Friday, March 30, 2012

So much for planning

Last fall I planted a bunch of tulip bulbs. I chose early season, mid-season and late season varieties because I wanted to enjoy tulip color across several months.

You guessed it. Due our whacko warm spring weather, they're all up now. Two of the three varieties are in full bloom and the third is up with fully formed buds that are ready to open.

This variety is called Christmas Orange. It should bloom in mid-April. Or mid-March. Take your pick.

Christmas Orange close up. The colors are stunning.

This one is called Indian Summer. It is a mid-season variety and the catalog assured me it would bloom late April through May. Or in mid-March.

The final variety is called violet beauty. I'll post pics when they open. Which is supposed to be in mid-May but I'm guessing they're not going to hold out that long.

Thursday, March 29, 2012

Raiders of the lost . . . soybean field

This morning I went on my first ever archaeological expedition. The Amana Heritage Society, in conjunction with the Office of the State Archaeologist, is doing an excavation of the Patterson trading post site near South Amana. I use the word "excavation" very loosely. There was very little digging going on today, although that may change in the coming week.

The trading post pre-dates the settling of the Amana Colonies. It served the nearby (very nearby, as it turns out) Meskwaki village, population 500 to 1,200 people. This was from approximately 1843 to 1847. After the Meskwaki were relocated by the US government, the trading post fell into ruin and the land was eventually converted to cropland.

Following a "surface collection" of artifacts on the site (more on that later), metal detectors were used to check out the site, which was plotted into 10 meter by 10 meter grids. Flags marked sites of metal detector "hits" which could indicate harness buckles, barrel staves or additional metal miscellany.

Soil augering was done at sites were artifacts had been found during the surface collection and/or where metal detector hits occurred. This looked a whole lot like digging post holes to me. Soil was collected in measured depth increments (0 to 20 inches, 21 to 30 inches, etc.) and deposited in a mesh tray to be sifted. Changes in soil color and composition were noted, as they could indicate a building foundation or other man-made disturbance.

Lead shot, beads, bits of glass, brick, ash and metal were among the things found at the site. While sifting this tray, volunteers found a piece of "chinking," the stuff used to seal the logs in a log cabin. Since the trading post consisted of at least one, possibly two, log cabins, this was considered a valuable find. It looked like a piece of field trash to me, obviously there is a learning curve when it comes to recognizing stuff from 175 years ago!

Part of the morning was spent on a surface collection on the nearby area believed to be the Meskwaki village. Surface collection is just what it sounds like, you line up and walk back and forth, collecting any artifacts that are on the surface of the soil, marking each site with a flag.

Since agricultural tillage only disturbs the top 12" of soil, items buried lower eventually work their way up to the top where they are exposed on the surface. Trade beads, bits of glass, "flakes" or "chips" from arrowhead and spear-making and fire-cracked rocks (which are exactly what they sound like) were the most commonly found items. Pipe stems, pipe bowls and pieces of each were also relatively abundant. I even found a pipe stem!

Looking for tiny artifacts is a lot like mushroom hunting. Even if you know what you're looking for, there's no guarantee you'll find anything.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Choose to work

Thank you guys for confirming what I suspected: very few people truly understand drive in a dog - what it is, why you want it, how to get it, how to keep it, how to use it. A lot of people think they understand drive but mistakenly believe energy and drive are interchangeable. Many people just go “Huh?”

I tend to fall into the latter category although I’m slowly making progress to a higher state of enlightenment.

We would probably agree that all our dogs have certain drives although they manifest in different ways: drives to sniff, hunt, bite, play, chase, protect, eat, etc. It’s easy to take these for granted. It’s just our dogs being dogs. Why would we need to understand any of this for obedience work?

Because obedience is boring.

There. I said it.

There is very little that is intrinsically rewarding to the dog about obedience exercises. They are all performed at moderate speed under stringent control in a small area. Compare this to the adrenaline rush of agility, a hunt test, lure coursing, protection work, freestyle, etc. and obedience is going to pale in comparison.

Dogs do not come with an “obedience drive.” You have to create one. Tapping into a dog’s food drive or prey drive is going to be the key to get many dogs jazzed about trotting around the ring with their heads in a very unnatural position, performing one brief and precisely choreographed exercise at a time without any tangible rewards.

Amy and Graydogz asked about the “choose to work” exercises I referred to yesterday. I thought it would be so simple to refer you guys to Denise Fenzi’s blog because in the course of working her puppy Lyra she’s written several excellent posts on the topic. Then I tried to pinpoint them exactly and couldn’t. So I’ll refer you to her blog in general, There is no part of it that is not beneficial reading.

The “choose to work” theory is based on allowing the dog to make the decision to engage with the handler versus the handler using compulsion to make the dog work. The dog values his interaction with the handler and is working because he WANTS to, not because he is being MADE to. Obviously there’s more to it than just waiting around until your dog decides he’s checked off everything else on his to-do list and suddenly becomes aware that you’re standing there waiting for him.

Here’s a brief "choose to work" sequence (my apologies to Denise if I’ve misunderstood any part of this): play with your dog (tugging, chasing cookies, doing an obedience exercise that he genuinely LOVES), then release him to “go be a dog.” Initially, keep the dog on a leash but you’re giving him permission to tune you out, go sniff, look around, etc. Stand quietly and just watch him.

How long does it take for your dog to decide he’d rather do something with you than without you? Re-connecting with you may range from grabbing the toy and shoving it at you or simple eye contact so pay close attention. You want to mark that moment - acknowledge your dog and re-start the game by tugging, playing, etc.

If he hasn’t re-connected with you after 1 minute, pick up his toy, tap his butt gently and show him what he’s missing. Play. Now that you’ve got his mind, ask for obedience behaviors. Lather, rinse, repeat.

Goal is to have your dog CHOOSE to play with you instead of self-entertaining with the environment. Obviously you wouldn’t do this in a room full of squirrels with a baby dog. Control the environment to a certain degree.

I like this exercise because it keeps me from starting a training session with a dog whose mind is elsewhere. If I DID start training with a passive, distracted dog, both Phoenix and I would soon reach a state of mutual frustration and confrontation, which isn’t going to yield anything either one of us likes.

Okay, enough for today. Tomorrow I get to go on an archaeological dig! The local historical society, along with the Office of the State Archaeologist and some other folks are excavating a mid-1800s trading post site along the Iowa River here in the county and they’ve invited me along for media coverage. Cue “Raiders of the Lost Ark” theme now . . .

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Phoenix gets his driver's license

I'm still getting my brain around this notion of "drive" when working a dog. No, it's not a new concept. I understand (or at least think I do) the concept of food drive, play/prey drive, social/pack drive, etc. I understand some dogs are naturally higher in some drives than others and that some dogs who appear to have zero drives can have those drives built to useful levels through consistent training.

I understand that a high energy dog is not necessarily a high drive dog. Some people smile proudly as their insane dog ricochets off the walls, saying, "Oh, he's SUCH a high drive dog." No he's not. He's just crazy. I understand that a dog who is truly working "in drive" has a clear, focused mind. He is in the zone, so to speak. He's happy about doing his job and he's in clear communication with his owner, not simply indulging his own whims and desires.

I've had vague notions of how to apply these drives to my advantage when it came to training. Using food was a no-brainer with all my guys. Their food drive was definitely intact (and frequently my fingers weren't.)

But across the years, I've been told time and again to" reward" my dog when he was quiet, calm, submissive and — if I'd thought about it — totally and completely out of drive. Reward while the dog was sitting at heel. Reward the dog while he was sitting in front. Reward after the dog had completed the exercise. Reward the dog for every possible sedentary position I could find.

No one ever told me to reward in motion. Or if they did, it was just that - reward in motion, not necessarily in drive. Frequently, I rewarded my dog while he was simply going through the motions. This does not speak well for ring carryover.

In fact, many of my early training classes actively discouraged any shows of enthusiasm on the dog's part. Weren't we training our dogs to be obedient? Obedient dogs were calm and passive. They didn't leap about and anticipate exercises and spin in circles. They performed the required exercises and what happened before or after was of little concern.

At first, it didn't matter. My first sheltie was a bit of a nutter who spent a good deal of time leaping about. He nearly drove me to distraction. He was my first UD but I felt like a failure. Why couldn't I get this creature to heel quietly at my side? He leaped, he spun, he barked, he bubbled over with delight when we trained. He wanted to work. He couldn't wait for what we were going to do next.

While I won't claim this was "drive" in its truest form, Jess did love doing obedience with me and he was focused on his job. He had a ridiculously long string of Qs in Utility, which is a hard class to pass if you're not paying attention to what you're doing. I took it for granted. All dogs worked like this, right?

Connor arrived and was the sparkling combination of zeal and precision with very little effort on my part. He, too, loved to train and show. I thought I was a pretty damn smart trainer to get an OTCh.

Jamie followed. He wasn't quite as easy as the shelties but he was a wonderfully amenable dog who liked to make me happy so he did whatever I wanted. OTCh. #2 arrived but I was starting to wonder if there was some piece to this puzzle I was missing.

Phoenix crashed into my life and nothing has been the same. I easily spent the first two years rewarding him for every calm, quiet, passive state I could catch him in - which were few and far between, both during training and in daily life. Hindsight being what it is, I realize I spent a lot of time squashing him down out of drive because I thought that's what I needed to do in order to "train" my dog.

After the seminar this weekend, my eyes have seen the light, so to speak. I'm not talking about making Phoenix over-the-top crazy in the name of training. I AM talking about not starting any obedience work with a dog who is distracted or simply passive or otherwise un-engaged. I am talking about recognizing the difference between passive attention and drive. I've heeled with a dog who was paying perfectly good attention . . . from about a foot behind me. Great attention. Lousy drive.

Before the seminar I'd started doing some "choose to work" exercises when we trained, letting Phoenix engage me and tell me he was ready to work - then we could practice without confrontation and correction that comes from trying to "work" a dog who is not in drive.

The hardest part of this is re-training ME to deliver rewards while he's still in drive, not after he's settled into complacency at the end of a skill set or exercise. And asking for more effort, which theoretically builds even more drive because the dog becomes frustrated and wonders "Where's my $#@! cookie!" and works harder.

Look out.

Monday, March 26, 2012

Catching up, looking ahead

Fear not, gentle readers, I am still here. It’s been one of those weeks/weekends that has spawned a great deal to blog about and absolutely no time to do it.

Recap of the last four days:

Thursday: Got food poisoning. Trust me, this was NOT on my to-do list. List of suspects has been narrowed to salad from the deli at the local grocery store. Regretfully, spring salad has lost its allure. Actually, anything that contains mayonnaise is pretty much off the grid for me.

Developed a deep and meaningful relationship with our toilet. When not communing with said toilet, I crashed in bed and slept the day away. Both Belgians took advantage of my weakened state to sleep on the bed with me. I didn’t argue. Phoenix actually seemed genuinely concerned about me - probably worried about where his next meal was coming from.

Friday: Condition much improved. Able to attend the first day of the Bridget Carlsen seminar, held locally. Zero appetite. Water and saltines were about as daring as I got. Felt like I’d been hit by a bus - didn’t know throwing up was such an ab workout. Not one I'd recommend, either. Lived on the edge and had chicken noodle soup for supper.

Saturday/Sunday: Back in top form and able to enjoy both the seminar and the great food that went with it. Got some new ideas to explore. Without going into the minute details, Bridget’s “deal” (everyone needs a “deal”) is training your dog to work “in drive” versus just going through the technically correct motions of teaching the exercises (guilty!).

While this is not a new concept, it was new to me - at least from the perspective that while I’d been exposed to it before, I didn’t get it. Connor worked in drive through most of his career and I never recognized it - honestly, I took it for granted. Now I realize Jamie switched in and out but I didn’t show him long enough past his OTCh. for that to become an issue.

Then along came Phoenix, who has made me realize that although all the previous methods I’d used to achieve a happy working dog who earned titles and high scores were certainly not worthless, they did not address all the needs this dog brought to training.

While I don’t plan to abandon everything we’ve been doing, there are a couple of new techniques I’d like to work into our training. And since we’ve got obedience trials the next three weekends in a row I’m not about to do anything reckless (i.e., stupid) and turn everything upside down in our training.

Meanwhile, back on the farm: last Wednesday evening, before the attack of the Evil Spring Salad from Hell, I started cleaning winter trash off some flower beds and discovered that once again, my snapdragons have overwintered.

This freaks me out a little bit. I’ve had them do this in previous years, too, and it’s more than a little weird. These are annual plants that die in the fall. Or should have died. Or were supposed to die. Only they didn’t. Granted, our winter was pretty mild but we still had some days with below zero temps. This tends to kill tender vegetation. Only it didn’t.

These snaps are in a flower bed up next to the house so they are in something fancy gardeners like to call a micro-climate. I just call it the flower bed up next to the house. But trust me, it was below zero there, too. They’re not coming up from seed, either, it’s new growth off the mother plant that I didn't get around to pulling out last fall.

I love my snapdragons.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Testing 1,2,3

This is a test post from my iPhone.

Because I really don't have anything better to do.

Okay. I do. But this is way more fun than laundry.

The big dance gets started

Beginning this weekend, Phoenix has a very full dance card.

This weekend we are auditing the Bridget Carlson seminar at 4RK9s in Cedar Rapids. I opted not to take a working spot for several reasons. First, I had a working spot when Bridget was here a couple of years (3?) ago. I got some great ideas and enjoyed it very much.

But Phoenix is not the young, green, novice baby dog he was then. He and I are starting to come together as a team. What works for us (and what doesn’t) has crystallized. Or at least become considerably less muddy. I don’t want to throw a bunch of new techniques at him when the two of us are finally starting to regain some of the trust and confidence we lost last year. Right now, I want to stick with the methods I’m comfortable with.

And trying new things is pretty much what you need to be willing to do if you take a working spot at a seminar - there’s no sense in having a working spot if you aren’t going to get out on the floor and try some different stuff. I’m certainly not against trying new things but at this stage in the game, I can learn quite a bit by sitting on my behind and watching people work their dogs - it’s a very objective perspective that is hard to get when you’re the one out there on the floor, not the one watching. A couple of friends are bringing puppies and I’m looking forward to seeing what Bridget has them doing.

I have no doubt I’ll come away with new ideas to blend into my own training approach. Plus this club always has really good food and I plan to do some quick training with Phoenix during breaks (hopefully while everyone else is rushing the food table.) This summer I’ve got a working spot at anther obedience seminar (Denise Fenzi) and am definitely looking forward to getting some input on a few things.

The weekend of March 31/April 1, we’re back in the obedience ring at DeWitt. (Is it really a good idea to go to an obedience trial on April Fool’s Day?) The show site is a complete 180 degree turn from the noisy chaos of the last time we showed, back in mid-February. It’s a two-ring event in a school gymnasium. I’ve shown there for years and it frequently has the church-hush going on. I’m curious to see what, if any, effect this has on us as a team.

My club, the Iowa City Dog Obedience Club, has its trials April 6, 7 and 8 at Amana. We’re entered two days and I’ll spend one day stewarding. I’m pretty sure Phoenix isn’t a three-day dog at this point. Heck, I’m not sure I’m a three-day handler, either.

We’ll have one day to recover from the ICDOC weekend before we hit the road for Purina Farms near St. Louis, Mo., and the ABMC national specialty: one day of travel, two days of agility, one day off (with a temperament test) and one day of obedience. We’ll drive home after the obedience judging.

When we get home, I have resisted multiple efforts to get me to enter a semi-local obedience trial the following weekend. No. No! NOOOOO! I’m pretty sure all parties involved are going to want a weekend off to decompress. Multiple weekends on the road in a row are usually not as much fun in reality as they might look on paper.

But we’ll be back in the obedience ring at Marshalltown April 28 and 29, followed by another weekend off and then more obedience at Rock Island, Ill. This latter show was a tough decision because there’s a lovely agility trial that same weekend in the opposite direction.

I remember back in the day when there was only one agility trial a month and it was usually in another state. And it was random draw so you mailed your entry and desperately hoped you’d make the draw. Now, there are dozens of agility trials within daily driving distance of our house year around AND agility and obedience trials are starting to fall on the same weekend. Oh, the conflict!

But I know my dogs have always shown best if I enter multiple weekends of the same venue vs bouncing back and forth from obedience to agility and back again. Training and showing in different disciplines is fun but it's very easy to let the coming weekend's venue dictate what you train in the preceding week and this often makes it hard to make any reasonable progress in either one.

So we're going to concentrate on obedience this spring and see where it takes us. We'll still be training for agility, too, and hopefully can address a few things without the pressure of any trials in the immediate future.

Whew. What do people who don't train and show dogs do with their time?

Thursday, March 15, 2012

High drama

I gave Jamie a bath yesterday. All parties involved lived to tell about it but bath time is high drama at our house.

Jamie is a certifiable drama king. For him, a normal reaction to something he finds disagreeable is to pitch an over-the-top fit. He is getting progressively worse as he gets older. The only good thing about his nearly 100 percent hearing loss is that I managed to get out the shampoo, the towels and the dog dryer, plus haul the grooming table outside onto the sunny and warm patio before he figured out what was going on.

Jamie: Bath?! I don’t need no stinkin’ bath.

Me: Um, yes, you do. You’ve got a stink goin’ on.

Jamie: I’ll keep my stink, if it’s all the same to you.

Me: It’s not. C’mon, let’s get in the tub.

Jamie: Nooooooo!

Farmer: What are you doing to that dog?

Me: Nothing. Yet.

Jamie (bolting for living room): Nooooooo!

Me (following): Don’t make me drag you into the tub.

Jamie (curled up on the couch): I am not here. You do not see me. These are not the droids you want.

Me: Jedi mind tricks? Really? What else ya got?

Jamie: Let me show you my teeth. See? Big teeth. Grrr. Are you scared?

Me: No. C’mon.

Jamie: Sh*t. That never works.

Phoenix: Whatcha doin’? Can I play, too?

Jamie: Why don’t you give HIM a bath instead? He stinks worse than me.

Phoenix: Do not!

Me: He’ll get a bath later. But your turn is now.

Jamie: Nooooooo!

Farmer: I’m getting a headache.

Jamie (being marched to the bathroom): I will go to the gallows with dignity. I regret that I have but one life to give.

Me: Get in the tub, big dog.

Phoenix: Wheee!!! I’m in the tub! I’m in the tub!

Me (rolling eyes): Phoenix, get out of there.

Jamie (bolting): I’m outta here!

Phoenix: You are no fun.

Me: Jamie!

Jamie: Lalalalalala, I can’t hear you.


Jamie: Sh*t. I heard that.

Phoenix: You guys are funny.

Me: Get. In. The. Tub.

Jamie: Noooooooo! Dying! Dog abuse! Help! Help!

Farmer: What are you doing to that dog?!

Me (turning on shower head): Jamie, hold still. Please. Stay. In. The. Tub.

Phoenix (launching himself over my shoulder): Running water! Cool! Awesome! SNAPSNAPSNAP!!!

Me: Dear God In Heaven! That was almost my ear! Keep your teeth in your mouth!

Phoenix: Sorry. Let me snuggle up to apologize.

Me: How did you get so wet? You’re not even in the tub!

Jamie: Better him than me. Can I get out now? Good, here I go.

Me: Nooooooo!

Good thing Phoenix’s bath this weekend will not be so traumatic. He's a water monkey and it will be hard to get him OUT of the tub.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

On the road again: a treatise on training away from "home"

Yesterday after work I loaded jumps, ring gates and both dogs into R2 and we set off to a local park for the first official “go train somewhere different” session of the spring. One of my training goals for Phoenix this spring is to train somewhere different at least once a week. By “different” I mean at a site where we do not train routinely, like my own back yard or any of the training buildings we use.

You can’t re-create a trial environment no matter where you go, but I had fallen into the trap of thinking that was what I needed in order to address some of our attention and confidence issues. In reality, we just needed (among other things) to learn how to work in new places — any new places — and especially to build his “choose to work” ethic when faced with distracting new options.

In all honesty, the addition of the Psycho Squirrel Circus in our own back yard may have eliminated much of the need to venture away from home in search of new training environs. The squirrels are a HUGE issue for Phoenix, although in a few brief outdoor sessions this spring he has done a credible job of choosing to ignore the freaky little critters and play with me instead.

But I love training in parks during warm weather, so to parks we will go. Parks, by their very nature, are one humongous distraction. Even if they appear deceptively empty, they hold a buffet line of new scents in the grass. Let’s face it, you have NO IDEA what’s been there before, plus there is the element of the “the great unknown” in terms of wildlife (especially at this park) and human and canine foot traffic. Vehicle traffic comes and goes. Kids on bikes appear and disappear. An obedience trial ring should seem sterile by comparison.

A huge element of training in new places is the importance of my dog choosing to play my games voluntarily and without compulsion. Sure, I could put a pinch collar on him and insist that he work with total attention from the second he jumped out of the van. This would lead to an endless series of corrections, resulting in a downward-spiraling training session full of stress and frustration for both parties. Plus it would totally undermine my goal of showing my dog that performing our “tricks” in new places is fun and rewarding. (Probably one of the biggest things Phoenix has taught me is the importance of/difference between a dog who works out of free will vs. one who works under compulsion.)

Lots of folks will only train within the familiar walls of their club building or back yard. They don’t like seeing their dogs “fall apart” when faced with novel distractions at new places. (The dogs then proceed to fall apart in the show ring, so that makes no sense.) I absolutely do not mind my dog making mistakes when we train in the park. I’d rather have mistakes in the park than perfection in the back yard. Mistakes mean we can stop and work on the root of the confusion or distraction.

How often have you been in the ring at a trial and thought “I wish we could stop and work through that” when your dog makes an error? You can - cuz if you train in enough new places, your dog is going to make those errors (or similar ones) and bingo - there’s the training opp you’ve been lusting after.

The sun was shining and the breeze was light yesterday as I set up jumps and ring gates. We started with articles. The breeze gusted and 40 feet of carefully arranged gates went crashing into the grass. Nix and I were on the other side of the “ring” and he didn’t seem bothered. I said some bad words, we finished articles and I set the gates up again.

Time to work go-outs. I marked Phoenix and sent him. Just as he approached the center stanchion, the breeze gusted again and the gates crashed over. Phoenix tucked his tail and bolted back to me.

Bloody hell. With three weekends of obedience entries (including malinois nationals) signed, sealed and mailed, the last thing I wanted to do was create some kind of bizarre ring gate phobia. We ran back out to the now flattened gates and did some quick “go scratch” exercises. Phoenix quickly conquered the fallen gates. One of the great things about him is that while he has a strong startle response, he usually follows it immediately by going right back to investigate what startled him. Confidence restored, he decided the ring gates were not out to get him.

I decided discretion was the better part of valor, loaded up the gates and jumps and drove to another area of the park where a building blocked any errant breezes. (How can those gates seem so dang heavy when I’m hauling them around, yet apparently are light as a feather when faced with a little breeze?) Reset everything and we managed a credible session of working go-outs without anything crashing to the ground.

Gotta go to the hardware store and get some gardening stakes to anchor my gates. The ones I had last year have disappeared into the black hole of our garage.

Happy training!

Monday, March 12, 2012

Can you hear me now?

Over the weekend, I bought an iPhone4s. This is either one of the smartest things I’ve ever done or one of the dumbest.

I am one of the least “techie” people on the planet, totally not into trying to keep up with a personal electronics scene that changes at the speed of light. You’re talking to the person who put off getting a cell phone for years and years and when I finally did get one, it was one of those pre-paid, no frills jobs.

The pre-paid no frills job served its purpose. It made and received calls. When I had to replace it five years ago (note to self: zip phone securely into jacket pocket before shaking coat to remove dog hair while standing on cement parking lot), I got another pre-paid no frills phone. This one had the dubious benefit of texting, which took forever and largely gave me a headache. When I started having problems with it, I found out that customer service was considered a “frill” to which I was not entitled.

I decided it was time for a major upgrade. I’ve wanted a smart phone since playing on a friend’s several months ago. The problem was obvious: did I want to spent big bucks on an electronic gizmo that might require a 7-year-old to show me how to use it? I really don’t need something else in my life that makes me feel like an idiot. That’s what Phoenix is for and he considers it a full-time job.

This was a scary decision. I have reached the age where change is not as easily embraced as it once was. My old flip phone was boring but at least I had it figured out. Sort of.

The guy at the phone store was very nice. He was also very patient, clearly recognizing I was not a member of the electronic whiz kid generation. That’s good, since I was old enough to be his mother. If he had been patronizing or condescending I probably would have walked out. We managed to have a coherent conversation that did not leave me feeling like I needed to hire a technogeek-to-English translator.

An hour later, I walked out with my very first iPhone. I suspect new parents bringing their first baby home from the hospital may feel the same way - very proud and happy, all the while scared to death that they do not have a freaking clue what they are doing.

I’ve been a firm believer in instruction manuals all my life. I’ve been able to install, set-up, program and troubleshoot all manner of household electronics using instruction manuals. When I asked the guy at the phone store if my new phone came with an instruction manual he did a very credible job of not laughing out loud.

No, he said, it doesn’t, but you can go to YouTube and watch tutorials.

Doesn’t anyone read anymore? Let’s not go there.

Having successfully set up our iMac at home largely without the benefit of an instruction manual a few years ago, this was not as daunting of a proposition as it might have been.

Besides, without the presence of a manual to keep me on the straight and narrow, I explored a new approach to learning things - push buttons and see what happens. This worked better than one might think. I got a new respect for click-and-treat method of training - making the phone do what I wanted was so reinforcing I couldn’t wait to try making it do something else.

I was sitting in my van in the Wal-Mart parking lot, checking my e-mail, when I had the sudden thought that I’d either joined the 21st century or possibly withdrawn from it. Was I on the path to becoming one of those blank-faced, glassy-eyed citizens of the planet who is constantly interacting with some sort of electronic device while ignoring the living, breathing creatures around her? (Not a chance. The creatures I live with are to be ignored at one's own peril.)

The phone itself was amazingly easy to figure out and let me remind you, on a technogeek scale of 1 to 10, I am probably a -5. The guy at the phone store gave me a crash course in the basics: Web browsing, e-mail, texting, Facebook, camera, video and downloading apps. I hoped I didn’t sound too dumb (this is a lost cause because if you’re worried about sounding dumb, you do) when I asked, “Um, how do I make a phone call?”

He looked at me blankly for a few seconds and then said, “Oh, yeah. It works great as a phone, too.”

Truly, I am not of his generation.

Friday, March 9, 2012

Attack of the killer cotton balls

I think my Thursday night heeling class is ready to kill me.

Last night I tossed cotton balls all over the mats and had the handlers heel their dogs around and/or through them.

You would have thought I’d tossed squeaking, bouncing bacon-wrapped tennis balls on the floor.

Even though cotton balls are A) immobile B) silent and C) odorless, nearly all the dogs were driven to distraction by them. A couple of the more advanced dogs were rock stars who navigated the hazard with nary a look, but the newer dogs were fascinated by immobile, silent, odorless things on the mats. (Now imagine REAL show mats with the scents and residue of a thousand shows ground into their surface.)

The cotton balls were a totally visual distraction. If your dog is watching you, he can’t look at cotton balls at the same time.

I did this exercise to demonstrate a couple of things. Making my students want to lurk in the parking lot and brain me with the Utility bar jump wasn’t one of them.

It’s very easy to train in a clean, quiet, controlled environment and you can build up a pretty good sense of false security about what your dog “knows.” So on one level, the cotton balls were a test for the dog: does he understand that his job is to watch his handler, no matter what’s on the floor?

On the other hand, it was a test for the trainers: what are you going to do at a training session when your dog completely derails and acts like it’s the first night of home obedience class, pulling and lunging and totally ignoring you?

Keep in mind these are young dogs who have had some but not a lot of training at this point in their careers. They need help. They need reinforcement. They need feedback.

What to do?

1) Increase the distance between you and the distraction until you find a point where your dog can function and give you the behavior (attention) you want. Then move incrementally closer.
2) Increase the amount of help you give your dog: verbal praise and encouragement and/or physical help like pointing to the dog’s heeling focal spot or having him do hand touches (again, can’t do a hand touch and look at the floor at the same time)
3) Increase the frequency of rewards.

Understand that having a dog who can do beautiful heeling for the full length of the building with zero distractions is no guarantee that the dog “knows” what he is doing. He may truly know how to heel or he may just be doing it because there aren’t any other options available.

Here’s where allowing the dog to make a choice comes into play. Do you want to get the cotton balls (intriguing but essentially unrewarding) or do you want to interact with me (always rewarding)?

It’s also a good example of how taking three steps backward in your training can actually allow you to make faster forward progress. Here’s what I mean: dragging your distracted dog across the deadly cotton ball field, giving jerks on the collar while your frustration level builds is not very productive in the end - you have allowed your dog to practice bad behavior (lagging, sniffing, ignoring you) while you pulled the proverbial rug out from under him (no verbal encouragement, no physical help, no rewards). Not a recipe for success unless your goal is to create a dog who ignores you.

The total opposite - stopping your forward motion the very second your dog tunes you out, getting him re-oriented and re-engaged, taking one step, rewarding, setting up and starting over again will produce a dog who is able to make the choice to ignore the cotton balls (or the small child sitting ringside, eating and spilling popcorn) and remain focused on his handler. I'm not talking about luring him through the pile with a cookie on his nose, I mean letting him make the decision to look at you and then rewarding it.

I frequently hear trainers saying “But he KNOWS how to do it right.” Okay, maybe, but if your dog who “knows” how to do something is making big, obvious mistakes, he DOESN’T know how to make the choice between the correct, desired behavior and doing as he pleases as the impulse strikes. This doesn't make the dog a miserable failure, it just means he needs more training, more patience, more time and more reinforcement. The first time you see your dog make a visible choice between pursuing a distraction or maintaining his job, your heart will leap with joy!

Everyone was a good sport about it last night, though, and got through the pile with varying degrees of success. No cotton balls were consumed, although not for lack of trying.

I suppose I should take treats to class next week if I’m going to make them do it again.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Clearly not Sylvia Bishop

Yesterday it was 68 degrees. SIXTY-EIGHT DEGREES on March 6. The only drawback was the screaming 30 mph wind but still, since it was 68 degrees on March 6 I took the dogs out to play ball.

There’s only so much mindless ball-throwing I can do because A) I throw like a girl and B) I once gave myself a very painful case of tendonitis using one of those Chuck-It ball launchers. (Try explaining THAT to your doctor.) So pretty soon I started looking for training things we could do between ball-chasing episodes.

I hadn’t brought out a dumbbell or gloves and didn’t have any equipment set up but figured we could work some drop on recalls and signals. I was a fair distance from the house and didn’t want to take Jamie back to put him in the yard so he was going to have to be patient and hang out while Phoenix and I worked. Yeah. Right.

If you’ve ever seen the video of amazing Brit trainer Sylvia Bishop training one of her border collies while three or four other dogs run around loose, waiting patiently for their turn . . .well . . . that has never worked for me. My dogs are not patient. They do not wait their turn. They push and shove. They are sure the dog I’m working doesn’t know anything and that they know everything. Connor repeatedly shoved Jamie out of the way and would heel between him and me if given the chance. Jamie routinely pushes Phoenix out of position. Phoenix has just started to push back but is hesitant to push the Big Dog too much.

I needed to give Jamie a job to do while I worked Phoenix. Previous attempts at putting him on a simple stay have failed miserably. He ends up in the middle of whatever Phoenix and I are doing anyway.

But that didn’t stop me from trying it again. (Isn’t the definition of insanity doing the same thing over and over but expecting different results? That would explain a lot.) Jamie sat. Jamie stayed. I recalled Phoenix and dropped him. Jamie launched out of his sit and ran straight to front. Phoenix gave me an annoyed look.

I put Jamie back in a sit. I put Phoenix in a stand and walked away. I signaled a drop. Both dogs dropped. I signaled a sit. Phoenix sat. Jamie ran straight in to front. Phoenix gave me an annoyed look.

Okay. This wasn’t working.

Inspiration struck! Jamie could guard the ball!

This sounds stupid but it’s just the sort of thing he excels at. Jamie occasionally collects all the toys in the house and lays on them so Phoenix can’t have them. He will also occasionally collect shoes or pieces of laundry and lay on them. If he were a human, I suspect he might be a hoarder.

I put him on a down/stay and put the ball between his front paws.

Me: Jamie, stay here and guard the ball.

Jamie (grabbing ball and running off): I have the ball, I have the ball, I have the ball!

Phoenix: Party on! CHASE!

Me: Guys, come back here. Nix, sit. Jamie, give me the ball.

Jamie, chomping madly: I have the ball, I have the ball, I have the ball!

Me: Yes. Obviously. Lie down with it.

Jamie: ’kay. Chomp, chomp, chomp.

Phoenix: Hey! How come I have to work for the ball but he just GETS it?

Me: Age has its privileges.

Phoenix: Screw privileges. I want the ball.

Me: Heel.

Phoenix: No, you heel. I’m going to get the ball.

Jamie: Chomp, chomp, grrrrrr, chomp, chomp.

Phoenix: Never mind. Maybe I’ll go get a cat instead.

Me: I am losing control of this training session.

Phoenix: Ya think?

We actually did get things sorted out and managed a nice series of recalls, drops, signals and heeling while Jamie took his ball guarding very seriously. There’s nothing worse than an under-employed Belgian.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Puttin' on the ritz

I love leather.

I love leather collars and leashes.

I love the way they look, the way they smell, the way they feel.

Who wouldn't love this?

This is Phoenix's new martingale collar
from Rick Gallione at Master's Pride.
It looks stunning on him.

For photographic purposes, it actually looks more stunning on the dining room table. I tried taking a picture of Phoenix wearing it but the lighting wouldn't cooperate and it all looked black.

I try not to spend too much money on leather leashes.
They all seem to end up in Phoenix's mouth and that never ends well.

But collars are safe. And a guy can never have too many collars.
This is a serious butt-kickin' obedience collar.

If things don't quite go the way they should in the ring,
well, he'll still look super hot.

Monday, March 5, 2012

Live and learn: lessons from the training building

First - my hair is truly short again and I love it. No more hair angst. Now I can get back to writing about training angst.

I trained with some friends over the weekend and we were co-miserating about the stupid mistakes we’d made with our current young dogs. As a group, we represented approximately 75 years of obedience experience with multiple OTCHs., U-OTCHs and UDXs. The dogs we are training currently are not our first day at the rodeo.

Oddly enough, our problems all seemed to stem from trying new training methods that were not only beyond our comfort zone as trainers but seemed to create more issues than they resolved. This was due in large part to our inability to be proficient in their application. (Whoa, them's a lotta five-star words in that there sentence.) It’s hard to mimic Van Gogh when you can’t figure out how to operate a paint brush.

Happily enough, no lasting damage was done by our ventures beyond the tried-and-true methods we’d become proficient with while training previous dogs, but we all admitted we wished we would have thought a little bit harder before jumping in with both feet and abandoning perfectly good methods in favor of something shiny and new. Even the most dazzling new training methods do me no good if I can’t master the theory, the timing and the physical application of them.

So what makes a relatively sane (and I use that term loosely) woman with years of training experience throw a proven method into the wind and grasp at the sparkly obedience fairy dust of something new?

Speaking for myself, it’s usually the dazzle of seeing someone else’s dog working splendidly and thinking, for whatever reason, that my own dog is so pathetic and lacking that I MUST find a new method to attain such wonders.

Hindsight being what it is, this has gotten me in a bunch of trouble with Phoenix. When I started his obedience career, I made the huge mistake of thinking, “This dog is very different from any dog I have trained before.” Okay, that thought was accurate but it wasn’t exactly the mistake. The mistake was thinking, “Therefore, I must find new ways to train him and forget using the methods that produced splendid scores, OTCHs, trips to the National Obedience Invitational and much obedience joy with previous dogs.”

What the hell was I thinking?

(Sound of head smacking wall.)


Well, live and learn. In my quest for Phoenix to be “better” than his predecessors, I’ve taken some well-intentioned but bad advice and made some poor training decisions. It’s no one’s fault but my own. I suspect it’s human nature to always think there’s a better way to do things and to happily discard one’s own methods — no matter how proven — for the glamor of the latest training theory as presented by a seminar guru or Internet Web site.

But wait! I’ve gotten some truly amazing and helpful ideas from seminar gurus and Web sites.

So how to decide what to incorporate into our training and what to take a pass on? I want to take advantage of others’ knowledge and experience but at the same time would like to think I’m not a complete idiot when it comes to teaching a dog to trot along in heel position or fetch a dumbbell, etc., etc.

Apparently the filter that allowed me to discriminate between the two got plugged up somewhere along the line. When I should have been giving Nix a little more time to grow up or being more patient as a trainer, I started abandoning methods I feared were "not working” or were “outdated” in favor of new and/or different ones just because a seminar presenter’s dog looked really good at the time and my dog was having trouble. Nothing like a little self-doubt to start things crumbling.

Anyway, it was good to realize I’m not alone in the never-ending journey for self-improvement when trying to become a better trainer. I don’t ever want to stagnate and I want to learn new ways to make learning fun for my dog, deepen our relationship AND produce excellent ring results.

I’m looking forward to a number of seminars this year and know I’ll come away with new ideas, but happily my “filter” is fixed and I won’t be so fast to throw out the proven methods I am comfortable with and can produce happy results with.

And yes, I'm ending a sentence with a preposition. It's Monday. Get over it.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Hair crisis: Part III

Tomorrow I'm getting my hair cut for the third time in six weeks. My stylist and I are at an impasse regarding the concept of "short." Yes, it's gradually getting shortER but has not yet achieved a degree of shortness that will let me go outdoors on a windy day and not be blinded by my own hair swirling around my face.

I've been assured that I have achieved "cute" with the last two styles but unfortunately, "cute" seems to equal "visually impaired" when it comes to doing more than sitting in a chair. To date, Robin has taken off about 6 inches. I think 2 more inches might do it. Hopefully tomorrow's appointment will achieve the hair nirvana I'm looking for.

How my stylist can make my hair look

How I'd like my hair to look

How my husband would like my hair to look

How I think my hair looked yesterday

How my hair may have looked in college
(Hey, it was the 80s!)

How I do NOT want my hair to look
(But she has a gun so who's gonna argue?)

How my stylist is afraid I'll ask her to make my hair look

How my hair usually looks