Monday, February 27, 2012

How to tell . . .

. . . you might not be having the best agility weekend of your life:

You get up at 3 a.m. to go potty, look out the window and it’s snowing so hard you can’t see past the fence.

You scramble frantically to leave earlier than you had planned because the state patrol road report is saying Interstate 80 is “100% snow covered.” When you get there, it is totally clear. (This tends to skew my confidence in the state patrol’s powers of observation.)

When you pull into the paved parking lot at the trial site, it is full. You have to park in “the field.”

There are 3-4 inches of heavy wet snow in “the field.”

The van ahead of you gets stuck.

The car behind you gets stuck.

You get safely into a parking spot and immediately start worrying how in the world you're going to get out.

While tugging with your dog before your first run, he snap-rolls the leash and smashes your right hand into your left hand.

You look down at your right hand and realize a finger is bleeding. Because it smashed into your wedding ring and split the skin at the base of the fingernail. The timer says “GO!”

You release your dog and he immediately takes an off-course tunnel.

While standing in line for lunch, your friend gets the last bowl of potato soup. And the last Diet Coke. (Okay, Tammy, maybe we should eat lunch BEFORE 2 p.m. next time to prevent this from happening again.)

You have your dog totally psyched and focused, ready to go, and the dog who runs ahead of you demolishes half the course.

The dog crated next to you barks constantly. While his owner sits there and ignores it.

Your dog takes 27 off-course tunnels in one run.

You experiment with creative combinations of four-letter words aimed at the barking dog next to you when its owner walks away.

You get out of the parking lot without getting stuck but there were several yeeee-haaaaaw moments and now your vehicle is coated with mud from the roof down.

Halfway through Day Two of listening to your neighbor’s dog barking non-stop, you start entertaining fantasies about borrowing your husband’s cattle prod.

You can’t decide whether to use it on the dog first or the owner.

You finally get a great handling strategy to keep your dog out of off-course tunnels and he forgets how to stick his contacts, rendering your strategy useless as he blasts past you into the 58th off-course tunnel of the weekend.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

This is why . . .

. . . I'm late for things sometimes.

I ran into a little road block on the way home from work yesterday. (Apologies for pic quality. They were shot through the windshield. Which thankfully is much cleaner than the rest of R2.)

Bad news: the cows are out.
Good news: they aren't our cows.
So I called the Farmer.
His brother-in-law is a herdsman for Amana Farms.
For once, loose cows were someone else's problem.

Option A: back up 1 mile, turn around and drive 7 miles out of the way to get home via the highway.
Option B: drive through 100+ head of cows and calves to get to home 2 miles away.

I chose Option B.
I'd drive really slow and the cows would get out of my way, right?

I wondered what my insurance agent would say if I filed a claim for having my van head-butted by a mama cow? Can't be worse than filing a claim for having an outside mirror knocked off by a raccoon falling out of the rafters.

Good news: I got through the herd w/o a scratch.
Bad news: They all started following me down the road. I was the Pied Piper of Homestead.

Cows like following motorized vehicles. Food often flies out of them. Holy crap. If I showed up at home with 100 cows that weren't ours, I was pretty sure that would be a problem.

I cleared the herd and floored R2. Poor cows. They got left in the dust. So sad.

I took a different route to work this morning.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

A funny horoscope

I'm getting caught up on reading the stack of daily Des Moines Registers that accumulate on my desk. Here's my horoscope from last Friday, the day Phoenix was being such a wonderful boy at the obedience trial:

Virgo (Aug. 23 - Sept. 22): Your poetic sign mate said it best, "Ring the bells that still can ring, Forget your perfect offering, There is a crack in everything, That's how the light gets in." Leonard Cohen

Really, really like that.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

So how'd you do it?

A couple of people asked me that after Phoenix had a very happy return to the obedience rings last weekend after the previous year was marked by repeated crash and burns.

I wish I could tell you! First of all, I’m not under any illusion that all our issues are resolved and we’ll have nothing but blue skies from here on. We still have a lot of things that need work and a lot of ways we can improve. Plus I know how easily things “break” even though you’d swear your dog knew a particular skill inside and out.

But here are the big changes I made, starting last September. Most of the changes had more to do with improving our relationship and less to do with training technical skills. This came after a summer spent trying to do just the opposite, which clearly got us nowhere good.

• I quit being the obedience Nazi. I quit getting on my dog’s case for every little imperfection and nagging him about every error. My quest for a brilliant obedience partner was creating one who saw no point in trying because he was never good enough.

• This didn’t mean letting him “get away” with things. If he made a mistake in training, yippee! We repeated the part of the exercise that was giving him trouble and I helped him be right by making it easier in some way. Once he could do it with just a little help, then I gave him a little less help and eventually, he was doing it right without any help.

• I also had to decide if the mistake was the result of A) being distracted/lazy/lack of effort/boredom B) confusion or C) fear/worry/anxiety. Just following an error with a "correction" wasn't the solution many trainers believe it is.

• Sometimes there is a cookie and sometimes there isn’t. Food is still part of our training. So are toys. But it’s not all about the food or the toys. It’s about me. And the work. And having fun with me and the work. And the work being fun. How’s that for a perfectly foggy explanation?

• Cleaned up my criteria for what gets cookies and what doesn’t. Cut back on my Pez-dispenser habits. Worked harder on play and interaction that didn’t depend on cookies.

• I accepted Phoenix for who he is. This might sound weird but I wanted so badly for him to love obedience the way Connor and Jamie loved it that I was constantly comparing him to them. He’ll never work like them. He’s already much better at several skills than either of them ever were. He’s also much worse at several skills than either of them ever were (but getting better!). Bottom line, he’ll never be exactly like them and I don’t want him to be.

• Changed my warm up to reflect what he needs to relax in a show environment vs. “polishing” him up for a perfect ring performance. If he isn’t in a good place mentally, all the last minute heeling and fronts drilling aren’t going to do a damn bit of good. At Des Moines, we did tricks and a little heeling and some tugging. Went in the ring with a happy dog. Happy things happened.

• If I don’t feel like training, we don’t train. Okay, this doesn’t happen very often but it DOES happen and before, I would have “pushed through it” and trained anyway because I felt like I had to. Any time I work with Phoenix, I have to be there for him 110 percent. Since that’s what I want back from him, it’s not fair for me to drag my tired, cranky, distracted self to the training building and expect him to be brilliant. Sometimes it’s okay to take a night off and eat popcorn in front of the TV.

• I made sure we had multiple days off during the week with no training. He doesn't need to be worked very single day.

• We play a lot when we train. Sometimes it’s as a reward for good effort (at least I think it is, I don’t really know if Phoenix sees it that way or not) and sometimes it’s just because I like to play with my dog.

• Relaxed about stuff instead of trying to “fix” everything by the next weekend or the next trial or whatever. It will take as long as it takes and that's that.

Monday, February 20, 2012

Weekend video

Here are our runs from the Cyclone Country Kennel Club trial Feb. 17. Phoenix is a work in progress but this is a 180 degree improvement from last fall.

If you turn up the volume, you can hear it was a noisy trial site (plus a funny ringside conversation at the start of our Open run). They were judging specialties in the rings nearby and the bursts of applause occasionally sync with Phoenix completing an exercise, which was kinda cool. Plus I was super happy the ones that occurred in the middle of an exercise didn't derail his brain - another indicator he was in a good place mentally and thinking about his job and not looking for excuses to shut down.

Things I really liked about these runs: happy bounces/willingness to bounce, hard nose touches, play between exercises, wagging tail and good focus on heeling, brisk responses, confident signals, NO BLOODY WALK-INS (gee, that’s a biggie, can ya tell?) and a fair level of technical accuracy.

Things that need work: MY heeling skills, speed transitions (esp. normal-slow-normal), about turns, speed on finishes (he’s gone from slow and crooked to slow and straight, at least we're moving in the right direction), accuracy of his get-in (left) finish, confidence about go-out spot (first go is a little wobbly, second one is much better), more play between exercises and speed on any and all returns/retrieves. Plus probably a dozen other things but ya can’t fix everything at once.

And there are still some obvious stress signals: yawns, lip licking and ears back. But they weren’t a constant, permanent condition like last fall and he was willing to keep working. I'm hoping they will fade as both of us gain more confidence together. I am so proud of my Skinny Little Dog.

Saturday, February 18, 2012

A day of firsts

Yesterday was the first time Phoenix and I had been back in the AKC obedience rings since last September. I was cautiously optimistic that our teamwork was in better order and that Phoenix had finally beaten some new concepts into my brain.

Our first class was Open. He was a rock star. He bounced. He pranced. He bit my sleeve between exercises. He worked his fronts. He worked his finishes. He looked at me like, "Seriously, Mom? Why did we ever get so uptight about this? It's kinda fun." I rode a wave of euphoria through the whole class.

While I'm no longer worried about Phoenix breaking his group stays, they still make me uncomfortable and I'd be doing a major happy dance if the AKC ever got rid of them. I wasn't too excited that the dog on one side of us was a dog from my club that Phoenix has an unfortunate "history" with — it was one of those surprise, dog-in-your-face incidents that didn't end well. We've done group stays next to this dog since then with no ill effects so I figured it was no big deal. The dog isn't aggressive, just makes some bad social decisions.

So I nearly had a stroke when we were leaving the ring and that dog stood up and started walking toward Phoenix. The judge was totally on the ball and quickly snagged the offender's collar while Phoenix held his sit, displaying one gleaming canine tooth. No harm, no foul and of all the incredible things that happened yesterday, I think I'm proudest of Phoenix for that simple decision to do his job. I don't think that dog had any evil intentions but when a dog breaks and starts wandering around the lineup, anything can happen.

There were several run-offs and when we went back into the ring for ribbons, winning Open was the last thing on my mind. I'd already achieved one of my goals for the day - not being an uptight stressball who telegraphed tension and worry to her dog. When the judge called our number for first, you could have knocked me over with the proverbial feather. Phoenix liked all the clapping and tried eating his ribbons.

By the time we went into Utility five hours later (yeah, it was a loooong day), all I wanted was to do keep the same "having fun with my dog" mindset that carried us through Open. Our warm up was a little heeling and a lot of silly tricks. We went into the ring with our brains in the right place.

It was tremendously rewarding to see Phoenix working and trying in Utility - something that was clearly missing from our ring skills last fall. Back then, if he ran into a problem, he just quit. Although he had a few bobbles (good lord, the handler needs to brush up on HER heeling skills), he did a nice, steady job. Not quite as confident as Open but a total 180 degree improvement over last fall.

The last exercise was articles, one of his favorite things. It was fun to see him light up when I sent him after his "sniffers." OMG, my dog was having fun! I was waiting for choirs of angels to break into the Hallelujah Chorus.

Again, when the class ended there were run-offs. This time we got called! It was a three-way run-off for first place. We came in second and I was ecstatic. (Note to self: work driving into ring gates with the public sitting on the other side. Hey training buddies, you guys get to mimic the "public." I'd better be careful what I ask for.)

When it was all said and done, Phoenix got an Open first, his first OTCh. points, his first UDX leg, had tied for first in Utility and to put the icing on the cake, got his first High Combined.

But best of all, for the first time in a long time, we had fun in the obedience ring together.

Video soon. Promise. Spent the day with my mom and my aunt. Spent the evening with the Farmer, birthday supper and losing money at a local casino. Now am going to spend time with my pillow.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

A day in the life

I stole this idea from stuff I'm seeing on Facebook, which is pretty darn funny. Welcome to my world.

What I went to college for
What my mother thinks I do

What my mother is worried I will do

What my husband thinks I do

What I'd really like to do

What I try really hard not to do

What customers think I do

What deadlines make me do

What I think I do

What I really do

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Open and Utility, here we come!

Phoenix and I are 48 hours out from our first AKC obedience trial in five months. Given that we spent a good part of 2011 spiraling down in flames where obedience was concerned, I’ve got a lot running through my head.

Everything we experienced last year happened for a reason. It’s not like anyone is ever going to stop and explain WHY it happened, it was just part of our journey. Apparently the Supreme Dog Trainer In The Sky felt these were things I needed to know. He was right. I learned a lot last year - about dog training in general (nothing is carved in stone, NOTHING), about my dog in particular (physically hard as steel, mentally a marshmallow), about myself (change is possible!) and what I really want from the sport (another OTCh? A 200? More ribbons and titles? Dunno. Seriously. Still pondering).

All things being equal, I would just as soon have not experienced the level of frustration and disappointment that marked last year in obedience for us but it probably isn’t even close to what Phoenix was feeling. At least I had a choice in the matter - enter? Show? Stay home? Poor guy - he had to do whatever I chose, whether he wanted to or not.

And a lot of times, I think it was “or not.”

While we rocked in the agility ring (the proverbial good time was had by all), obedience trials seemed to bring out the worst in both of us.

I’d never had a dog throw the stuff at me that Phoenix did. I’d never explored the concepts he forced me to stop and think about. Was he really stressed? Did he just want the cookies? Was he just screwing off? Or was he truly confused? To correct or not to correct? Why did my dog not WANT to do this stuff that I thought was so much fun?

I swear the first two OTChs. never caused this much soul searching! (Okay, in reality, they probably did - every dog comes with his own larger than life issues, they just pale in comparison with the current dog’s issues).

In getting ready for this Friday’s trial, I’ve made a list of what’s important to me:

1) having a happy, confident dog in the ring

2) looking for small improvements in both attitude and technical performance

3) enjoying our time in the ring together for what it is: time together with my beautiful, funny boy

4) not freaking out about what kind of score we’ll get

5) not even thinking about being scored

Those last two are going to be easy and difficult at the same time. I am very goal oriented and achievement driven. I think about scores a lot. I like to know my dog can walk into a new environment and show me he totally knows his job. But at the same time, right now I’m so totally focused on enjoying the moment that scores aren’t even on my radar.

So now we’re off to a new start in a new year. Who knows what I’ll learn this time around.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

My valentine

Caught this pic of Jamie dozing in the sun on the couch over the weekend. He's my big sweet furry red dog. Very appropriate for Valentine's Day.

Notice there is no equivalent picture of Phoenix, possibly because A) he doesn't sleep or B) when he does sleep, he's usually snuggled on my lap, which makes picture taking a little difficult.

Not that Phoenix isn't my sweet little skinny bitey bouncy bruise-y valentine, too. It's just a little different with him.

Friday, February 10, 2012

An update on . . . nothing

I haven’t been posting much lately because my life is boring.

Wait, that’s not totally accurate.

I live with a malinois who has squirrel OCD, a geriatric tervuren who acts like he’s six months old and a farmer with cabin fever. All of that in the same house is not a recipe for a calm and orderly existence.

The squirrels are a fairly new addition. Believe it or not, we didn’t have squirrels at our place until late last summer. I don’t know why. We had trees. We had birds. We’ve had raccoons, skunks, possums, coyotes, pheasants, deer and groundhogs all within shooting distance (sometimes literally) of the house.

But no squirrels until now.

Our squirrels are on crack.

While I suspect this is the nature of squirrels in general, ours seem to be on the extreme end of the spectrum. They begin each day with an acrobatics routine outside the living room window at 7 a.m. Phoenix lays in wait for them every morning. When the little rodents start flinging themselves around the tree branches, he begins flinging himself around the living room. And yodeling. Somewhere, glass has to be shattering.

The first few times he did this brought me to the living room at a dead run, sure we were being invaded by the zombies from hell.


Just a squirrel. Okay, in Phoenix’s defense there were three squirrels. And also in his defense he’s become desensitized to them to the extent that the glass-shattering yodeling only accompanies their initial appearance. Then he backs off to agitated whining and a bizarre little squeaking noise that I think is coming out of the tips of his ears.

He hasn’t caught one yet but it’s probably only a matter of time. The squirrels have not made the connection between the back door slamming and 55 pounds of carnivore hurtling their way. Or maybe they’re just not that bright. They seem to have routine “WTF?” moments before scrambling for the tree. I guess every day is a new experience if you are a squirrel.

Phoenix almost got one earlier this week. He’s got an incredible vertical leap. I was worried he was going to catch the squirrel. I was worried he was going to end up in the tree with the squirrels. I was worried I was going to have to call the Farmer and ask him to please bring the big ladder up from the machine shed so he could rescue HIS dog out of a tree.

In other departments, our weather is boring. Boring. B.O.R.I.N.G.

Not complaining. Just sayin’.

We’ve had virtually no snow this winter. It’s a nice respite after the last four years of record-setting snowfall but I keep waiting for the other shoe to fall. I hope Ma Nature doesn’t decide to start making up for lost time and try to cram four months of winter weather into March.

Jamie is fine. He carries around pieces of laundry and shoes at random, apparently just because he can.

Finally got our farm taxes done, which means I can find the top of the dining room table again. It needs dusting.

I’m actually staying home for part of this weekend. Home. Garage door closed. Not going anywhere. It will be a house cleaning, cookie baking, laundry washing, dog grooming sort of weekend.

See? Boring. Yawn.

All good things will come to an end soon enough. You oughta see the calendar for this spring.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Shopping blues

Seriously, how hard can it be to buy a winter coat in February?

Especially when retailers are clearancing out their winter stock with enthusiasm and putting up displays of swimming suits and sandals?

I have been struggling and failing with this issue for the last month and I'm no amateur shopper.

My current wear-it-every-day winter coat is a a lovely periwinkle and navy blue Land's End product with just the right amount of insulation and a quilted nylon lining so when you put your arm in the sleeve, it actually goes in and your hand comes out the other end - not gets stuck and refuses to budge while the sleeve lining develops a lasting relationship with your fleece pullover or wool sweater.

The zipper is also shot, the wrists are frayed and it's been laundered so much I'm pretty sure the insulation has simply ceased to exist in several spots.

I bought this coat five years ago. I remember that vividly because I got it right before flying to Portland to pick up baby Phoenix. Given that the Portland climate is a little milder than Iowa in February, I did not want to show up dressed like Nanook of the North, which is the category my other winter coat falls into. I'm happy to report I've not needed to wear it much this winter since we seem to be having a non-winter here in the Midwest.

This non-winter has found me wearing my non-Nanook jacket clear through January and into February and I've finally accepted the fact that it not going to last much longer. Of course, winter isn't either so maybe I should just give up this coat quest.

Land's End does not make this particular style any more or I'd just order another one. Nothing is ever that simple. I'm going to have to - horrors - change.

Well, I've spent the last month shopping, trying on, rejecting, ordering on line and sending back. Here's the problem - nearly all the coats I've tried are A) lined with fleece that is toasty warm, assuming you can actually get your arms through the sleeves or B) are tailored so snugly you can't fit anything heavier than a T-shirt under them. In the winter, I wear more than a T-shirt. A lot more. The number of layers I wear is probably why I don't need my Nanook of the North coat very often.

So I sized up. That didn't help. The difference between medium and large in women's sizes seems to be mostly in the chest area. This didn't do me any good. I needed room to accommodate heavy sweatshirts, sweaters and vests, not boobs.

I even started trying on men's jackets to get enough room to accommodate the multiple layers I wear through the winter. This solved the room-in-the-shoulders issue but created two new issues: sleeves that hung past my fingertips and annoyingly snug fits around my hips when the jacket was zipped. Not sayin' I have a big butt. Just sayin' women's butts have different curves than guys.

I've just about given up. I placed an order with LL Bean this morning. Naturally, they were having a great clearance sale. Naturally, the color I wanted was not on sale. Go figure.

If that doesn't work, I'll wear my broken-zippered, frayed-cuffs, washed-out coat with pride the rest of the winter. Which hopefully won't be very long.

Monday, February 6, 2012

The debut, Part II

In 10 days, Phoenix and I are going back into the AKC Open and Utility rings for the first time in 5 months.

I looked at the calendar this morning and had the profound thought of, "Huh. That trial is next Friday. Whattaya know."

Heck, I was just glad our entries got in. A lot of folks' didn't. Glad I mailed mine early. We may be the first freakin' dog in the ring but who cares.

Then I felt a little guilty for not having been training more. Or harder. Or serious-er. (Is that a word? It is now.)

Then I came to my senses and realized that training more and harder and serious-er had a lot to do with the total train wreck that was our UDX debut last summer. Ugh. Been there. Done that. Let's hope I learned something from it.

Yeah, we've been training. And we've been enjoying time off, too. I've been focusing on the good stuff instead of being a harpy about the stuff that's not so good. I think we've fixed a few things. I know there is more that needs fixing.

On the way to a match last weekend, I drove by a business called "Phoenix Repair." I was tempted to walk in with Nix and ask if they could fix his moving stand and fiddly feet on group stays. Probably a good thing I just drove on by.

Phoenix and I are both happier about our training time together. I've quit being OCD about everything being perfect. I've cleaned up some criteria about what gets a treat/reward and what doesn't. We're both still coming to terms with the concept of making effort. Some days, it's an effort.

Our training is more about the "doing" and the "being" than the "getting." Does that make any sense?

So we'll re-debut next Friday and see what happens. I really do love the work-in-progress aspect of obedience trialing with a dog who is still fairly green when it comes to working both rings in one day. Although it would be an incredible experience to get consistent 199 and 199.5s every time we showed, I'm not sure that would hold my interest for long.

Whatever Phoenix and I do, it will be interesting. And we'll do it together.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Happy Ground Hog Day!

I don't know if Iowa has its own official groundhog or not. But any groundhogs around our part of the state didn't stand a chance of seeing their shadow this morning. The fog was so thick I could actually watch it swirling in the flashlight beam when I went out with the dogs at 5:30. That was kinda creepy.

Today is also Imbolc. Imbolc is a Celtic festival marking the beginning of spring. That might be a little optimistic but I'm all about spring getting here ASAP. Most commonly it is celebrated on Feb. 1 or 2 in the northern hemisphere. These dates fall about halfway between the winter solstice and the spring equinox.

From now on, the sunlight hours of the day start getting markedly longer and will continue to lengthen until the summer solstice in late June, when they start getting shorter again.

Can we have spring if we really haven't had winter yet?