Tuesday, May 29, 2012

The 3 summers

Most folks agree that Memorial Day weekend marks the beginning of summer.

Meteorologically speaking, summer begins on Friday, June 1.

And don't forget the summer solstice on June 20.

So take your pick: summer is either in full bloom, won’t launch until this Friday or is still three weeks away from arriving.

I’ve got a summer to-do list that is daunting but do-able. There’s something about writing things down and posting them in a place I can see them every day that encourages me to just do it. Many of these things are not of “climb Mt. Everest” magnitude, but they’ve just been floating around in my head in that vague, yeah, I ought to get that done, sort of way.

The first item on the list is seeing the eye doctor. Two years ago I got my first pair of bifocals. That didn’t go well. The doctor assured me my eyes would “adjust.” After several weeks of not being able to see anything through either the distance vision correction part of the lens or the up-close vision correction part of the lens, I went back and informed her the alleged “adjusting” wasn’t happening and could I please have my single vision lenses back. I would just take them off for reading and up-close work.

This has been followed by two years of taking my glasses off and putting them back on about 100 times a day. You do not want to know how many time I have lost them. You do not want to know some of the places I have left them.

And now I’m at the point where my take-them-off-to-do-up-close-things plan is not working so well cuz I’m not seeing so great up close either. The only ones liking this are the dogs, because doing nails is such a pain in the butt I’m admittedly not doing it as often as I should. I’m probably headed for my second “first” pair of bifocals. Maybe they’ll actually be helpful this time.

I finally made an eye doctor’s appointment for later this week. I am resigned to the fact she’s going to give me the lecture about how your eyes change “as you age.” I know this because she’s done it before. She’s very nice but needs to eliminate that word from her vocabulary before one of her “aging” patients clocks her over the head with her purse.

But it will be good to get that checked off the list. Maybe I won’t even have to take my glasses off to do it.

Monday, May 28, 2012

Renaissance Festival

Two posts in one day! (Like that's ever going to happen again.)

Marsha, Tammy and I went to the Iowa Renaissance Festival in Amana this afternoon. The weather was good (no rain, like last year), the food was good (turkey leg, mmmm) and there's something about watching lots of people walking around in truly beautiful and sometimes very odd costumes that makes me feel perfectly NORMAL.

Here are just a few of my favorite shots. These guys had a lot of fun.

Joust Evolution was the star attraction. Pretty cool watching two fellows in armor trying to whack each other out of the saddle. Pretty sure if I was wearing all that and fell off a horse, I would not be betting back up any time soon.

Summer project

This is an odd subject to write about on a long holiday weekend, but I have started another Whole House Purge. It's one of several projects on my summer to-do list.

I did this about 5 years ago, after the Farmer and I had been living in our house for 15 years. Believe me, a lot of stuff had come in during that time and not nearly enough stuff had gone out. At that time, I wanted to buy some new clothes but there was no room for anything else in our closet. I gutted the closet and purged. That felt so good, I kept on going and did the rest of the house. It took about 6 months, working at it off and on.

This time, my aunt inspired me. She is selling her house and moving. I've gone to help her clean it out a couple of times and  . . . um . . . wow. Yeah. Inspired. She was a saver. She was raised during the Depression. Nothing got thrown out. I came home, looked at our house and thought, "I need to get a grip on all the crap in this house."

I'm not a huge saver and I hate clutter, which makes purging easier because a lot of stuff doesn't accumulate in the first place. But it's so darn easy to toss something in a drawer or closet and think, "I'd better save that. I might need it some time." Trust me, no one needs 28 magnetic photo frames. No one. Or four chain chokers. I don't even train with a choker. It's amazing, some of the stuff I've saved.

The purge 5 years ago went well. It cleared up a lot of storage space, which is at a premium at our house (back in 1919 apparently the builders had a thing against closets). Any perceived "loss" was offset by the thrill of being able to open a cupboard and find what I was looking for without the entire contents of said cupboard tumbling out on my head.

This go-around, I started with the bathroom cuz it's easy. Our bathroom is tiny. There's not a lot of storage, hence not a lot of room to save things that are not useful and practical. Then I moved to the kitchen. That was a little stickier but honestly, the rooms we live in and use daily are not bad. I should get through them in a reasonable amount of time.

It's the spare bedrooms that scare me. There are five of them, total, and they are the classic example of "Oh, let's save this! And this! And this!" Not to mention, they're the repository of a bunch of stuff from my aunt's house. Those things won't get thrown out, I want to keep them, but right now everything is piled in a jumble.

Purging is a good project for either summer or winter. If the weather is too crummy to be outdoors, take an afternoon and purge.

My self-inflicted rules for a Whole House Purge are:

1) Do one room at a time. Do not start on a new room until you have completed the previous room.

2) All cupboards, drawers, closets, shelves and pieces of free-standing furniture that provide storage space must be emptied. Everything has to come out. You are not allowed to put it all back in.

3) Sort accordingly to A) stuff to save B) stuff to throw out C) stuff to give to Goodwill B) stuff to donate to the ICDOC raffle/garage sale.

4) This is not a race. Like dog training, it will take as long as it takes.

It's also funny because I find an amazing amount of stuff that does not belong to me and needs to be returned to the friends I've borrowed it from. Ahem. Sorry. Sometimes I find funny stuff, too. During the Whole House Purge of 2007, I found a box of towels that had been wedding presents. (We were deluged with towels for our wedding.) I'm happy to say, nearly 21 years after our wedding, we have now worn out all the wedding towels.

Have a happy Memorial Day! I'm off to the Iowa Renaissance Festival this afternoon, pics to come soon.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

More is not always better

Today's post is subtitled "A Trip Down Memory Lane" or "This Explains A Lot."

I took my first obedience class in 1974. I was 9 years old, training the family beagle. It was a local 4-H dog project class and we met in an empty storefront at a local shopping mall.

The first 30 minutes of class were spent on “showmanship,” also known as “handling,” or for anyone who actually showed at AKC all-breed shows, “juniors.”

Showmanship was followed by an hour of obedience. Most of this was spent marching around the perimeter of the building, popping and releasing and chanting “good dog” like a bunch of little Gregorian monks. Using treats was unheard of and nobody ever played with their dog, with or without a toy. It was largely a bunch of kids with farm dogs and the evening was considered a success if there weren't any dog fights and no humans got bit.

When our 90  minutes of training were over, we were sent home with the instructions to “Train your dog 30 minutes a day, every day.” This was followed by dire threats of what would happen if we didn’t train our dogs and how our instructors would know who had been training and who hadn’t.

Honestly to God, this was how I learned to train 38 years ago.

Okay, I can cut our instructors some slack when it came to the “30 minutes a day” orders. They were talking to kids. Kids generally aren’t big on practicing anything. The admonition to train for 30 minutes every day was given with the desperate hope that we would, maybe, on a good week, manage 15 minutes of training three times before the next class. Or if we actually did train for 30 minutes, they knew most of it would be spent screwing around.

My parents, however, were very literal-minded people. I had been told to train 30 minutes a day and that was what I would do. Once I started showing at AKC obedience trials, they were even more adamant that I train daily. If I didn’t train, they wouldn’t write the entry fee check. I was nobody’s fool. I wanted to show so I trained. It never occurred to anyone involved that perhaps 30 minutes of training, day in, day out, would not produce optimal learning for every dog.

But I enjoyed it. Jury is out on how the dogs felt, but I remember my two 4-H dogs being relatively happy workers in spite of the jerk-and-yank methods I employed. Could they have been happier workers if I’d used kinder and gentler methods? No doubt. But this was the 1970s. The power of the cookie would not reach the Midwest for another 20 years.

Flash forward to the present. Thirty minutes a day is usually overkill for Phoenix but I have a hard time knowing when to say when. I love interacting with my dogs and it’s easy to push beyond the time frame where the dog is actively engaging with me and slip into cookie bribery in order to keep my dog from saying "Enough already" and tuning out.

Bad trainer. Bad, bad, bad.

This summer (okay, it’s not summer yet but it’s been so dang summer-like around here it feels like we’re a month into a season that hasn’t even started yet), one of my goals is to pay better attention to what Phoenix is telling me about the length of our sessions. If he wants to go on we’ll go on. If he’s starting to fade, I’ll set up something to get effort and enthusiasm, then end the session. Some days, we’ll just take the day off and not train at all.

I’ve learned that A) begging my dog to participate in training, B) bribing my dog to participate in training or C) forcing my dog to participate in training is not going to get us where I want to go. This has meant getting over the “train 30 minutes a day” mantra that was carved into my psyche at a tender young age.

I realize this is a weird problem to have. Lots of people love their dogs but struggle to find motivation to train, so over-training is never a problem for them. The up side of forming this habit 38 years ago is that training is very much a part of my daily routine. I look forward to it and I schedule time to make it happen. I just need to pay more attention to my dog and less attention to the clock.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

First cutting hay

All our sunny, dry weather has been good for hay-making. We could really use a soaking rain but the Farmer says it can just wait until he's done with first cutting hay.

This is a great field for walking the dogs once the hay is made. If there are still bales in the field, Phoenix likes to jump up on them and survey his kingdom.

The Farmer makes mostly big round bales for feeding cattle. He'll square bale a field once in a while but that's a lot more work.

After a field is baled, the individual bales are moved (either one at a time, with a front-mounted bale stabber or six at a time on a bale mover, depending on the field) into the hoop building where they're stacked three high.

Then it's off to another field, plus the waterways in row cropped fields are mowed and baled, too. More great dog-walking spots!

Thursday, May 17, 2012


I wanted to title this post “How to be an optimistic and self-motivated trainer for high-end obedience achievement when it seems like you’re the only one who cares” but it wouldn’t fit on the subject line.

Nevertheless, the question has arisen. How DOES one stay optimistic and forward-thinking while working toward obedience goals with an incredibly talented dog who has some hang-ups when you don’t have a ginormous support network of nearby personal instructors and/or an abundance of like-minded friends who can regularly offer support and feedback?

When it comes to staying the course mentally, I count myself fortunate in two respects:

A) I have always been very happy and very comfortable training by myself. Probably too happy and too comfortable. I like training by myself because I can use MY time to MY advantage for MY dog. It’s all about ME. I can train when and where I want to and focus entirely on what I think is important that day and still be home in time to watch “Criminal Minds.”

Of course, this has the obvious drawback of never getting any feedback and I always have to put out my own gloves and articles.

B) I have a small circle of friends who I routinely round up for a group training session where we help one another with our dogs. Of course we’re all going a dozen different directions with work and family demands so it’s hard to meet very often but our sessions — while erratically scheduled — are tremendously valuable, not only from a training perspective but from a motivational standpoint.

Sometimes there are four or five of us, other times, only two. We all have different goals and different issues to address. The important thing is that we are there for each other. Advice and suggestions are always given from the heart, no matter the level of training experience. I love my obedience friends!

But since 98 percent of my training is still done by myself, the thing that keeps me going is the simple enjoyment of working with my dog. I love training time with him, learning how to teach him new things, to build his confidence, to share the joy that bubbles out of him when he does something he loves and to let him share the delight I reflect back at him. Does that sound really dumb? I hope not. I love this dog. The desire to bring out the best in him is what drives me.

And I simply enjoy obedience training more than any other dog sport. I know this puts me in the minority. But! I have tons of wonderful friends who don’t show in obedience at all but sometimes there are training elements that transcend a single discipline and can be applied to obedience work as well as agility training. So I think cross-training helps, too. And it keeps me from bogging down both myself and Phoenix with obedience overload.

Plus, with Phoenix I’m paying a lot more attention to the subtleties of canine body language than ever before. I’m trying some training methods that are totally new to me. I’m finding more joy in the journey than I have with previous dogs. While it would have been awesome to fly from UD to UDX/OTCh. in a matter of months, I would have missed out on a lot of learning.

Letting go of deadlines helped, too. I used to see levels of achievement (as represented by titles: CD, CDX, UD, etc.) all neatly organized into time slots. X title would be achieved in X year, followed by X title six months later, etc. Obviously Phoenix does not see it quite the same way. Things will take as long as they take. I’ve let go of a lot of the frustration and disappointment that used to come with what I perceived to be his inability to “get it” in my pre-determined time allotment.

By the same token, I’ve quit linking the concept of fun and success to a specific ring achievement. Have we earned his UDX? No. Are we having fun training? Absolutely! We’ll keep having fun and I believe eventually it will transfer into the ring and eventually the AKC will send me a certificate validating what I already know - my dog is capable of doing some very high-end work.

But basically, I just enjoy being with my dog. We are soulmates.

Readers, how about you? What keeps you training when things get tough?

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

A few of my favorite things

Here are a few more red Solo cup pics.
Who knew that could be so much fun.

Crazy eye.
Jamie was just out of the frame to the left.
An obvious threat.

Here are the snapdragons that refuse to die.
They are annuals.
They lived through last winter.
I'm not complaining.

Love, love, love my iris.

Even when they fall over.

Monday, May 14, 2012

Yet another lightbulb moment

I’ve been to some seminars where the presenter never once mentioned playing with your dog and I’ve been to seminars where the presenter never stopped talking about playing with your dog.

Playing with your dog sounds like such a simple thing, yet I know I have seriously failed in this department and I often see students who struggle with the concept, too. It’s much easier to pop a cookie in the dog’s mouth and I have no doubt many dogs posses such a manic food drive that trying to engage them in play (either with or without a toy) seems like a “why bother?” issue. Used correctly, food can be a tremendous motivator and reward. Used incorrectly, it can turn your dog into a stupified zombie with an outrageous sense of entitlement.

Over the weekend, I had an epiphany about play. It seems I’m having epiphanies on a regular basis these days. I should probably quit my job, stay home, assume a zen-like trance and spend the day having epiphanies. So far, none of them have banished our obedience ring issues but each new idea has let me explore a different approach to our problems and with some long term work, I think we’re going to get past our ring funk. To quote Thomas Edison, “I have not failed. I have found 10,000 ways that do not work.”

Back to the weekend. At this point in the game, I know the obedience problems Phoenix and I are having go beyond the mere “He knows I don’t have cookies in the ring” mantra. I’ve been thinking a lot about how much Phoenix values me (not the cookies or toys I provide access to, just ME) and whether or not he values training time with me or views it on a materialistic level as just a quick route to yummies and toys. I suspect I am not as valuable as I'd like to be (ouch) and since the other rewards obviously aren’t available in the ring, their absence means our support structure has collapsed, leaving very little to get us through the exercises.

Well, hallelujah and pass the potatoes! I’m finally figuring this out. It's been a very long and convoluted journey.

Denise Fenzi (www.denisefenzi.com) has written a lot on her blog about how our dogs do or do not “value” us and the importance of building the dog’s desire to work with his owner without being coerced or forced to do so, because working with us is a privilege. This is something I had never thought about before. All my previous training theories were pretty much based on dogs working because A) they got a treat, or B) they avoided a correction. I never stopped to think about C) dog wants to be with me, doing this thing called obedience, because working with me is some kind of joyous nirvana.

I never thought about it because my previous dogs all apparently DID want to be with me, doing obedience. I was blessed (have I mentioned that before?!) with Jess, Connor and Jamie.

It’s not that Phoenix doesn’t want to do obedience, but it’s currently clear that doing obedience in the ring at a show is not on his top 10 list of favorite ways to spend a weekend. So I started wondering if he sees working with me as a delightful privilege or just something he does when there’s nothing else going on (that’s pretty much his ring attitude, ho-hum, guess we’ll do this cuz there’s nothing else to do) or because he knows he won’t be allowed to leave and/or quit.

I want him to value me. Just me. Not me with a toy or me with a treat bag. While I think he DOES value me, it’s clear my value is not high enough to support driven, joyful obedience ring work. Changing this isn’t going to happen over night. He’s a very physical dog and I know I can connect with him on a play level, building my value and making me “more funner.” Ironically, play is part of the problem. While I DO play with Phoenix a lot, we always play with a toy. We are sadly deficient in non-toy-play skills.

My goal for the summer (well, one of them), is to improve this. So much emphasis is given to the importance of tugging with your dog that non-toy-based play is often pushed to the back of the shelf. It’s almost like if your dog tugs, that’s the only skill you ever need. If your goal is 20 seconds in the agility ring doing a self-rewarding activity, maybe so. If your goal is a 6-minute obedience routine, maybe not. You have time in the obedience ring to do a lot of playing and my play “toy box” is pretty empty.

So, playing without a toy and building my own value go hand-in-paw.

This morning I wanted to test how strong Phoenix’s desire to work with me was. We went outdoors and I left Jamie in the house. It was 6:30 a.m. and Nix had not had his breakfast. I was carrying a toy and his breakfast in a bowl. He immediately went into squirrel mode even though there were no squirrels around. He completely tuned me out. I was holding his freaking breakfast and he was ignoring me! I didn’t call him or ask him to do anything. He kept squirrel patrolling. I went and got him and put him in the outside kennel.

I let Jamie out of the house, played with him, did a little heeling and fed him treats, all in front of Phoenix. Then put Jamie back in the house and got Phoenix out. He was much more attentive. We worked for about 2 minutes, he tuned me out to obsess about birds flying around. I put him back in the kennel and got Jamie out again.

Played with Jamie and fed him cookies. Put him back in the house, let Phoenix out and he was TOTALLY all about me. We played (tugging and playing push/shove games - which he generally does not see much point in but if he’s chomping on a tug he thinks they’re okay, goal is to build them to the point where they’re fun without the tug) and trained and he had his breakfast and we were done.

I know I could give corrections for inattention (okay, I’ve tried that, didn’t get happy results) but then it’s all MY idea and he’s only working because I’m forcing him to. I want Phoenix to make the decision to work with me. Yes, I know he loves me. He’s silly and affectionate around the house and even outside the ring at trials, but that doesn’t mean he automatically feels the same way about obedience in the ring.

Some days I truly wonder how we managed to get a UD, let alone HITs, HC, OTCh. points, etc. It’s those flashes of brillliance that keep me going. I just keep repeating Thomas Edison’s quote.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Green paws?

Phoenix loves to help me garden.
With this kind of help, who could ask for more?

Apparently the spade was just a starter suggestion.
He got the idea real quick.

Anything you can dig, I can dig better,
I can dig anything better than you . . .

This was a crazy shot.
I had a begonia clipping planted in the cup.
I planted the clipping.
Phoenix grabbed the cup.
And shook it.
And it fell apart.

Oh, Red Solo Cup . . .

. . . I'll chew you up!

Dude, you ARE a party. Of one.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Too much of a good thing

The problem with spring in eastern Iowa is that there are too many obedience trials.

Never thought I’d complain about that. I remember back in the day when area obedience enthusiasts were happy to have one trial weekend a month and that usually required a long road trip and at least one night in a motel.

Now, starting at the end of March, I can show at DeWitt, Amana, Decorah, Waterloo and Marshalltown, take a weekend off and then jump over to western Illinois to show at Rock Island. That’s 5 out of 6 weekends of “local” shows. And with the exception of one trial, the sites are generally lovely.

To make it worse, now obedience and agility trials are starting to fall on the same weekend. Oh, the conflict! One of my favorite local agility clubs is having a 3-day spring trial on the well-established weekend of one of my favorite local all-breed obedience trials. I pretty much flipped a coin to decide which venue to show in, but obedience won out. I’ve shown at this site for 20-plus years, couldn’t miss it. And they have great vendors.

The problem with this deluge of trials is that I suck at the grind of showing weekend after weekend. I entered a 4-out-of-5 weekend circuit this March and April and literally woke up one weekend morning with the vague idea that we were entered at a trial somewhere that day but I had absolutely no idea where. (The kitchen calendar cleared that right up for me.)

Add a trip to our national specialty and Phoenix and I have been running balls to the wall (figuratively) all spring. We’re showing in Rock Island this weekend, then have six weeks off before our next obedience trial in late June. But we have two agility trials and an obedience seminar in the interim.

I keep waiting for the mythical “down time” to appear. For us, it’s in July and August. There are a couple of agility venues where we’ll run but those summer months are a dead zone for obedience unless I want to pack up and travel to surrounding states. No thanks. Regardless of how things are going in the ring, Phoenix and I will both need a summer vacation. I think we do our best training when there’s no show looming on the horizon and no self-inflicted pressure to meet an imaginary achievement deadline.

I don’t know how people who show every single weekend do it. I don’t know how their dogs do it. I rarely enter more than 3 weekends in a row simply because I need a mental health weekend at home on a regular basis. One year when I was showing Jamie a lot, we did a 7-out-of-8 weekends stretch. We got through it. Somehow. I’ll never do that again.

It was definitely too much of a good thing. By week 5, I was questioning the wisdom of my decision to enter everything I could get my hands on. By week 6, I realized this was not as much fun as I thought it would be. By week 7, I just wanted it to be over and by week 8, I had a major Rhett Butler moment and frankly my dear, I didn’t give a damn what happened in the ring, I just wanted to wake up in my own bed on a Saturday morning and not have to go anywhere.

If I’m not in the game mentally (which is sometimes hard on a good day) I can’t expect my dog to perform at his best and brightest.

We’ve had a 2 week break since our last obedience trial. Phoenix and I have enjoyed some wonderful training during that 2 weeks. He’s learning some new things. We’ve gone back to the basics on a few things. I’m learning how to ask for more effort without putting too much pressure on him. We've had a great deal of genuine fun in training. Will any of this carry over into the ring this weekend? Dunno. It’s a big fat noisy all-breed show and obedience trial. Our ring time will be a test of our training. I’m looking forward to it.

Monday, May 7, 2012

Commenting on comments

You guys have left some great comments on recent posts. Thank you! I know I am not alone when it comes to working through training issues with a wonderful dog. Phoenix has taught me to appreciate the mental aspect of obedience work (for both handler and dog . . . and I mean how our brains work, not becoming mental!) much more than any of my previous dogs - they were wired differently and allowed me to focus on the technical aspects of training with pretty much casual disregard to everything else. There is nothing casual about Phoenix.

I loved all your comments and here are a couple of my favorites:

• This is one thing that confuses me about many of today’s trainers, that they automatically assume that if someone has to work thru an issue with their dog, the dog must under a lot of stress or even being abused. If that were true, the only dogs who could get titles would be . . . the ones we don’t have to spend the long hours driving home thinking about what we are going to try next. Kathy Kail

Boy, ain’t that the truth. Speed bumps in training are normal. Very few people sail through a dog’s career without hitting one or two. Darn things, they have a way of taking over one’s life, although I’m getting better at accepting them as simply the problem du jour. Although I’d love to train a dog some day and NOT find something major to screw up, chances of that happening are pretty slim and I know it. Plus, I firmly believe each dog comes into our life to teach us something. Phoenix is making up for lost time -  apparently Jess, Connor and Jamie were slackers! And besides, what else would I spend my time thinking about if it weren’t for obedience training? My mind would be a vast, empty void. No . . . wait . . .

• I do not remember there being a deadline. Tammy Taylor

I love this! Deadlines are a big deal in my job and I admit to being very deadline oriented. By X date, X must be achieved. It’s easy to put stupid amounts of pressure on myself. Plus I live in the heart of “Go from Novice to OTCh. in 12 trials” country. Seriously. Not saying ALL trainers do that but enough of them do it that I catch myself thinking, “I’ve been showing this dog for X months, why aren’t we further along?” Then I do a mental slap - NEVER compare your dog to anyone else's. I don’t care how long it takes!

• It’s funny, I started off with a correction-based training, moved toward balanced training (correct when you’re 100 percent sure dog knows) to total motivational training (stop working if dog doesn’t work, making him choose to work, engagement, etc).” Wild Dingo

Amen, sister! This has been one of the biggest things Phoenix has taught me. It’s been a huge thing for me to overcome - the mind-set that says, I taught him how to do it, and he knows how to do it, so since he’s not doing it, I must correct him and make him do it. Hmmm . . . it’s been a freakin’ obedience renaissance at our house in the last year.

And finally, this has nothing to do with dog training. Our back porch door has not closed properly for some time. This is probably due to the Belgians’ habit of opening it themselves, including once when I was fairly sure Phoenix took some of the door frame with him (no kidding, little pieces of metal went flying). Since that day they have decided they can, indeed, wait for me to open the door and no one will die in the .5 seconds it takes me to perform this highly complex feat.

Anyway, the Farmer fixed the door over the weekend. Now it doesn’t close at all. No wonder the dogs love him so much.

Saturday, May 5, 2012

Malinois crack

I discovered malinois crack today.
It looks like this.
(Cheap impulse buy while picking up dog food.)

Thus enter the crack-head.
Tongue indicates pending loss of control of faculties.

The face of a crack head.
Does he not look slightly unstable? 
Unstable but very, very happy.

It's also tervuren crack.

Thursday, May 3, 2012


Over the last year, I know people have questioned why I am continuing to pursue higher obedience titles with Phoenix when it has been — and continues to be — a roller coaster for us in the ring. No doubt some folks think “She sure is a dedicated trainer” while others think “Why doesn’t she leave that poor dog alone and just let him do something he likes?”

It’s a pretty simple answer:

A) I love obedience training

B) I’m not in a position where I can get another dog to train and show in obedience just because Phoenix “didn’t work out” 

C) I really think Phoenix enjoys his obedience work; we've just got some issues to resolve

D) I honestly believe that my dog and I can work through these training issues.

Since Phoenix is a happy, sound, healthy, stable fellow and isn’t being abused in any way in our training, I’m choosing to go forward in pursuit of both his UDX and OTCh. It’s obvious I have a lot to learn from him. I was blessed with previous dogs who brought a lot more to the obedience table than he does, so I never had to learn how to build a relationship and work with dog who didn’t offer attention/engagement naturally or at least with very little effort on my part.

Here are three possible realities for the future of our obedience career:

• We can’t overcome our training/ring issues and never complete his UDX. Game over. We continue to run agility and I have a very nice agility dog who has a UD.

• We complete his UDX but fail to achieve the performance level needed to complete his OTCh. and I retire him from obedience. Game over. We continue to run agility and I have a very nice agility dog who has a UDX.

• We complete his UDX and his OTCh. We continue to enjoy a long and happy career in obedience as well as agility.

Any of these may be our reality. I don’t know at this point and it’s not really important.

The important thing is that I truly enjoy obedience training. While I can't say I'm crazy about facing one problem after another, I very much enjoy learning about my dog and how best to communicate with him. This is a very different journey than with my previous dogs (gee, have I mentioned that before?) I realize many of our problems are of my own creation, so that disappointment and frustration is reflected back on me, never on my dog.

This actually makes it easier to work him, knowing that while some of this behavior may just be who Phoenix is, a large part of it was probably created by my own bad timing, bad judgement, bad decision making and unrealistic expectations. If I caused the problems, I can un-cause them, so to speak. I'm not looking for an "easy OTCh." or an "easy" anything. This will take as long as it takes. If things don't improve, at some point I may have to make the decision if I want to continue working and trialing him in obedience. But we're not there yet.

Phoenix is my companion. He makes me laugh. He does a lot of crazy stuff on a daily basis - he’s my sock-fetching, squirrel-chasing dog who loves to "help" me garden and pretends he’s not on the bed at night when the lights go off. I love sharing my life with him. Obedience training is part of that life. I love the sport enough to keep pushing and exploring and trying new methods. I’ve never seen myself as someone who quits just because the blue ribbons aren’t coming easily. I’ve seen too many people start with promising young dogs, hit a rough patch, and next thing you know, they’ve got a new puppy and the other dog is out to pasture. If they can support multiple dogs, financially, emotionally, physically, mentally and in terms of training, there's nothing wrong with that. It's their choice.

Keep going or stop? It's a personal decision. People who truly don't enjoy obedience work are not likely to push hard to work through problems. As long as they are happy and their dogs are happy, that's all that really matters and who cares what venues they choose? Do what makes YOU happy.

I also know there are a lot of people out there with dogs just like Phoenix - they enjoy obedience training very much and are struggling with many of the same issues. When I started blogging about our training/showing experiences, I decided to tell the bad with the good. Very few trainers go through their dog’s entire career without hitting a few bumps.

When Phoenix is 15 years old, I know I won’t care one way or another how many titles he has. But I will care when I stop and think about how we spent our journey together. I don’t want to have any regrets. Time spent with your dog is never wasted.

Thanks, everyone, for your comments.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Ya gonna eat that?

Phoenix is systematically eating my fingers.

It’s because I’m asking him to work for his meals.

We’re on day 4 and this training approach is going well but . . . ummm . . . OUCH!

The problem is his kibble. It’s little. Tiny. Dare I say miniscule? As a food to be eaten out of a bowl, it’s just fine. But as a training “treat” to be grabbed out of my hand, not so much. It’s a one-size-fits-all food, no separate varieties with big pieces for big dogs and little pieces for little dogs. (Frustratingly enough, my two favorite kibble brands are both like this - teeny tiny little pieces that are difficult to use effectively in training.)

The days he eats raw are a little more complicated in terms of delivery but much easier in terms of my fingers. He eats his ground chicken or Nature’s Variety patties off a spoon. The sound of teeth clanking on metal is a little unnerving for me but it beats the feeling of teeth sliding off my skin. Ouch.

If I’m going to keep on this training path, I’m going to have to change dog food brands. That won’t be a big deal since I brand-hop a lot anyway. In addition to reading labels I’ll now be buying his food based on how big the kibbles are.

When Phoenix and I started the work-for-your-meals plan, I got the bright idea to soften his kibble with water so it would be spoonable mush. Easy to whip out a spoon, scoop some up and deliver the reward. Everyone knows mush is more desirable than plain old dry crunchies, and it wouldn’t fall off the spoon.

I don’t know if it was more desirable or not. Putting water on this brand of kibble failed to yield mush. Even after sitting in the fridge all day, it yielded slimy solid wet kibble that defied being scooped neatly onto a spoon. It went on the spoon and off again before it ever got near his mouth. I even tried scooping it with my fingers. That worked marginally better but it made the line of demarcation between food and fingers an even grayer area.  (Also makes me question just how digestible the stuff is, but I guess a dog’s stomach acid would have more effect on it than tap water.)

On some exercises, Phoenix’s food goes onto a target. He’s sent to the target, then called to race back to me (now excited and working in drive) and perform some sort of obedience behavior (heeling, retrieve, etc.). Other times, I rev him with his cue word, ask for tricks then ask for obedience behavior, then feed, allowing him to leap up and grab the food from my hand - always rewarding while the dog is still in a drive state, no feeding while the dog is calm and stationary. (I’ve spent 5 years rewarding for calm and stationary behavior, can’t stay that’s totally responsible for some of our less-than-exciting ring performances but it’s a behavior change I’m willing to experiment with.)

To his credit, Phoenix isn’t biting me deliberately. But it’s impossible for a 55-pound moving object to hit my fingers with his open mouth without some collateral damage.

No, he doesn’t have to work for every single piece of kibble he consumes. Sometimes he’ll get a handful all at once, although that’s hard to deliver while keeping him “up.” It’s easy for kibble to go flying and if we’re outdoors, this means a seek and destroy mission in the grass. We leave no kibble behind.

I have started setting a timer for our sessions. The morning session has a definite 10 minute limit, since I have to get to work. The evening session has a lot more flexibility. The timer helps keep me on task, since I tend to want to train much longer than is realistically beneficial for my dog. If there’s food left over when the timer goes off, Phoenix gets it, either from the bowl or from my hand.

I’m working hard to incorporate meals with effort, drive and enthusiasm about obedience work. The cue word building is progressing. Oddly enough, asking him “Are you ready?” seems to elicit the strongest response. Toys are still involved and so are special treats (cheese, hot dogs, tortellini, leftovers, etc.) so he’s not restricted only to his kibble.

Food is powerful. The biggest problem I’m having with this is not feeding him for every little thing. It has to be AWESOME effort - fast, straight, engaged, brilliant and enthusiastic -  to earn the food.

The second hardest thing is keeping Jamie occupied so he’s not screaming his fool head off while I’m working Phoenix. That’s a post in itself.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Down a familiar path. Again.

After our delightfully successful return to the obedience ring in February, which netted an Open B win with a lovely score (198), tying for first place in Utility B and earning our first UDX leg and High Combined with work that was focused and happy, Phoenix and I have spiraled gradually downward. Our last few obedience trials have been marked by NQs in both classes, sloppy work and a generally crappy attitude in the ring.

So we’re back to square one. Again. This is becoming a very familiar and well-worn path. The good thing is that I know each trip brings us that much closer to never having to come back here again. I am seeing improvement but so far it’s not genuine, lasting improvement. We’re here again for a reason - my dog still has things to teach me.

It’s not a bad thing. Yes, it’s frustrating and disappointing. I thought we’d put the crappy obedience ring attitude behind us. Yet, we’ve gone from Q-ing and winning to Q-ing and placing to just Q-ing to not Q-ing and not even having any fun in the process.


And here’s the weird thing - amidst each of those recent dismal NQ-ing performances, Phoenix would suddenly snap into brilliance and do something like only lose half a point on Directed Jumping, or score perfect, happy articles. So SOMETHING was alive and well and connecting in the obedience lobe of his brain. But like faulty wiring, it switches on and off without warning.

Believe me, I’ve had more WTF moments in the last three months than in my entire life. When the Farmer asks if "his" dog was good at the show on any given day, he knows there's not going to be a simple yes or no answer.

So. As much as I’m getting really tired of re-inventing my training approach after yet another series of disappointing weekends, it’s forcing me to look outside the dog training box more than ever before. I’m starting to try some new methods that I’d been exposed to before but never felt I needed to use. I'm also not as disheartened by our "failures" as I was initially. True, they're certainly not what I want to see in the ring but they'll only be a true failure if I quit trying to find a solution.

I’ve also become more willing to re-evaluate the root of our problems, such as they are. I’ve decided the basis of our ring problems is not as connected to the use-lots of-rewards-in-training, can’t-use-rewards-in-the-ring as I’d always felt. I mean, that was the standard answer to our problems, right? How many times had I been told I was using too much food in training, needed to train without food, “correct” my dog for errors, blah, blah, blah.

Been there, tried that, didn’t work, sorry. If it works for you and your dog, I’m happy for you. But it wasn’t getting me anywhere I wanted to be. Neither Phoenix nor I were happy about training and if we can’t enjoy our training time, well, really, what’s the point?

However, I’m realizing that our training time may not have been as wonderful as I’d thought. Oh, it was happy enough, but often in a going through the motions, shoving less than excellent stuff under the rug, sort of way on both Phoenix’s AND my part. I had made the mistake of settling for the bare minimum of effort to achieve, then being disappointed when the bare minimum didn’t stand up to trial pressure. Taking that attitude into the ring was just asking for trouble. I need my dog to give me the proverbial 110% in training in order to get 99% in the ring.

Our work with building cue words is coming along. There is a learning curve involved. Phoenix is working for about 80 - 100% of his meals. (That’s 80 to 100% of each meal. Yes, he's working twice a day, very briefly in the morning, longer in the evening but trust me, no marathon sessions). I’ve frequently asked my dogs to work for part of their meals at some stage in their training but have never gone down this road before. Phoenix is very food driven and believe me, he knows when it’s a certain time of day and his food bowl has not been produced. Have I got his attention? That would be yes.

I’ve also learned how much my crazy dog values a tennis ball - to the point of bypassing a bowl of food sitting, partially uncovered on the ground NEXT to the ball. Kind of an eye opener.

The journey continues.