie or avoid a correction, but because he loves the work and he loves you!

Happy new year to everyone! Wishing you all the best and a wonderful journey in 2013. Celebrate safely tonight. Being the party animals that we are, the Farmer and I will go out to dinner at a local restaurant and be home, asleep, by 10 p.m. Yep, we're livin' in the fast lane.

Friday, December 28, 2012

Happy birthday, Wild Dog

Phoenix turns 6 today. 
Happy birthday to the Carousel Malinois
 Wild litter of 2006!

7 weeks
(Photo courtesy of Catherine Shields)

10 weeks
(Photo by Sheryl McCormick)

6 years
Thank you, Nix, for 6 absolutely incredible years.
Can't wait to see what happens next!

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

12 Days of Malinois Christmas

I mean to post this before Christmas but too many cookies got in the way and that didn't happen. Technically speaking, I think the 12 days of Christmas actually start after Christmas and run through the first of the new year, so maybe I'm not late after all.

The rhyming may be off a bit here and there but very little else in my world is perfectly balanced so let's just go with it.

On the 12th day of Christmas, my malinois brought to me:

12 cats a running
11 bunnies hopping
10 weavepoles rattling
9  mangled leashes
8 nose-smeared windows
7 furballs drifting
6 premium lists
5 french linen tugs
4 munched on gloves
3 chewed up socks
2 dead mice (traps included)
and a dumbbell in a tree

Very happy belated Christmas wishes to everyone! With the holidays soon to be wrapped up, I hope to get back to regular blogging soon. The amount of ideas rattling around in my mind and the amount of time available to form them into coherent thoughts are frequently in conflict.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Snowplace like home

We're having a blizzard today. 

No snow at all for 289 days (the record was 290 days without measurable snowfall, set in 1913, if you're interested) and now we get this - screaming wind and ridiculous amounts of snow. I think we actually only got about 6" of snow but it's hard to tell, since none of it will stay put. It's pretty amazing it's blowing around at all because it's very wet, heavy snow. Other parts of Iowa got more than 12 inches. 

I would have taken more pics but it's not nice out there and I'm a weenie.

The snow started about 7 a.m. and the wind has gotten worse throughout the day. I'm guessing 30 to 40 mph sustained winds with higher gusts. I'm pretty much in denial about windchills right now. I was really liking our non-winter up to this point.

Visibility is slowly improving. This is St. John's Lutheran Church, maybe 1/4 mile from our house. You can see it now. Sort of. Earlier we had total whiteout conditions and couldn't even see to the end of our lane.

See the fence? See the tree? See the tree on the fence? See me swearing? The tree came crashing down this morning, scaring the bejeebers out of me while I was standing at the kitchen sink, peeling potatoes for soup.

Initial damage reports by the Farmer indicated the fence's imminent demise. Further inspection by me revealed things are not as bad as they might have been. Phoenix jumps the fence any time he feels like it anyway so having a squashed fence really doesn't change anything.

Fortunately I'd already planned to take this day off from work anyway. It's been a cooking-baking, soup-making sort of day. Which is exactly what a snow day should be. Especially when you haven't had one for 289 days.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

I can't make this stuff up

Subtitle 1: Truth is stranger than fiction.

Subtitle 2: How to get bit in the butt by your own dog.

And no, it wasn't the Skinny Little Dog, who has occasionally been known to have issues with improper tooth placement.

It was Jamie. Dear sweet gentle Jamie. Yep. Bit me in the butt. It was actually more of a nip. Didn't break skin. Didn't break jeans. Still stung.

I'm pretty sure he didn't mean to.

The fact there was a toy on my butt might have had something to do with it.

I'm blaming it all on work.

It was a bad day at work. A hide the knives, lock up the guns bad day. I got home late. It was almost dark. I was in a seriously honked off mood. All I wanted to do was take the dogs out to chase their cloth flippy and not deal with any member of the human race for any time in the immediate future. Like the next six months.

So I did. The dogs love their flippy. After a few "free" throws, I asked Phoenix to heel. He was happy to oblige. He was doing a lovely job. My spirits were rising. A beautiful heeling dog makes me happy, especially when it's my dog.

The flippy was in my right hand. In the vicinity of my backside. Which is located behind my back.

Which is why I didn't see Jamie stalking me. If the Skinny Little Dog had to work, Jamie didn't see any reason why he shouldn't have the flippy in the interim. At 13 1/2, Jamie wants what he wants. The "don't grab the toy out of my hand" rule has apparently gone the same place "stay."

If he'd grabbed the edge of the flippy, it would have been all good.

But no. He grabbed it dead center. My right butt cheek was underneath it.

In the words of the immortal Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist Dave Barry, I swear I am not making this up.

It's a good thing we live in the country where no one can hear you scream.

Then I laughed. Nothing like a good butt chomp to remind a person what's important in life.

Pay attention to the Old Dog. Age and treachery will defeat youth and skill every time.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Go play

Today I’m writing about something that’s been on my mind a lot lately: playing with my dog. These are just random thoughts and observations. I’m not even sure I have an actual point to make, except that play is powerful and I’m very glad Phoenix has helped me understand that.

Over the years, I’ve gone from thinking play was not very important in the overall scheme of dog training to developing a new understanding of how much it can enhance my relationship with my dog. Oh sure, I’ve always taken the dogs out in the yard and thrown a ball for them but until the last six months with Phoenix, I didn’t tap into play to enhance our obedience work.

For the purpose of this post, “play” means interaction between dog and handler, with both focusing exclusively on one another. It can happen with or without a toy or even with food. It is certainly “play” to take 3 dogs and a tennis ball out to a field and let them chase each other while you throw the ball, but that is dogs playing with one another, not you. You are part of the fun but mostly in the capacity as the ball launcher, since the real fun is taking place wherever the ball lands and gets grabbed.

As an instructor, I’ve found that many students equate “play” to “tug” and are instantly turned off if they do not have a tuggy dog. This is unfortunate because there are lot of ways to play with your dog and not all of them involve tugging.

Often, proponents of tugging have dogs that they can control without much effort, either because the dog is small/soft or the person is big/strong. It’s one thing to tug with a 25 pound sheltie. It’s another to tug with a 55 pound malinois. Not only are the dogs’ physical make-ups much different, their mental approach to playing tug may be drastically different as well. For a short person (me) to tug in a safe and rewarding fashion with a powerful dog (Phoenix), I had to learn some skills beyond just “offer the toy and hang on.” (I did that for a long time and the problem was that I couldn’t hang on and the game usually deteriorated from there.)

If you have a dog who has always played easily and naturally and you’ve encouraged it, it can be hard to understand working with a dog who seems to have no natural interest in play. Many of us who have had non-players in the past started early with new puppies to make sure we laid the groundwork for a lifetime of play. Puppies play readily. Encourage it. Nurture it. Build on it.

For adult dogs who are tentative about play, most can grow to enjoy at least one or two forms of it if encouraged with an approach that doesn’t overwhelm the dog. The owner has to be willing to experiment with different ideas and give the dog a reasonable amount of time to realize what he’s doing can be fun. We’ve all seen the student who dangles a toy in front of the dog’s face, wiggles it a few times while the dog looks bored and says, “See, he won’t play with me!” If the owner wants badly enough for the dog to play tug, he or she will be successful in teaching the dog to tug. If not, the team would be better off exploring other avenues of play.

Non-tugging play includes moving games (chase, tag, push and shove and a combination of all 3) and food games (chase the food, chase me to get the food, find the hidden food, leap up to get the food). Notice all of these include some kind of movement, most of it on the handler’s part. There is no stationary (bump on a log) food delivery.

The energy generated during play can be a double edged sword - it’s very fun for the dog but it requires the handler to MOVE. Many handlers choose not to play because they either have physical limitations or they just don't want to make the effort. You don’t need to be an Olympic athlete to play with your dog but you do need to move.

I admit to sometimes choosing not to play tug games with Phoenix during a training session because I am physically not up to it that day. He is a very demanding dog (the Farmer says he is bossy) and I need to be on my game to play his. Tugging with him is akin to fighting with animated cinder blocks and while I enjoy it, there are days when I just am not up to it. On those days we play other games instead.

Tugging aside, I’ve noticed 5 kind of dogs when it comes to play (there are probably more). There is no right or wrong in this list, simply observations.

1) The dog who does not know how to play because his owner uses food rewards exclusively.

2) The dog who would play but the owner overwhelms the dog, making play not fun.

3) The dog who has initiated play with his owner but has been discouraged so often that he doesn’t try any more.

4) The dog who loves to play but is physically strong and his style of play is not fun for the owner.

5) The dog who loves to play but easily escalates “over threshold,” resulting in behavior that is not fun for the owner.

At one time or another, I have shared my life with all of these dogs. They have taught me both the power of food and the power of play. There is no absolute wrong or right when it comes to training rewards and relationship building. There are just some things that work better than others, depending on the dog/human dynamic. Don’t be afraid to try something new.

Monday, December 10, 2012

Let them eat cake

I love cake. I am starting to think the main reason I go to agility trials is to eat cake. Seriously, on any given weekend, there is usually at least one MACH cake at a trial. Is this a Midwestern thing or do people do it from coast to coast to celebrate the achievement? Sometimes MACHS are celebrated with cupcakes or cookies but mostly its cake. A great big honkin’ sheet cake that disappears within minutes as soon as it’s cut. (I am refraining from a plague of locusts reference but, well, you get the picture.)

I find eating cake with gobs of sugary frosting at 9 a.m. to be very normal behavior, although judging from responses to my initial Facebook posting of the cake’s picture, it appears perhaps we DO eat an inordinate amount of cake at trials here in the Midwest.

New topic - dogs born in 1999 (there is a connection, go with me here). We have quite a collection of them among my friends. We call them “The 99s.” My Jamie is one of them.  Most are still with us, a few have passed. They were a well-accomplished bunch and until just recently, two of them were still running agility at age 13. They are a special generation, those last puppies of the old century.

I decided it was time to honor The 99s. Naturally, with a cake. I decided to bring a “99s” cake to my club’s recent agility trial.

I enlisted the help of an experienced cake procurer, my friend Paula. She has been responsible for designing, ordering, picking up and delivering a variety of cakes to a variety of events. She knows people who know people. I knew my idea was in good hands.

The only error that ever happened to a cake on her watch was when she ordered a carefully designed cake for a fellow agility friend’s 50th birthday. It was to have green tinted frosting with an agility course designed on it, complete with little dogs running. When she picked up the cake at the bakery, it was plain white and said “Happy Birthday.” That did not end well. Well, actually, it did, because it ended with a free birthday cake, in addition to the non-agility-course birthday cake, which we all ate anyway.

So Paula and I decided a Christmas theme would be appropriate for The 99s cake. Simple, with holly leaves and berries and the dogs’ names listed at random. Really. What could go wrong?

She texted me a photo the night she picked the cake up.

It had white frosting with the dogs’ names carefully and neatly spelled out in red piping. Red and black pawprints adorned the top. In each corner was a cluster of . . . marijuana leaves?

Clearly “holly” is open to interpretation. Perhaps the cake decorator had a different frame of reference than we did.

We laughed. We ate it. It was very good. We’re still laughing.

Here’s to The 99s. You guys rock.

The 99s
OTCh Jamie
Ch. Breeze
MACH Simon
MACH Rylee
MACH2 Nina
Sydney PAX
Magic TDIA

Monday, December 3, 2012

It's gonna get cold some time, right?

The irony of this post is that today's temps are hitting near record highs — 60s on December 3, un-freaking-real — and are predicted to stay above normal for most of the coming week, confirming my theory that the whackadoodle weather pattern from this summer plans to stick around for a while. Not a snowflake in sight. Seriously not complaining.

But we live in the Midwest and eventually reality is going to hit and I’m not going to have the ambition to make the hour round-trip drive to the club building to train. There’s only so much snuggling on the recliner we can do before Phoenix starts bouncing off the walls.

Here’s what’s on our “train without leaving the comfort of your home” list for the winter. We can do all of this indoors at home.

1) Scent article room search. Instead of putting articles in a traditional pile, scatter them around a room.  The dog has to work harder to find his article and this has the added benefit of encouraging easily frustrated dogs to settle and do their job. Phoenix is a poster child for this - loves doing articles, loves the instant gratification of finding them easily in a tradition pile. He was definitely challenged when I scattered them around a room. As the dog gets more proficient, articles can be hidden in more difficult places. We are up to “hiding” articles in plain sight on the seats of chairs and the couch or under an end table.

2) Body awareness: backing up stairs. Phoenix mastered this in about 2 sessions, leaving me to wonder at what point in his development did he learn the foundation for this. He is an easily shaped dog and is willing to try different behaviors when faced with new situations but sometimes it really scares me how freaky fast his mind works. Now that he’s learned how the mechanics of it, I’d like him to do it without barking at me. Is that too much to ask?

3) “Go to (fill in the blank)”: this is something I’ve taught all my dogs because I’m often too lazy to walk from one end of the house to another to take something to the Farmer. We use this system a lot for mail delivery. The shelties and Jamie were all good at it. They went straight from Point A to Point B. Phoenix takes the offered item and then runs amuck, ignoring the Farmer until eventually delivering what’s left of whatever I gave him. This winter I need to load up the Farmer with treats, then practice sending Phoenix back and forth. At the moment Phoenix clearly finds possessing the item more rewarding than actually delivering it. Who knew the "Iowa Farm Bureau Spokesman" was so much fun.

4) Touch (in the context of go outs): strengthening the understanding of “go touch what is straight in front of your nose.”

5) Core strengthening - balance disk: right now Phoenix is sitting up and waving on his balance disk. He looks like a demented prairie dog. I have 2 disks so may do something with hind feet on one disk and front feet on another.

6) Body awareness - bowl work: good for moving hind quarters, glove turns, finding heel, moving laterally while working fronts. Plus he thinks its fun to put his feet on a bowl and do stuff. He’s apparently a reincarnated circus dog. I should get a big ball and teach him to roll it with his front paws.

7) That stupid pet trick you saw someone else’s dog do and thought it was hysterical. In our case, it’s balancing food on his nose and having him toss it into the air and catch it. Since he can catch flying cheese at 30 feet, I figure this might take all of 17 seconds. We haven’t tried it yet.

8) Fronts and finishes. Forever. Amen.

9) Backing up on the flat (no stairs). This falls under a number of categories: tricks, body awareness and adding an element of silliness to obedience exercises. While I don’t think he needs to back half way across the county, I like using a “back” cue during any distance work. For example, Utility signals: give the drop signal, then cue “back.” Phoenix finds Utility signals an annoying imposition on his time but he thinks backing up in a down is crazy fun. I don’t know why. He’s nutty like that. I also use it on the drop on recall: come, down, back, release.

10) Tugging skills. Phoenix has always been an enthusiastic tugger and I’ve let him develop some bad habits through my own lack of understanding of the mechanics of tugging with a strong dog. So we’re working on more TUGGING (biting and staying on the tug) and less MUNCHING and THRASHING, which helps him work with a clearer, calmer mind and is easier on my body with more effort from my dog and less work for me. His “outs” are improving, too.

When we go to the building or get together with friends we can work "big" stuff, like heeling and retrieves and directed jumping and all that. But these little exercises will keep both of us from getting cabin fever and keep body and mind active. Plus, tugging with him really is better than any gym workout!

So let it snow, let it snow, let it snow.

Did I type that out loud?

Friday, November 30, 2012

How not to take the Christmas photo

Having recently endured a formal family portrait with four generations of the Farmer’s family (19 of us, including a 3-year-old in a very bad mood whose vocabulary that day consisted largely of “NO!”), I really enjoy the simplicity of taking pictures of my dogs.

One is an OTCh. One is an OTCh.-pointed UD with UDX legs. They can do a simple sit/stay, right? No brainer! Pose the dogs in a scenic setting, tell them to stay, get the camera, snap a few dozen frames and there you go - brilliant new pics for the blog and the Christmas card. Impress my friends and family.

Do you see any new pics here?

There you have it.

I am developing an unnatural attachment to this blog header, which I’ve had for over a year. I kept intending to replace it with a more seasonal snowy pic during the winter but we hardly got enough snow last year to make the effort worthwhile. It was the Winter That Wasn’t.

Several times throughout this fall, I set out to take new pics. All attempts met with limited success. Here is a condensed list of things that can go wrong when photographing allegedly trained dogs.

Pose dogs. Both dogs act like they’ve have no idea what “stay” means.

Pose dogs. Remind them firmly to stay. Dogs stay but give you a hateful, non-photogenic look.

Pose dogs. Jamie moves. At age 13 1/2, Jamie has decided he doesn’t need to do anything he doesn’t feel like. And why would he feel like staying over THERE when the cookies and Mom are over HERE.

Pose dogs. Jamie tips over. Although his vestibular issues have greatly improved since the episode in early October, he is still wobbly and occasionally just loses his balance.

Pose dogs. Phoenix’s ears disappear. I don’t know where they go. Apparently he can fold them directly into his skull.

Pose dogs. Dog A decides he wants no part of Dog B touching him and shifts just enough to wreck the composition of the photo.

Pose dogs. Dog suddenly feels the need to perform personal hygiene.

Pose dogs. Line up shot. Nobody moves. Perfect! Dog sneezes just as I press the shutter.

Pose dogs. Dogs refuse to look at the camera, no matter how many kissy-squeaky noises I make.

Pose dogs. Peel Phoenix off my head. Assure him "Kitty, kitty" was just a joke.

Pose dogs. Phoenix hears a command beamed from the starship Enterprise and takes off to go where no Malinois has gone before.

Pose dogs. Line up shot. Notice huge eye goobers that were NOT there 10 seconds ago.

Pose dogs. Jamie forgets what he’s doing and wanders out of the frame.

Pose dogs. Dogs look in two opposite directions. Not sayin' "Kitty, kitty" again. I don't have a death wish.

Pose dogs. Now Jamie’s ears are sideways. He looks like a Belgian version of Yoda.

Pose dogs. Phoenix decides he needs to hack up a hairball.

Pose dogs. The Farmer pulls up in the pickup and both dogs bolt to go see their papa.

I swear they are trained. Apparently very badly.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Livin' la vida loca

My apologies to Ricky Martin. I’m sure the subject of this column is not at all what he had in mind when he sang his 1999 hit.

But the song title seems most appropriate to my life right now so I’m going with it.

Frequent blog readers know we are under a mouse siege at our house right now. After a rather unfortunate series of events (mouse poop in places it does not belong - which is ANYWHERE in my house), I decided that more than one or two casual traps were needed to remedy the situation.

I went to the mouse trap store. I stocked up. I went home and began a highly scientific project with the goals of A) catching mice B) finding out what bait catches the most mice C) not catching malinois.

I suspected C might be the most difficult since Phoenix is all about mouse traps. Experience has taught him that mouse traps often lead to VERY fun human behavior. I am careful to always set them with the baited trigger pointed away from inquisitive Belgian noses. More than once, I've caught him nudging them repeatedly, leaping into the air when they snap, then looking at me like "COOL! Make it do that again!"

So far, all efforts have been successful. I have caught a lot of mice. I have caught mice using peanut butter,  dog treats (Zuke’s, for the record), Purina Cat Chow and, although it’s a cliché, cheese. I have not caught a malinois.

Oh no. The malinois has not been snapped on the nose. He’s obviously smarter than that. He knows where every single trap in the house is set. He waits until the trap catches the mouse, then he springs into action.






You get the picture.

Phoenix has taken to snatching mouse traps and absconding with them.

I have done some crazy things in  my life. (Feel free to substitute stupid for crazy. It’s usually appropriate.) Until last week, I had never tried to get a mousetrap, with deceased mouse securely attached, away from a dog who was experiencing a great deal of mental conflict about A) wanting to be left alone long enough to figure out how to get the mouse out of the %$#@! trap and eat it and B) knowing this was never, ever, ever going to happen so he might as well just give up now.

Welcome to my world.

What do normal people do with their time?

Saturday, November 24, 2012

You know it's cold when . . .

 . . . you come home and find the Old Dog sleeping on the couch with his tail over his nose.

Yep. Sound asleep. Didn't wake up while I took several shots. Then realized his sleeping beauty-ness was being photographed and looked annoyed.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Thankful for the little things

The couple on the right are my paternal grandparents, Laurel and John Hanson. The lady on the left is Ada Gaskell, one of their cousins.

It was taken in 1921 and they were ice skating on the Mississippi River near Burlington, Iowa. My aunt just shared the picture with me. She commented that if they fell down, at least the women had plenty of padding with the long skirts and long coats. Guess my grandpa was just out of luck if he fell. Not much padding there.

I'm no expert on the history of textiles but in 1921, I'm guessing they had cotton clothing and wool clothing and short of things made from fur or leather, that was about it. Maybe there was silk for women's underthings but kind of doubting my pre-Depression era ancestors could afford it.

No Polartec fleece. No moisture-wicking base layers. No Thinsulate insulation. No Smartwool socks. No Gore-tex waterproof membranes or jackets with Windwall or Windbloc. No synthetic blends. No flannel sheets from LL Bean. No fleece blankets to curl up with in their La-Z-Boy recliners to watch TV. Um, no TV.

I'm very thankful I was born in the 1960s and get to enjoy all the wonderful fabrics we have today that allow us to be outdoors in cold, wet weather without being totally miserable. If' I'd been a child in the 1920s, I probably would have frozen to death.

If I'd grown to adulthood, I would have been a very bitter woman who had to hand wash all her limited clothing. My grandparents didn't have electric lights in their rural Iowa home until after World War II, let alone an electric washing machine. They farmed with horses, pumped water from a well, milked cows by hand, separated cream, churned butter, grew a huge garden and preserved food for the winter by drying, curing and canning.

If my grandparents were alive today, they would be amazed at the array of conveniences that are so easy to take for granted in today's world. So on the day before Thanksgiving, I am extremely thankful for the "little" things we might not think twice about - warm clothing, electricity, hot and cold running water, indoor plumbing, refrigeration, a furnace and the local grocery store. I love my microwave, self-cleaning oven, washer and dryer, dog-fur-sucking Dyson vacuum, iMac and iPhone.

And I am thankful for the Farmer, Jamie and Phoenix and everything we've laughed about, cried over, endured, explored, learned from, succeeded at and swore we'd never do again in the last year.

Have a wonderful, safe Thanksgiving, everyone!

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Thanksgiving #1

Today, I am thankful for sweatpants.

No. Seriously.

The Farmer's family had Thanksgiving today: 25 people, two turkeys, an insane number of side dishes, three pies and my own contribution, Death By Chocolate.

I got home in time to take the dogs for a waddle . . . um . . . wobble . . . um . . . walk before dark. It probably only burned off a tiny fraction of the calories I consumed but it's the thought that counts, right?

Now I can relax in a food coma for the rest of the evening. I am also thankful for my recliner and my fleece blanket that Marsha gave me for Christmas last year. I plan on spending quality time with both.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Malinois in a bubble

This morning a friend helped me with Phoenix for a few minutes after we did a lesson with her dog. I wanted to see how he would react if another person deliberately put pressure on him while I was asking him to play and heel. (This is from Week 3 of the on-line class I'm taking, the topic is how dogs respond to the pressure we create, often inadvertently, by how we use our bodies and how you can add and remove pressure to help them in training.)

Susan did a great job - following, approaching, moving in close and really getting in both his face and mine. She never touched him, didn't need to. This was totally mental pressure created by her physical proximity. Her presence inside his "bubble" was enough to bump him out of his comfort zone even though he knows her and she is very non-threatening.

I've always known Phoenix has a big personal space when it comes to other dogs. But since he is such a goofball around people, I never thought much about PEOPLE exerting pressure on him by being too close.

What happens at an obedience trial? You go in the ring and here comes the steward to collect your leash and the judge to welcome you to the ring and direct you to the first set-up. No wonder Phoenix frequently de-railed quickly. People were invading his space from the get-go and it made him very uncomfortable because he was not free to go interact with them on his terms. Then they made it worse by following him around the ring the entire time he was there.

It took me a long time to recognize this - he warmed up well in congested areas outside the ring but no one there was confronting us directly, we were all going about our own business. But in the ring, both stewards and judge created pressure as we were the focus of their movements and they frequently moved into our space.

If Susan had sat on a chair on the edge of the ring, Phoenix would have been fine. If she had walked around the perimeter of the building while we worked, he would have been fine. But to have her THAT close to us, he was not fine. He didn't react aggressively and he didn't act "distracted," it was more of an overall concern that she was in his space and how could he be expected to think?

He had a choice to make: watch her or engage with me. He could engage on a tug or doing what Denise Fenzi calls "personal play," just interacting with me w/o toy or food. Heeling would be fine, too, if he could relax to the point where he could give it.

We started with hand touches and tugging. Initially, there was a great deal of eye flicking and ear twitching while Phoenix decided how to deal with another person moving around close to him. Every time he looked at her, I turned around and ran. He clearly wanted ME more than HER because he ran after me. Running and chasing was fun. It temporarily relieved the pressure. (I've noticed this in the ring, when he can "chase" me between exercises, he brightens a lot.) When he "caught" me, we tugged or I asked him to heel while Susan caught up with us and we started again.

It took about 2-3 minutes before he settled into a new comfort zone, able to heel with ears up hard, eyes bright and not flicking, no longer concerned by the presence of another person moving very, very close to him.

He had made the decision that Susan was not worth worrying about and he would rather interact with me. We accomplished it without adding any additional elements of stress or anxiety by trying to "correct" the lapses in focus. I kept the session short, we worked less than 5 minutes and stopped on a high note.

I think Phoenix will always have a big personal space. Now that I understand that space is not only related to other dogs, we can address it specifically in training since my friends are always up for helping.

Today, I am thankful for people who put new ideas in my head and friends who help me train.

Friday, November 16, 2012

Training and/or playing

Mutually exclusive: Adj. 1. unable to be both true at the same time. contradictory . incompatible.

Are training and playing mutually exclusive?

Until this summer, I would have said the two were distinctly separate activities. Play was play and training was training and ne’er the twain shall meet.

Learning more about playing with Phoenix has been an adventure. It’s fun. It’s physical. It’s occasionally painful (which has spurred me to find ways to play beyond tugging - these hands and wrists can only take so much.) It’s shown me the weak spots in my approach to improving his obedience work. It’s shown me that people interpret play in very different ways and they use it in very different ways. Or they don’t use it at all, often because they don’t know how or don’t think their dog will play with them.

Phoenix and I played from the start, when he was an itty bitty baby dog. He was the first dog I’d ever had who genuinely loved to tug and I was delighted. My previous dogs ran hot and cold on tugging. So Phoenix and I mostly tugged or fetched a ball. What else was there, right?

So we trained. And we played. Distinctly. Separate. Activities.

I used food during training as “rewards” and as a “motivator.” Or so I thought. In reality, the food wasn’t doing much motivating. When it disappeared, Phoenix didn’t try harder to make it come back. All it did was create a sense of false enthusiasm that never managed to carry through in the ring.

If the food was present and being delivered at regular intervals, it was all good. When the food disappeared from the equation, or when external pressures increased (show ring), Phoenix didn’t really see any particular reason to continue being an active participant in what he thought was a very unrewarding activity. I bribed him to work through a fairly high level of achievement but struggled to understand why we were getting worse as a team and not better, in spite of mastery of technical skills.

I blamed stress, confusion and lack of confidence for our lousy ring presentation and I’m sure those were all elements, to a degree, of our downward spiral. But the bottom line was my dog did not think I was much fun. Great Pez dispenser. Not much fun otherwise. We did not know how to have fun doing obedience if it didn’t involve eating food.

It’s taken me the better part of 5 years to get a grip on the power of play and start using it to our advantage. I wouldn’t say we’re ready to start getting 200s but our obedience training sessions throughout this fall have improved tremendously, with a marked increase in play and a marked reduction in food. I no longer have a weekly cheese budget! (Well, okay, I do, but now it’s all MINE. That’s another issue.)

Tug is still the foundation of our play but I’ve been putting a lot of time into building personal play - chase games, hand touches, push games and just silliness in general that is not dependent on a toy.

We finished our “training” session last night and it occurred to me that I had spent the entire time focused on elements of play. Obedience skills were there, but they were not the object of the session. Whoa. First time in YEARS that has ever happened. Big step for me, the obedience OCD poster child.

Phoenix is a well-trained obedience dog. He has earned a UD. His Novice and Open scores were all above 195. His Utility work was a roller coaster but he was generally in the lower to mid 190s, with occasional surges to the upper 190s. He has given me some very lovely, solid work. He has HITs from AKC and UKC trials.

Knowing this, there is no point in continuing to drill technical skills in the name of “training.” He has shown me he knows how to do them. When he is happy and truly enjoying working with me, he is amazing. This has been evidenced in brief flashes throughout his obedience career to date. Where I’ve failed is learning how to keep him in that happy place with any consistency.

Having finally figured this out, our “training” time is no longer a black and white division between playing and training. We heel, tug, heel, leap and chase (he leaps, he chases - not me), we do a recall, we heel, we tug, etc. It’s very different from my previous approach to “working” specific exercises.

Most trainers would agree that playing with our dogs is fun. So why don’t more people tap into play? There’s the cookie addiction that most of us have suffered from at one time or another. It was hard for me to put the cookies up and offer interaction with myself as the reward and motivator. What if I was rejected? And I was, frequently, initially. I got over it. Phoenix wasn’t rejecting me personally, he just didn’t understand that fun existed beyond the cookie zone.

Plus, if you have a non-tuggy dog and don’t know any other way to play, food seems like the only way to go. It’s generally very easy to use and most dogs turn on for it, at least on the surface. It lets you make behaviors happen quickly, which makes your dog look brilliant and make you feel like Trainer Of The Year.

Probably the biggest reason more people don’t use play more is play takes energy on the handler’s part, especially if you have a big athletic dog. It’s one thing to tug with a 25 pound Sheltie. Tugging with a 55 pound Malinois is a whole different ball game. Plus, you can’t turn your dog onto running and leaping if you’re standing still, so you have to burn a calorie. (Privately, I think there’s a whole diet plan here just waiting to be marketed.)

It’s not all about tugging. It’s not all about balls or all about food. It’s about doing things that make your dog smile and say “I want to be with YOU and do what YOU’RE doing.”

I’d like to do a series of “thankfulness” posts leading up to Thanksgiving. Today, I am thankful for dogs and people who make me think and help me learn.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Truth is stranger than fiction

Today’s post comes to you from the I Swear I Am Not Making This Up files.

CURRENT DAY: The Farmer has decided we need a new television. He’s probably right. Our old TV qualifies as an antique. It’s not a flatscreen. It’s not digitally compatible. When the switch to digital broadcasting happened a few years ago, we had to get a converter box. Which meant more things to wire up and another remote control. It now takes 3 remote controls and much choreographed button-pushing to watch a DVD. But I digress.

The problem is not that the Farmer wants a new TV, the problem is that he wants one the approximate size of a drive-in movie screen. That wouldn’t be so bad except it obviously will not fit in our current entertainment center, which is a lovely oak and brass affair with glass doors and lots of shelves and cubby holes.

It will have to sit on top of the entertainment center, which will leave me and the Farmer sitting in our recliners, tipped completely back, feeling like we’re sitting in the front row of the movie theater, watching “King Kong.” (Which we did once, by the way. Let the jury note I am not a front row fan.)

While discussing this problem, the Farmer gave the entertainment center a calculating eye and said, “No problem, I’ll just cut the top off and drop it down.”

FLASHBACK: Earlier this year, I wrote a story for the newspaper where I work about an area couple who had remodeled their old farm home and done some rather spectacular stuff. During the interview, I commented (diplomatically, I hoped) on the rather odd configuration of the “old” part of the house. The home owners, son and daughter-in-law of the previous owner, laughed and told me the story.

Apparently this is well-known local lore but I live on the opposite side of the county so hadn’t been exposed to it before.

Fritz Kinzenbaw Sr. owned the rural Ladora farm, which included a barn, cattle sheds, machine sheds, tall trees and an American foursquare house built in the 1920s. In June of 1998, a straightline windstorm tore through the county and demolished nearly everything on the farmstead except the house. (This was the same storm that hit our farm which much the same effect.)

In the years that followed, Fritz Sr. cleaned up the wreckage and rebuilt the buildings. Then one day, he viewed the skyline of his farmstead and didn’t like what he saw. The two-story house now stuck up above all the other buildings and the few remaining trees. He felt this was not aesthetically pleasing. So he solved the problem in a very straight forward fashion.

He took a chain saw and cut off the second floor of the house.

His wife didn’t know what he was going to do until she heard the chain saw fire up.

I swear I am not making this up.

CURRENT DAY: So naturally, when the Farmer announced his intention to “just cut the top off” of the entertainment center, I immediately flashed to visions of Fritz Sr., armed with a chain saw, whacking away at the second story of his home.

I had a very brief freak-out. Having forgotten all about the Fritz Kinzenbaw story which I had regaled him with several months earlier, the Farmer misread my twitching and convulsions and thought I was against the new TV, which I’m not. I guess he forgot about the early years of our marriage when he used a chain saw to cut a hole in an upstairs floor to wire the kitchen ceiling fan. (It’s all good.) I am pretty sure he is genetically predisposed to solving problems with chain saws. Or maybe it’s just the Y chromosome. Either way, I'm not taking any chances.

Now we’re going to have the Farmer’s brother-in-law, who is a gifted woodworker, take a look at the entertainment center and see if it can be dismantled and re-configured into a pedestal for the new TV. Which we haven’t gotten yet, but there’s been a great deal of muttering and measuring and calculating going on.

Stay tuned for further developments.

Thursday, November 8, 2012


At last. It’s over.

The confusion. The doubt. The indecision. The pros. The cons. The frustration. The research. The opinions. The commitment. The final decision. The official act. The second guessing.

I’m talking about ordering this year’s photo Christmas cards. What did you think I meant?

Every year, my goal is have the cards ordered by mid-November. My second goal is to get them addressed over the long Thanksgiving weekend and ready to mail in early December.

The reality of this is often substantially different from the goal. My real incentive for early Christmas card completion is being able to hand deliver bunches of cards to my friends at our last agility trial of the year, a couple of weeks before Christmas. Saves hand cramps from addressing envelopes and lots of money on postage, since about three-quarters of my cards go to dog friends.

I ordered my cards yesterday. Oh sweet relief. Oh blessed joy. One more decision checked off the pre-holiday to-do list.

Yeah, it's time to think about the holidays. Thanksgiving is two weeks from today, then it's totally open season on Christmas. Okay, it was pretty much open season on Christmas before Halloween but I try not to think about that. I love the holidays. I don't love the commercialism that starts at Labor Day. The Christmas commercials are a welcome relief, however, from the barrage of political BS we've endured since the caucuses in February. Life in a swing state is over-rated.

Sending Christmas cards is a tradition I’m willing to make time for. Over the years I’ve abandoned Martha Stewart-esque home decorating, elaborate cookie and candy making, and stupid holiday letter writing. Some things are worth my time. Some aren't. I’ll send the cards, decorate my mini-tree, bake sugar cookies and gingerbread dogs, go shopping, celebrate with family and friends, enjoy some lazy evenings at home with the dogs and the Farmer and call it good.

Last year, Phoenix kicked off the holidays by eating corn cobs the night before Thanksgiving (long story, they had a side dressing of cattle manure). I spent the evening trying to get him to vomit (preferably outdoors) while baking a pumpkin pie to take to my mom's the next day. He eventually did vomit (indoors, of course). The pie turned out just fine. That's not a tradition I plan to continue.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Fun with an iPhone

I occasionally forget I can do more stuff with my phone than just make and receive calls. Not sure how I could forget this, since when I bought it, the sales guy walked me through setting up e-mail, Facebook, loading apps, how to use the iTunes store, video and camera functions and using GPS to track weather in other cities. I had to ASK him to show me how to make a phone call. He looked puzzled and said (I swear I am not making this up) "Oh, yeah, it's a great little phone, too." Silly me. I am of the generation that expects a cell phone to be used primarily as, well, a PHONE.

But I digress. I don't use the camera part very often, although I'm using the video app more and more for filming agility runs. My nifty li'l video camera is becoming outdated and I forget to take it half the time anyway. I always have my phone with me.

Here are a few shots from a walk we took over the weekend.

Can you spot the hidden malinois?

Phoenix enlarged this groundhog hole opening quite a bit.
No groundhogs were harmed in the process.

iPhones are great for pics of dogs standing quietly in hay fields or sticking their noses in groundhog holes but not so great at capturing fast dog play. Still, it was fun to get some quick shots of the Belgians entertaining themselves last night while I was cooking supper.

Outta my face, punk! I will show you my teeth!

Okay. I will show you one tooth. Respect the tooth.

"Don't make me get up and bite you, Punk."
"Dude! Bring it!"

Really. You guys scare me.
Wish I'd had a better camera to catch this shot but oh well. 

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

The UKC weekend

For the first time in a long time, I’ve come home from an obedience trial weekend feeling like Phoenix and I are making genuine progress - not merely spinning in circles or going backward. YIPPEE!

We did three days of UKC Utility at a local trial and they were a brilliant success. We came home with one U-UD leg (and 1st place) and a clearer understanding of what is working in our training and what needs more work.

Since early September, I’ve put a much greater emphasis on play in our training - both as a reward and just playing because it’s fun to play with my dog. We’ve done much playing with tugs and balls and not quite as much playing with just the two of us (no toys). We need to work more on play between the two of us -  that’s one thing I learned over the weekend. I still use a little food but have reduced overall food use by probably 90 percent.

Since Phoenix was not used to getting much food in training any more, he didn’t expect it — or  miss it — in the ring. This was a huge step for us. Although earlier this year I’d incorporated play in training, I’d also continued to use (what was apparently an over-abundance of) food, as well. Removing most of the food allowed us to concentrate on play and true interaction, not me just being a Pez dispenser.

One might argue that I’d only substituted tugs for food but playing with my dog created more lasting energy, built more fun into the work and established more value for ME than simply popping a cookie in his mouth as a reward. And YES - it carried over into the ring. He was much brighter and happier in the ring than he’s been in months, played willingly with me between exercises and even on the third day, he was starting to initiate play before I asked for it. I really didn’t care about the Qs - this weekend was about attitude and I got it.

Several times I am sure he was looking for his tug and was slightly disappointed when it did not appear. That’s okay - at least he considers it worth looking for now. Phoenix is a wonderful dog because he has both strong food drive and strong toy drive. (I need to learn more about using his food drive in a constructive way, too, not just plugging him with cookies and calling it good.)

Phoenix went into the ring with enthusiasm, set up and gave me a hard muzzle punch when asked to touch before we started heeling and signals, which are always the first exercise in UKC Utility, no matter if it’s the A or B class.

Friday and Saturday, his heeling was lovely even though he missed a sit each day. Not sure why he was missing the sits except that we honestly haven’t worked them much with someone calling commands and my footwork is probably rusty.

Signals remain our weakest skill. We got the signals on Saturday; Friday and Sunday he did not drop. I have decided, after watching him miss the drop signal more often than not throughout the year, that he is not confused or distracted or being deliberately obtuse. He is worried. I’m fairly sure he’s worried about the presence of the judge behind him.

Not sure where this came from, since he’s Mr. I Love You Here Let Me Lean On You Now Scratch My Butt to total strangers. But it’s different when he’s under command and the stranger is lurking behind him and he is not free to handle the situation as he sees fit. In any case, he’s very reluctant to lie down and that’s what has been screwing us in Utility all year.

But he gave me a beautiful drop on Saturday, the day we Q’d. Why drop that day? Dunno. Judge was the same, ring was the same. Who knows? It’s his secret and he’s not telling.

Articles are still his favorite exercise, guaranteed to get the tail up and wagging. Not being able to watch the articles being set out was not an issue.

He aced the dual glove exercises at all three trials and I was happy see all the work I’ve done on turning his gloves into “toys” paid off as his retrieves were happy and bright and much better than the AKC work he had given me previously. (You should see his “training” gloves - talk about tattered rags, hope Santa brings some new ones.)

The back-to-back drop-on-recall/straight recalls went okay, although lacked the speed I’d like to see. Admittedly, I’d probably overworked them in the days preceding the trials.

Go-outs and directed jumping were lovely without any sign of the dreaded “short go-out” which can become a side-effect of the second glove exercise if you’re not careful to keep the training balanced and maintain the long “goes” separately.

Sunday night I sat down and made a list of what we need to focus on this winter because now we are really and truly done with obedience trials until mid-February. Our list is heavy on play and informal elements of exercises and light on technical skills.

One thing I especially want to work on are our personal play skills. Phoenix is a fun dog to play with because he engages easily and is an enthusiastic tugger. The downside is that he is a physically strong dog and his play style is often rougher than is comfortable or enjoyable for me. I’d like to be able to engage him on a toy-less level that is fun for both of us and will be meaningful in the ring.

And I have no problem using food in training if I can do it in a way that builds and rewards energy, not rewards my dog for sitting there like a lump. My use of food has previously been mostly in the “lump” category.

It’s dark by the time I get home from work on most nights now, so we’ll move back into the empty upstairs bedroom for winter training at home. Not the most spacious digs but they’ll do, even though the Farmer says we are putting cracks in the dining room ceiling.

Sunday, November 4, 2012


There are times in my life when I stop and think, "This is not going to end well.”

Perching on top of the not-a-Hoosier cupboard on the back porch, leaning over the top of the upright freezer, flashlight in one hand and broom in the other, trying to sweep a leg-caught mouse in a trap out from behind the freezer before it drug the trap under the freezer was one of those moments.

Phoenix was helping.

He is my vermin dog.

If there is any kind of scurrying, slinky, ratty-tailed rodent in the vicinity, he will tell me about it. Repeatedly. Often at 3 a.m. He is a great at alerting but that is usually as far as it goes.

Even though he’s made a couple of spectacular catches – including digging a ground squirrel out of the house foundation and carrying it around the yard in his mouth until he dropped it and it escaped – he’s never killed anything he caught. Except the baby rabbit earlier this summer. And a couple of birds that probably died of fright when he literally grabbed them out of mid-air.

Fortunately, this vermin alert came at 8:30 p.m. I’d let the dogs out and when they came back on the porch, Phoenix immediately tried wedging himself into the 5 inch space between the upright freezer and the not-a-Hoosier cupboard. (It’s not a real Hoosier cupboard. It just looks like one. Actually it’s sort of falling apart but it works great for storing miscellaneous dog and gardening stuff on the porch.)

I knew there was a mousetrap set in the narrow space between cupboard and freezer and figured Phoenix was telling me there was a mouse in the trap, so I hauled him out. 

The mousetrap was not there.

I said some bad words and grabbed flashlight. Crawling around on the porch floor revealed no mousetrap under the not-a-Hoosier, no mousetrap under the front part of the freezer and the fact that I really need to vacuum both places before there is a fur-ball apocalypse.

I said some more bad words. Mousetraps do not disappear by themselves. They usually disappear when the inhabitant did not commit proper mouse suicide and ended up getting caught by the leg or tail and drug the trap off underneath some very large and impossibly heavy piece of furniture, where they promptly die and stink up the place.

If the mouse wasn’t under the not-a-Hoosier, logic held that it must be behind the freezer and I was praying mightily that it was not already under the freezer.

Nothing like a missing mousetrap to make me get religion.

I drug a chair out of the kitchen, climbed up on it, stepped onto the work shelf of the not-a-Hoosier and briefly, seriously, with total sincerity, reviewed my commitment to lose 15 pounds.

I laid over the top of the freezer and once again noted my candidacy for world’s worst housekeeper. When was the last time I dusted up here? Apparently never.

I flashed the light between the back of the freezer and the wall and bingo! There was the mouse, caught by the leg and determined to get even with humankind by dying and making a big stink.

I was swiping at the mouse with the broom and the mouse was running backward on three legs for all it was worth, dragging the trap, and Phoenix was leaping around making crazy squeaky noises. That was when about 10 different visions of how this could end flashed in front of my eyes. Most of them involved gravity coming into play and me explaining to an ER doc how I got a concussion trying to take a mouse out of a trap. (Hey, it could happen. A friend dislocated her knee by hitting her head on her van's overhead hatch. Don't laugh.)

Just as I swept the trap clear of the freezer danger zone, the mouse made one last frantic bid for freedom and pulled loose of the trap. Now I was doing an insane parody of a housewife teetering atop a piece of furniture, swinging a broom and screaming, “GIT THE MOUSE!”

With a mighty pounce and snap, Phoenix caught and killed his first mouse.

I don’t know who was more surprised – me, Phoenix or the Farmer who opened the porch door just in time to see his wife standing atop the antique kitchen cupboard or his dog, with a mouse tail hanging out of his mouth.

Yep. We have all the fun.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Do you appreciate your dog?

I’m taking an online course at Agility University. This is the first time I’ve ever taken an online course and even though I’m only taking it in an observer’s capacity, it’s still kind of exciting.

The title of the course is “Building Relationship Through Play,” and the instructor is Denise Fenzi. I went to one of Denise’s obedience seminars earlier this year (how many different ways CAN you get lost in Mundelein, Ill.?) and enjoyed it a lot. At least I shouldn’t get lost doing an online class.

How many of you have ever gone to a seminar or class that taught you how to play with your dog? Just play? Why do we spent so much time learning how to train our dogs but very little learning how to play with our dogs? I know I seriously undervalued play with Phoenix.

Sometimes people shy away from playing with their dog because they think they’ll have to tug and maybe their dog isn’t a big tugger. Or maybe THEY aren’t big tuggers. I’ve had students tell me “I really don’t care if my dog tugs because I don’t enjoy it.” Well, sometimes you can build tugging in a reluctant dog but if the handler just plain isn’t interested, what are the other options?

This class is going to cover different aspects of play, including play with toys, play with food and personal play, which I find most intriguing and have been working hard to build with Phoenix.

The class just started yesterday but I want to share something I found very enlightening in Denise’s opening comments and it applies to every possible canine sports venue and discipline out there.

In the context of video homework, Denise requested short videos of typical play sessions so she could observe  dog and handler interaction. She encouraged students to submit honest, actual sessions, no matter how good or bad the handler might perceive them to be.

Then she said, “Some people like to complain no matter how brilliant their dog is. I can’t help your dog if you cannot appreciate what your dog does well.”

Love. It.

I often hear people ringside being extremely critical of their dog’s performance. We were probably all taught as children that no one likes a bragger but the opposite is true as well. No one likes to hear someone picking and nagging at elements of a performance that were very lovely.

The fact that you can go into a competitive ring, especially at the higher levels, speaks to a certain level of prior achievement. You didn’t get there by accident and you didn’t get there by yourself. Your dog is your partner. He adores you. Refusing to acknowledge the things he does really well undermines your relationship. Don't get so focused on the weak spots that you can no longer recognize what is truly good.

Try watching video of your run through a stranger’s eyes. Pretend you’ve never watched a dog show before. What makes you smile? What makes you say “Wow, look at that!” Are there moments that make you think, “OMG, that is freaking amazing!”

Of course there are. Remember them when other things don’t go so well. You can’t improve the weak spots if you don’t truly appreciate the energy and effort and skill your dog is giving you in other areas. Don't sell your dog short. Being hyper critical of every foot-fall is not necessarily going to help you get better.

Everyone has different criteria for their performance as a team. Wanting to constantly improve is a worthwhile goal. But don’t neglect to appreciate your dog in the process.

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Odds and ends

Feels like I haven’t blogged since forever.

There’s either nothing happening, so I don’t have anything to write about, or there’s too  much happening and no time to write about it. I think it’s mostly the latter.

Worked with a great bunch of Terv folks over the weekend to put on the second annual ABTC national specialty fundraiser agility trial in Davenport, Iowa. There were about six of us on the trial committee but thanks to dozens of wonderful, generous, awesome, hard-working volunteers from area clubs, the event went smoothly. We couldn’t have done it without them and very much appreciate their help.

Hit a deer on the way to the trial Saturday morning but no damage to R2. Fortunately (for me) someone else hit the deer first and it had checked out on the fast lane of I-80. My friend Marsha who was driving ahead of me missed the first large pile of body parts. I did, too, more or less, but when Marsha swerved to miss the rest of the deer, her van's tires kicked up a spray of semi-liquified critter in the best Hollywood gore style. While trying to avoid the oncoming splatter, I managed to whack the remaining remains on the road. As a friend of mine says, it wasn’t purty.

I went to the car wash at the first chance but my options were limited to Basic, Deluxe, Premium and The Works. They did not have a Remove Deer Splatter option. I should have gone for The Works since Basic was not up to the task. I finally took a bucket of water and a towel out to the garage the other night and scrubbed most of it off. Phoenix helped.


This is the time of year I realize that I’ve got about 6 weeks to take pictures of the dogs for a Christmas card, get the card designed, ordered, printed, addressed and mailed out in a timely fashion, so as not to offend the Holiday Police and be sending Christmas cards some time in February of 2013.

Every year, I swear I’m going to take that picture on a pleasant summer evening when my flowers are blooming and hummingbirds are darting around the patio. The reality is usually that I end up taking it in mid-November when it’s about 34 degrees outside and we’re fighting the light and the dogs are disgusted with the whole process.

This year, I may have lit on the perfect solution: take many, many pictures throughout the year so I have a large library to choose from, thus reducing the stress of taking The Perfect Christmas Card Picture at the last minute.

So far, so good. Now I just have to sort through about 472 shots of the Belgians. Yep. Sure made that job easier.


Phoenix and I are showing in UKC Utility for the first time this weekend. It’s a local trial, in a familiar building, very little travel expense and they serve the most fantastic lunches. It should be a good place to test our growing play skills in the ring. We’re getting better together. Training is now much more about play and much less about cookies. 

We haven't trialed for about two months and I am looking forward to seeing what has improved. Phoenix continues to be a wonderfully fun dog to train.


Jamie and Phoenix were playing “Who’s the big dog?” last night. They were standing shoulder to shoulder, taking turns putting their head over the other’s withers and posturing, tails wagging madly and ears pinned back in Belgian delight. This went on for quite a while. I have no idea who won.

Thursday, October 25, 2012


Our freaky weather continues. Thanks to a fluke of the jet stream, we had near record high temps yesterday, with the mercury soaring to 80 degrees (keep in mind we’re just one week out from Halloween, which frequently comes with snow flurries along with trick-or-treaters in these parts.)

Last night the low was a warm and humid 65. Unreal. We slept with the windows open. Tonight’s low is forecast to be in the upper 20s, which is relatively normal, and the weekend looks happily cold and blustery.

It’s not a minute too soon. I am not a fan of hot weather. This summer’s blistering record-temps were nearly the end of me.

Color me ready for flannel sheets, hot cocoa, long underwear (c’mon, it’s silk, not a red flannel union suit), frosty mornings and crisp afternoon walks. I want to wear my winter coat and my cool new  Iowa State University stocking cap.

At the risk of tempting fate, I love fall and I love that winter is coming. Bring it!

There. I said it out loud. I love fall and winter. Yes. I know the daylight hours are dwindling and training outdoors will soon be unrealistic and the roads will get crappy and I’ll need gallons of lotion to battle dry skin and I’ll eventually catch some weird mutated cold virus that will lay me low for a few weeks. I’ll have to drag all my jumps and ring gates inside, wage war against frozen pipes in the basement and swear creatively when the garage door freezes shut.

Don’t care.

The real reason I am such a fan of late autumn and winter is that I finally get to STAY HOME. This year has been a dazzling whirlwind of obedience and agility trials, a trip to Malinois nationals and a ridiculous number of wonderful seminars. It felt like I spent more time loading and unloading R2 for another road trip than anything else. During the week, there were classes to take and teach, plus matches and lessons on my “free” weekends. Training get-togethers with friends were wedged into any available cracks in the schedule.

I wouldn’t have missed any of it for the world but I am ready for a break. I’m ready to slow down and hibernate for a couple of months. It’s great to be busy and active and have so many fun things to do. But the last 10 months have been non-stop. I vaguely remember having a summer break from obedience trials but agility trials filled in that gap.

There was no rest for the wicked. Seriously.

Now the wicked want to rest. We want to sit in our recliners with steaming mugs of tea in our hands and dogs on our laps and read good books or watch movies. We want to come home from work in the evening and stay home - not head back out in the dark and cold and drive somewhere to teach classes. We want to have entire Saturdays and Sundays that are not committed to clubs and trials. We want to be selfish. Just for a little bit.

Dare I say we want to think about getting ready for the holidays? Shopping? Baking? Cleaning? For the last few years, I’ve made it a point to have any classes I’m teaching wrapped up by Thanksgiving. Teaching between Thanksgiving and New Years has proven to be largely a waste of time in the past - people are overwhelmed and preoccupied. Throw in a few weather cancellations and pretty soon the new year arrives and I'm still trying to finish the old year's classes. So now we're done before Turkey Day and that's that.

Now it’s time to hibernate. To finish up the year's odds and ends and relax. To clear my calendar and not feel guilty about it. To enjoy holiday stuff. With dog friends, of course. While planning for 2013. I’ve got my new organizer-calendar-planner thingie. And I’m already filling in dates. Not going to Mal or Terv nationals next year and don’t have a single seminar on the horizon.

What will I do with all that extra time?

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Kitty, kitty!

It looks like Phoenix’s wildest dreams are going to come true.

He’s going to get a kitten.

Probably two of them.

It’s not going to happen until spring, though. They will be outdoor farm kitties, albeit spayed, neutered, vaccinated farm kitties, but farm kittens in the winter are not a good idea on any level so he'll have to wait.

Believe it or not, we have no farm cats right now. We just have Winnie, my antique cat. She is 15 or 16. I’m not sure I can really call her a farm cat, although she is a cat and she lives on a farm so technically she meets the requirements. She hangs out on old fleece crate pads in the garage or lays around in the sun and waits for meals to be delivered. Phoenix likes her. She likes Phoenix. This relationship is occasionally strained because Phoenix is sure if he pokes her hard enough, she will eventually run so he can chase. I do not think Winnie has run anywhere since 2008. But hope springs eternal.

The kittens were the Farmer’s idea. Twenty-one years and the man is still full of surprises.

We have been overrun by mice in the house this fall. When you live in a century-old farm house in the middle of thousands of acres of cropland, you’ll have that. But this fall has been worse than normal.

I run a trap line in the basement at this time of the year when it starts getting cold and the mice start trying to migrate indoors. Thankfully, they rarely get beyond the basement. We hardly ever see or trap  one in the upper floors. If we did, I suspect the Farmer might gift me a cat for Christmas. Or Thanksgiving. Or Halloween. Or tomorrow morning.

Every morning after breakfast, I clean up the kitchen and the Farmer goes down to the basement to put on his chore clothes. He checks the traps and calls up the morning’s mouse count: “We got two!” “Just one today!” “Two mice and one snapped trap!”

One morning last week, he went down to the basement and called back up, “We need a cat!”

I am fairly sure he did not mean we need a cat in the house but I could be wrong. Having farm cats prowling around outdoors does have an impact on the number of mice in the house and clearly Winnie feels mouse patrol is beneath her. When we had a large outdoor cat population, the number of mice in the house was much, much lower and we saw them hauling away the occasional rat, another occupational hazard of farm life.

So in the spring I will get a couple of kittens and start what I expect to be a long process of kitten desensitization for Phoenix. He gets along with Winnie because she is slow, quiet and really doesn’t do much besides try to wash his face. I am under no illusions that this gentle acceptance will transfer to bouncing, wrestling, spitting, hissing, leaping kittens.

I foresee kittens living in the safety of a kitty condo in the garage while Phoenix eats huge volumes of treats while remaining calm in their presence and learning they are not the elusive “git ‘em now!” novelty that cats have always been for him. I am the first to admit this is going to be a tight-rope jugging act and I also admit this is something I should have done almost 6 years ago when he was a baby but I didn’t realize the extent of his cat-obsessed prey drive back then.

To tell you the truth, I think all he wants to do is chase. When we DID have lots of farm cats (long story, much illness, many one-way trips to the vet), he DID chase them. For all his chasing he did zero catching and believe me, the opportunities were there repeatedly. I am under no illusion he would not kill a kitten simply by “playing” it to death. Or that he may never be completely trustworthy around small, furry, speedy, prey animals (okay, cats aren’t really prey animals but they are small, furry and speedy and three out of four is good enough for Phoenix.)

I haven’t told Phoenix he is getting kitties yet. By the time they arrive in the spring, he’ll be six years old. I’ve noticed a big decrease in his reactivity to other dogs. He’ll never be a dog who lets strange dogs rush up into his face without showing fang and he’ll never be a canine diplomat like Jamie, but he’s definitely more tolerant than he was even a year ago. I’m hoping this increased tolerance will carry over to cats. Cuz I’m really getting tired of emptying and re-setting mousetraps.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

My favorite Rilda story

Looking back at the 15-plus years I knew my friend Rilda, there are hundreds of stories I could tell involving her. She had a wonderful sense of humor and said the most unexpected things. Just when you thought she was a quiet, polite person she’d hit you with a zinger that you never saw coming.

She was also a planner and a bit of a mother hen. She wanted everyone to be happy and safe. She was soooo worried when I went on that paranormal investigation last year. I told her she watched too many cable television ghost-hunting shows. She gave me The Look and told me to be careful. She meant it. She cared.

She used to send e-mail memos to our group of agility friends before agility trial opening dates so we could all mail our entries for opening day arrival. I damn near missed entering a local trial earlier this fall because she was in hospice care when it opened and she couldn’t remind everyone.

But my favorite Rilda story happened in late February 2007. That was when Michele and I flew to Portland, Ore., to pick up baby Phoenix. Michele’s husband, The Pharmacist, and my husband, The Farmer (hereafter known collectively as The Jeffs), stayed home.

We flew out on a Thursday. The plan was to meet Phoenix’s breeder and spend some time with her, do a little sightseeing and fly home to Iowa on Sunday. Michele had to be back to work on Monday. I remember checking the weather forecast before we left and they were predicting some kind of winter weather event for the weekend, but that was two or three days away and I was too excited about a new puppy to pay much attention.

We got to Portland just fine. Met Catherine. Met Phoenix and his littermates and his mama. Went out to dinner with Catherine and friends. Played with puppies. Catherine generously put us up at her house. We got up the next morning, full of plans for the day.

Shortly after breakfast, Oregon time, Rilda called me.

“There’s a huge storm coming in,” she said. “They’re predicting freezing rain with a half to one inch ice accumulation and 45 mile per hour winds. It’s going to hit Saturday after midnight,” she said. Then she added in her quiet, understated fashion, “You might want to think about changing  your travel plans.”

We were flying back on Sunday morning.

Midwesterners and folks in ice storm-prone regions know that freezing rain plus wind spells disaster. Even minimal ice accumulation can cause tree limbs to snap and rip down power lines as they fall. A half-inch or more of ice, combined with 45 mph wind spelled a large scale, long term train wreck. Power outages would be massive. Highways and interstates would turn into skating rinks. Businesses and schools would shut down. Airports would close.

Airports. Um. Yeah. We had flown from Cedar Rapids, Iowa, to Minneapolis, Minn., to Portland, Ore. We would be taking the same route back, which at the time of our return would be in the bulls-eye of the ice storm.

The Jeffs had not called us. Our husbands, our life-partners who should be concerned for the welfare of the women they loved who were on the other side of the country and would be flying back into a potentially dangerous situation had pretty much hung us out to dry. They made no attempt to contact us even though we both had cell phones and I’d left Catherine’s contact info with The Farmer. Michele and I figured they were following one of several trains of thought:

1) They were oblivious. (Take this at face value.)

2) They figured we were big girls and could take care of ourselves. (Or possibly that we wouldn’t listen to anything they told us anyway.)

3) They were having so much fun while we were gone they did not care if/when we got back. (I think I have left The Farmer for dog-related travel so many times in our 20-plus years of marriage that he just goes into a different space/time continuum when I am gone. Wife here. Wife not here. She’ll come home eventually. Whatever. No big.)

But Rilda cared enough to call and let us know what was going on. That’s just the kind of person she was, always thinking of others. Michele and I were over a thousand miles from home and she was still concerned about us. Apparently more so than our husbands.
So much for our relaxing trip to Oregon. Michele called the airline and got our tickets changed. Catherine called her vet and we scrambled to get Phoenix’s health certificate. (There’s $50 I’ll never get back. No one at the airport even looked at it. I’m still bitter. )

We got a flight back to Minneapolis that afternoon with no trouble and spent several entertaining hours in the airport with a baby malinois. Our 9 p.m. flight to Cedar Rapids was delayed three times before we finally boarded some time between 11 pm. and midnight.

When we landed in Cedar Rapids, freezing drizzle was falling. We had to be one of the last flights to land before they closed the airport because things got real dicey real fast after that. Michele’s Jeff came to the airport to pick her up. He’d been out driving around, scouting the roads, and told me the highway I would normally take home was a very bad idea, as he’d done a complete 360 spin in his pickup. Okay, that meant the long way home for me on the interstates, adding time but hopefully safer driving conditions as the DOT had been out with the brine trucks all day long.

Phoenix and I skated into our farm lane around 2 in the morning. Ice was already glazing the fences and trees. Our power went out within a matter of hours and stayed out for the next six days. I can still hear the rifle shot sounds of ice-weighted limbs crashing down out of trees.

If Rilda hadn’t called to tell us about the storm, who knows when we would have gotten home. If we’d stuck to our original travel plan, I’m not sure if we would have been able to fly into Minneapolis on Sunday, let alone back to Cedar Rapids.

If we’d made it to Minneapolis, there was no way we could have even rented a car and driven home - it’s a five-hour drive when the weather is NICE. Now the roads were basically impassable.

We could have ended up being stuck indefinitely at Catherine’s in Oregon or stuck indefinitely at the airport in Minneapolis. Either way would have ranged from inconvenient to unpleasant.

Granted, thanks to Rilda’s heads-up call, I got home just in time to start a six-day siege in a house with no heat or running water in February, but at least I was home with The Farmer and all the dogs.

Whenever I think about that crazy whirlwind trip to Oregon and back in slightly over 24 hours, I always think of Rilda.

Friends look out for each other.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Odds and ends Wednesday

Yet another Orbee ball has been carefully un-texted.
You-know-who does this.
He is an Orbee purist.
No words shall mar his ball.

Green and red.
Color us ready for the holidays.

Jamie on a good minimal-tilt day.
He's the happiest dog.
Just plain happy.

Coming soon: my favorite Rilda story of all time (not easy, there are a LOT of Rilda stories.)

Sunday, October 14, 2012


Rilda Fish
March 16, 1950 - October 12, 2012

I miss you.
Your sense of humor.
The brownies for breakfast.
The post-trial margaritas.
Giving me crap about the Cyclones.
Giving you crap about the Hawkeyes.
Giving Jamie treats because he was chewing on your pants.
You videoing my agility runs.
And apologizing for it.
They weren't that bad.
Well, okay, sometimes they were.
Counting all the cigarettes you didn't smoke.
Playing "snap-snap" and "git yer tail" with Phoenix.
The "happy ass" story.
Camping at Saylorville and dog races in the tent.
That stupid deer you hit on the way to Ames.
Laughing at our handling mistakes.
Telling Phoenix to stay out of tunnels.
The year you bought beers for the team judges at Des Moines,
right before we went into the ring.
All the cookies you brought to trials.

Always encouraging me.
Always listening.
You were an awesome friend.
I love you.
I miss you very much.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Good night, sleep tight . . . or not

Do you know how much noise a disgruntled Tervuren can make when he’s confined to a crate at night?

This is not a rhetorical question.

Since  Jamie’s “spell” last week, I’ve started crating him at night. The reasons are threefold:

1) He is still occasionally a menace to himself and thinks he can do things that are not a very good idea. Leaping for the bed and crashing backward when he doesn’t make it fall into this category. This is not appreciated by anyone involved.

2) He has become oddly nocturnal - prowling and pacing. His constant motion and difficulty settling down at night tends to disturb the other residents of our house who are firm believers in getting their 8 hours. This nocturnal-ity (is that even a word?) has brought with it the arbitrary Belgian decision that all residents should rise and shine at 4 a.m.  We’re early risers at our house but we’re not dairy farmers. Even Phoenix doesn’t want to get up that early.

3) It’s in his own best interest. Morning routines since Phoenix’s arrival 5 1/2 years ago are as such: clock radio clicks on, Belgians leap up and greet the day with a series of chest bumps, ruff biting, growling and ricocheting off the walls and furniture while racing through the house. That was all fine and good when Jamie could keep all four feet under him. He gave as good as he got and it ensured that no one ever slept through the alarm.

While I refuse to call him frail or elderly, at age 13 it’s clear that those rough-and-tumble mornings need to be behind him. Since neither he nor Phoenix see it that way, I’m left in the role of enforcer. An ounce of prevention is worth a trip to the emergency vet.

Hence, Jamie is sleeping (or not) in a crate at night. He’s still loose in the house during the day so really, his life isn’t that awful. I gate him out of the bedroom so he’s not tempted to try flying/crashing bed leaps. He can safely get onto “his” couch, which is where he spends 98 percent of his day. And Phoenix is crated during the day so the Belgian demo derby is not taking place.

Jamie has not been crated at night since he was 2. He thinks this is one of the worse ideas I’ve ever had (other bad ideas included Halloween costumes and handing him off to a friend for veterans class group stays). I swear he deliberately tries to see how much noise he can make at night. He grumbled, panted, turned in circles, barked, dug at the bedding and lashed his tail against the crate sides. Who knew a dog could make so much noise just laying down!

So I moved him to a soft-side crate. I resurrected his old Doggonegood crate (the original classic style - how old is that!), the one with the worn out zipper that I would never trust at a trial site but is good enough for nightly incarceration. He made up for the lack of metal-induced noise by trying to scratch a nest in the canvas floor from 1 to 3 a.m.

Yep. Poster child for disgruntled. I tried explaining it to him. IF you would lie down and go to sleep. IF you would not try ill-advised nighttime acrobatics. IF you would quit with the endless prowling. IF you would please NOT stand at the side of the bed, staring and poking me from 4 a.m. until 5:30 a.m. IF you and Phoenix would try NOT killing each other every morning. THEN you could sleep loose again.

This met with one of Jamie’s very calm, very patient stares. It’s The Look he’s given me for 13 years. The one that says “Yeah whatever, Mom. Get over it.” I love that look. Silly old dog.

My next idea is an ex-pen. I’ll probably have to re-arrange the bedroom furniture first.