Friday, June 29, 2012

14 years ago today . . .

On June 29, 1998, a massive straight-line wind storm swept across Iowa. It caused millions of dollars of damage and left a huge chunk of the state without power for nearly a week. Unlike tornadoes that touch down, wreak havoc and pull back into the clouds, this storm started near Des Moines and pushed east toward the Mississippi River, covering several hundred miles. Our farm was right in its path.

This was back in the day before we had internet access on all our computers at work so no one at the newspaper office saw it coming - we weren’t watching radar (now we are ALL radar addicts) and we didn’t have weather watcher alerts on our cell phones (very few of us had cell phones to start with.)

Sustained wind speeds that day were clocked at 90 mph, including a record setting gust of 123 mph, the highest wind gust ever recorded in Iowa. I remember standing in the front office, watching in fascinated horror as trees in the park across the street snapped like toothpicks. The wind was blowing so hard, the rain was falling sideways. For much of the storm, the rain was so heavy that visibility was limited to scant yards. When the plate glass window in a nearby business blew out and awnings at other businesses were ripped off, we backed away from our own big front office windows. We couldn’t go the basement, since our building doesn’t have one. (With good reason, the water table in this town is about six inches below the surface of the ground.)

When the storm moved eastward, toward our house, I jumped in my Blazer and headed after it. Or tried to. I couldn’t get out of town. Understand it takes less than two minutes to drive from one end of Marengo the other. That day, it took me 45 minutes to navigate the maze of downed trees, powerlines and flooded streets to find a clear street out of town (that's another Marengo treat, streets that flood deeply and quickly and drain slowly). Finally in frustration I drove through someone’s yard and down the sidewalk to get past the last huge tree blocking my route to the highway. (Yes, you can do this in a small town in a weather emergency and no one calls the cops.)

On the way home, a semi tractor-trailer was flipped on its side, partially blocking the highway. A neighbor’s house was missing its roof, its upper rooms laid bare like a giant’s doll house. Another neighbor’s home was twisted on its foundation. Farm buildings were shattered and everywhere, trees were down. You don’t realize how big trees are until they fall over.

Through the static crackling on the radio, I heard reports about storm damage in nearby towns. The top level of the historic brick woolen mill in Amana had been blown off. The town hall and fire station in Oxford were nearly leveled. Both are only scant miles from our farm.

I turned off the highway and stopped. What was left of the neighbor’s barn was sitting on the road. The wind had picked it up, blown it 50 yards and dropped it square on the road. I turned around and took another route home. I was getting a little frantic. I could not see our house. I could only see the ragged tangle of trees that had been our windbreak. This was in the pre-Belgian years and my two shelties, Jess and Connor, were home by themselves.

When I finally got to our lane, I had to park at the end of it and walk up to the house. The lane was blocked with broken trees and pieces of buildings. Power lines were down. The barn was smashed, the machine sheds were gone. The tops of the silos were blown off. Storm debris was everywhere.

Our house was standing amidst the rubble of trees. A couple of windows had been shattered and there was standing water on the bedroom floor from a window that had been left open just a crack that morning. I thought we were damn lucky. The dogs were fine. Jess was storm phobic to start with and that day hadn’t helped any, but Connor seemed fairly unscathed. He started sleeping with us at night, though, a habit that lasted until his later years when he couldn’t be trusted not to go potty on the kitchen rug in the middle of the night.

We spent the rest of the summer cleaning up and rebuilding. The wreckage at all three of our farms was immense, with buildings destroyed, cattle killed, grain handling facilities mangled, fences wrecked, a windmill blown over and debris scattered into fields for miles around. I don’t know how many flat tires the Farmer got while making hay that summer and later, during harvest, from running over bits of sharp metal and nails. The roof of the neighbor’s barn (the one sitting on the road) had blown into one of our hay fields and I spent hours picking up bits of shingles and their deadly sharp nails.

The insurance adjuster spent a lot of time at our place that summer, shaking his head. The insurance company would pay for the lost livestock but they needed a head count. The Farmer, his brother and dad spent a hot and stinking July afternoon moving the rubble of the collapsed barn off the bodies of the steers that had been crushed when the hay loft fell on them. For several days the line of carcasses was laid out in a makeshift morgue in front of our house before the rendering truck came to take them away. The stench was unimaginable.

Our church, St. John’s Lutheran, sits about a quarter mile southeast of our house. The windows on the north side blew out and I found bits of stained glass windows in our yard and my flower beds during the coming months. Even though the National Weather Service said it was “only” a straight-line wind event, I always felt there had been rotation in the storm near our house because the church’s stained glass windows had been blown back into our yard in the completely opposite direction the storm was moving.

Looking back on that day, it was one hell of a mess but nobody got hurt. The buildings were rebuilt, the insurance claims were paid and I probably lost weight from picking up all those shingles. Life went on. Jesse’s storm phobia didn’t get any worse and Connor was a lovely a foot warmer for the next 10 years. It was the first major weather event that sparked my interest in storms and eventually led me to taking the National Weather Service’s storm spotter training and becoming, as the Farmer likes to point out, “certifiable.”

Severe weather events are always exciting to watch or report about but I could live a long and happy life without another day like that one.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

The summer training list

As I wrote this, I found it to be like a summer reading list, inviting and recreational, no pressure to perform or achieve, just to do and enjoy the doing. These are not things I feel I HAVE to do but rather, things I WANT to do but have let slip. Yeah, okay, I probably should have been doing some of them all along but the learning curve that is Phoenix’s obedience career simply hadn’t taken me there yet.

Phoenix has the technical skills to perform the Open and Utility exercises. Continuing to work them over and over is not going to remedy his ho-hum attitude. The word “proofing” makes me cringe because I’ve seen it used badly more often than not - it always seems to be a “let’s set the dog up to fail” scenario - but I want to challenge him on some skills and hopefully keep them fresh and interesting at the same time.

Here are a few ideas:

1) Using different scent articles. Not just a different set but entirely different objects as articles. So far I’ve collected a leather luggage tag, a small aluminum bowl, a plastic funnel, a plastic dog food scoop, a small metal Jell-O mold (thanks, Michele, now my dog can retrieve antiques!) and an enamelware cup. I’ll mix these in with his regular articles. Sometimes they’ll be scented, sometimes they’ll just be out there in the pile. Am considering trying fabric articles, as well as metal, leather and plastic. I did this with Jamie a number of years ago and he enjoyed it immensely.

2) Stays. Okay, this is the ONLY exercise I am not sure that Phoenix completely understands. So . . . what if . . . I leave him and instead of walking straight away, I turn around and walk behind him? Can he not move his feet? What if I leave him in a “sit up” (sit pretty, beg) position? Can he hold it while I walk away? How many different ways can I help him understand that “sit” means “sit still and do not wiggle, scoot, shift or re-arrange your feet”?  (Phoenix does a lovely “sit up,” so that’s not an issue.)

3) Fronts. I have totally abandoned, neglected and ignored working on fronts this spring. We need to get back to working cookie toss fronts and “front feet on a bowl” fronts. Both are exactly what they sound like.

4) Dumbbell and glove retrieves - total informality needed here. I want to incorporate more restraint when sending him (holding him back so he'll charge out on the retrieve). For all his craziness, Phoenix has never offered much resistance on restrained recall exercises but this spring I’ve started using very mild restraint and he seems to be finding it more fun to fight it and really fly out on the retrieves.

5) Heeling:  99% of this is going to be breaking my old habits and incorporating play - tossing a cookie, releasing him to it, then calling him to heel while I’m moving; hand targeting (stationary) or hand touches (moving); tag and chase; lots of fast-time (that revs him up), spins, bounces and working A LOT to the right so he constantly has to drive and make effort to remain in heel.

6) Building strong understanding of cue words/jackpotting/back-chaining exercises/delayed gratification. Okay, that’s a mess of a concept but they are all linked together: I’ve been working on building a strong cue word foundation and am  not sure Phoenix totally gets it yet but he’s willing to try. He’s shown me he’s very situational with cue words - he often doesn’t “believe” in them when we are training away from home.

7) Tied in with #6 is an overall reduction in food use. In all honestly, I’ll probably still be using about the same volume of food, only it will be delivered jackpot style instead of one cookie per behavior. Cookie breaks will be less frequent but with higher payout, with the goal of chaining multiple exercises (formal or informal, doesn't matter) together without loss of attitude before rewarding.

If my list gets any longer, we’re gonna need more summer. And given that the air temp today is supposed to be 97, with a heat index of 103, I’m not a big fan of that idea.

Monday, June 25, 2012

A good time was had by . . . all?

My last post about playing with Phoenix in the ring drew some comments, both public and private, about the potential for judges not appreciating that sort of thing. My immediate reaction is,  “Are you freaking kidding?” What kind of judge would penalize a team for having fun? It's wonderful to watch a dog and handler enjoying themselves in the course of performing the exercises.

But it’s a legitimate concern. Handling between exercises can play a huge part in the outcome of an obedience run. It’s the only time  you are allowed to praise your dog and if your dog enjoys a few seconds of play, it’s a reward that’s as valuable as any cookie or ball.

In all the years I’ve shown in AKC obedience, I’ve only seen one team get reprimanded in the ring for inappropriate play. And it was inappropriate. The dog was very large and very exuberant and borderline out of control while the handler made things worse by whooping and cheering and encouraging the dog to leap around when he released it from an exercise. After several such releases, the judge told him, rather severely, to tone it down or she would excuse him.

The fellow seemed genuinely remorseful. Apparently no one had ever told him that level of play would be considered not only inappropriate but disrespectful of teams in other rings. One would think an adult would be able to figure this out but apparently that was not the case.

However . . . a few years back, a friend got a substantial deduction for having her dog do leaping hand touches between exercises in Novice, even though the dog was quiet and under control and they were moving smoothly to set up for the next exercise. While this wasn’t my friend’s first time in the obedience ring, it was her last. Her dog got the last leg toward the title they were working on and they left obedience to compete in other venues. She asked me later, “Who wants to participate in a sport where you’re penalized for having fun?” It was the sort of unfortunate, negative experience that adds to obedience’s reputation as dull, regimented and “no fun.”

This is truly a catch-22. We’re constantly encouraged to make training fun for our dogs, yet when we go into the ring, there seems to be a great deal of pressure to conduct ourselves as if we’re attending some sort of court room proceeding. Especially at shows where obedience is sequestered in its own building, it’s often church quiet around the rings.

This makes it even harder to relax and have playful interaction with your dog because anything you do or say seems to be amplified by the hush-hush atmosphere. As a handler, I don’t want to deliberately draw attention to myself, so my own voice and body language amp down, becoming quieter and smaller. No wonder Phoenix shrinks into himself. He’s reflecting me.

So last weekend, I decided to change that. Wish I’d video’d our runs because I felt like I was exaggerating everything and being loud and wild. In truth, I probably looked and sounded pretty much like I would during an everyday training session. I’m not a loud person and am not likely to develop a booming persona simply by walking into the ring. But I can still be ME and pretend we’re training at the park or a local building, keeping my voice and body language the same.

I think play between exercises is one of those gray areas where it totally depends on the judge. As long as my dog is quiet, under control, not disturbing dogs in other rings (this is probably the biggest issue) and we are moving briskly to set up for the next exercise, I would guess 99 percent of judges don’t really care what you do. They’re busy writing on their score sheet and simply want you to get set up for the next exercise without delay.

Stop and think about what your goals are. My number one goal is to have a good time in the ring. If my dog isn’t having a good time, neither am I. Yes, I do have high performance goals but I’m not willing to sacrifice fun and a little silliness on the altar of First Place. If a judge chooses to mark me for asking my dog to leap and touch or do some spins, well, so be it. I may choose not to show to that judge again or I may choose to modify my ring presentation if I do show to him again.

Admittedly, Phoenix grabbing the leash and tugging me into the ring is NOT my preferred ring entry. When he did that on Sunday, I was so surprised that I just laughed and went with it because MY DOG WAS HAVING FUN and if it cost us 3 points or 5 points, I honestly did not care (it didn’t cost us anything, the judge didn’t even acknowledge it). I’ve worked so hard on bringing Phoenix UP, I have to be willing to pay the penalty if there is one.

Looking back, I never really played with my previous dogs in the ring. They all intrinsically enjoyed the experience so much there was no great need to work at keeping them “up.” Getting to do the next exercise did that just fine. As usual, Phoenix is teaching me something new.

Sunday, June 24, 2012

Curiouser and curiouser!

"Curiouser and curiouser!" cried Alice (she was so much surprised, that for the moment she quite forgot how to speak good English). (From "Alice's Adventures in Wonderland" by Lewis Carroll)

Phoenix frequently seems to have the same effect on me.

We showed at the Hawkeye KC trials in Iowa City this weekend. We showed in Utility only and NQ'd the signal drop both days . . . but wait, there's more!

My goal for the weekend was to play more with Phoenix in the ring and we totally achieved that. 

Saturday he gave me all-four-feet-off-the-floor leaps and hand touches on releases and between exercises. Unfortunately, that lovely "up" attitude did not carry over into execution of the actual exercises. He went through the motions but truly seemed to enjoy the leaping and carrying on when I released him. Okay. I can build on that.

Today, I did something I have never, ever, ever done with this dog. I warmed him up without any food. None. Zero. Zip. Wow. Honestly, I meant to get out some cookies but never got around to it. This turned out to be a happy accident.

We tugged on a toy and tugged on a ball on a rope and did hand touches and were just generally silly. When it was our turn, I was letting him tug his leash. The judge called our number, I rescued the leash from Phoenix's teeth (really, this is why we can't have anything nice) and headed into the ring.

This is where Phoenix frequently pulls his "Oh, woe is me, abandon all fun, ye who enter the obedience ring" act. But not today. He grabbed his leash, flipped around in front of me and backed, tugging and dragging me, into the ring. 

Holy cow, whose dog is this! I'm not sure the judge was very impressed but WHO CARES!!! It was our best ring entry in years and I just went with it. His ring play was even better today and his overall work seemed better. Set-ups were brisker and he seemed generally more tuned in and less "ho-hum." His heeling still left a lot to be desired and we failed signals because he had pretty much disengaged by the time we got to that point.

But I feel better about using play as a reward than I ever have. Before, I never felt like it was "enough." I'm getting better at play with Phoenix and he's getting better at playing with me - initially I think he was a little concerned about this bizarre new behavior his mom was exhibiting.

Could I actually train without food? I dunno! Apparently I'M the one with the cookie addiction, not my dog! Right now, I still plan use food when we train but it will be much smaller amounts and will be used in a jackpot context after back-chaining several skill sets (instead of giving treats for each little thing) and will be carefully blended with "handler play" (vs. toy play) to keep building value for interaction with me. And always, building the concept of "sustained effort gets fun and goodies." I've been very guilty of letting him develop a sense of entitlement for goodies after every little effort.  

In peeling through the layers of our ring issues, I realize now that part of Phoenix's attitude nosedive in the ring was not so much because I didn't have treats with which to lure him into performing. It was because of the concern that treats were not forthcoming when he felt he'd made a legitimate effort. Why weren't there any cookies? Was he doing something wrong? That's when doubt and subsequent confidence issues set in. Oh, there's nothing like malinois angst and worry.

Now we have two glorious months off from trialing (and only 2 agility trials in that time - YAY, weekends at home! What a concept.) I've already started The List of things I want to work before we trial again at the end of August. Most involve making the obedience exercises more challenging and fun to sweep away the boredom and/or frustration demons. This means a lot of very informal, high energy training and continuing to build play skills.

I'll address The List in a future post.

Friday, June 22, 2012

One more weekend . . .

. . . then summer vacation begins!

Phoenix and I are entered in a local obedience trial this weekend. I decided to enter him only in Utility but not Open at these trials. I don't know how much, if any, of our ring issues are tied to his total dislike of the Open stays but thought we'd try a weekend with those out of the picture. That's the best thing about Utility - you go in, you come out, you're done and you know the results. Just what an immediate gratification freak like me needs!

Over the last year, I've come to believe our ring issues - such as they are - are not tied to any particular element of obedience. They are more of an overall reflection of lack of confidence, mis-understanding and boredom, all masquerading as ring stress and tied heavily to dependence on the delivery of food to assure him he was doing a good job.

After this weekend, we don't have any obedience trials on the calendar until the end of August so we'll have two wonderful months to train - two months for me to work at incorporating more play (without toys) into our routines. Two months for me to work at becoming a more spontaneous and less predictable trainer, especially in terms of heeling, which seems to be a barometer for all our obedience work.

Yeah - I know. Working at play. Planned spontaneity. Phoenix and I seem to be one big contradiction! I am such a creature of habit that any change in those habits requires a good deal of concentration and planning on my part.

I've got some habits to break and being a fairly methodical trainer is one of them. In the two brief weeks since Denise Fenzi's seminar, where Phoenix and I addressed personal play skills, I've made an effort to break out of our old training mold. I'm getting better and as a result I'm seeing my dog loosen up and be more willing to play with ME without focusing all his energy on a toy. I'd love to see this carry over into the ring this weekend but I'm the Queen of Expecting Too Much so am not holding my breath. We'll show and I'll work hard to bring out the best in my dog.

During our training this week, I've limited the amount of food I used by the expedient of only taking X pieces of food outdoors with me. Knowing I did not have an endless supply stashed in a container made me much more conscientious about how I "spent" it. That's another goal for the summer - to work on getting true effort and excellent work before rewarding. It's so dang easy to feed without thinking when I have a pocket full of treats.

My goals for the weekend are to get more play in the ring and to watch how I put pressure on my dog in the ring - avoiding set-ups to the left and asking him instead to circle right to set up.

Then we'll dive into summer vacation for both Nix and me - definitely still training but trying a few new things and hopefully doing more training at the park and with friends. And I'm looking forward to some weekends at home after a crazy busy April, May and June.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

'Meow' is a four-letter word

Other titles for today’s post could have been “The training session from hell” or “A malinois, a kitten and an obedience trainer walk into a bar . . .”

Phoenix and I didn’t go out to train until nearly 8 p.m. last night because of the bloody heat. By then it was “only” about 85 and the howling wind had dropped to a gusty breeze. Even with high humidity, it wasn’t too bad. I didn’t plan to do much, given the heat, but had an agenda for a fast, focused session. We did some hand-touches and chase games, then I started a little heeling.

I’d taken no more than five steps when I heard “Meow?” Phoenix and I spun together (it would have been an awesome glove turn) to see four little kittens marching across the lawn toward us. They were shoulder to shoulder, tails in the air, like little soldiers mounting an assault. My first reaction was pretty much “HOLY SH*T!” for several reasons:  A) These kittens literally came out of the blue and B) Phoenix was going to eat them.

Cats in general push his buttons. All joking aside, Phoenix’s “love” for kitties is a very real problem. Small, furry, scurrying kittens escalated him over threshold in the blink of an eye. He began pouncing and snapping. The kittens, obviously offended, began leaping and spitting.

To his credit, he had plenty of opportunities to bite to kill but he didn’t. The kittens, clearly tame and friendly souls, were spinning around my feet in total panic.

I snagged Phoenix’s collar and drug him back to the house. I tossed him in the kitchen and yelled, “Don’t let him go through the window” at the Farmer and raced back outside. Looking back, that has to be one of the oddest things I’ve ever said to the Farmer but his reaction - the "Look" - leads me to believe there was nothing particularly special about it.

The kittens were happy to see me again, minus the large angry carnivore. There were three yellow and white ones and a gray one. I figured they belonged to our neighbor across the road. Their farm is Cat Central. The kittens were friendly and obviously used to being handled with no fear of humans.

I went back to the house, got my van keys, scooped up the three yellow kittens (the gray one defied being captured) and stuck them in a crate. Ironically, it was Phoenix’s crate. Then I drove them down the lane and down the road to our neighbor’s. I was trying to figure out what to say . . . um, I think these are yours? If they come over again, they might become a snack? Could you please control the 20 or so unspayed, unneutered cats and kittens running around your place?

Turned out I didn’t need to worry. They didn’t answer their door. Kinda funny, since they had called us earlier to let the Farmer know the bull was out of the pasture north of their house. It seemed to be a night for animals being out of bounds. I knocked a couple of times and waited and waited. Finally, I took the kittens out of the crate and turned them loose. They ran off to join several other kittens of similar age.

I drove home, put the van back in the garage, peeled Phoenix off the kitchen door and decided to try salvaging the remnants of our training session.

The gray kitten was still in the back yard. It had changed its mind about coming to see me. Only it wasn’t totally stupid and didn’t want to come near Phoenix. In the perverse way of cats who are going to do exactly what  you don’t want them to, it ran from one clump of bushes to another, pounced through the flowerbeds and hid behind trees. It looked like a large, slinky rat. It yowled. Phoenix was basically dysfunctional.

I spent about a minute foolishly thinking I could salvage the tatters of my training plans for the evening. It became quickly apparent this was not going to happen. I was not going to beg my dog to work. I was not going to force my dog to work. He could choose to work with me or he could choose to stare at a cat. He was back on leash at this point. Discretion was the better part of valor.

We did some basic focus work and informal recalls. By now, Phoenix was working for his supper. I wasn’t bribing him - he was working for his meal. He wanted his supper. He wanted the cat. For a little while, I was pretty sure he thought they could be one in the same, but turned out he wanted his supper more than the cat.

It was rewarding to watch him choosing to look away from the cat and look at me instead. This was not easy, he was not relaxed. He was not “getting over” the cat  being nearby. But he was willing to quit staring at the cat and stare at me instead. For him, just being able to stare at the cat was rewarding so I pleased that he was willing to give it up.

This was a pretty extreme example of conditioning the “See a distraction, look at Mom, get a reward” sequence. I am pretty sure there will NEVER be a yowling kitten sitting ringside at a trial, so like the turtles in the article pile on the cover of Diane Baumann’s book back in the 1990s, it was a little over the top. I did think briefly about abandoning the whole evening’s training but figured we didn’t have anything to lose and as far as distractions went, a kitten running amuck while we worked was pretty much the big kahuna.

Why didn’t you just go somewhere else to train, the Farmer asked later. Because it wouldn’t have mattered where else on the farm we went, Phoenix had CAT on the brain and he would be seeing them whether they were there or not. And besides, I had his entire supper at my disposal and nothing else to do with my time. It was a good opportunity for me to practice patience. That was probably as important as anything I expected my dog to take away from this session.

We finally managed a tiny bit of successful heeling/play and called it a night. There’s a fine line between legitimately addressing a problem and total overkill. When you’re in the throes of a hard training issue, it can be hard to see that line.

If the kittens return tonight, I probably will go somewhere else to train. Last night’s session was stressful for both of us (in spite of not using any force or compulsion) and I don’t want to set him up for that every time we train. Obedience training cannot be fun for either the dog or handler if it is constantly filled with conflict. Believe me, I’ve learned that first-hand!

The kitten was gone this morning. I suspect he found his way home.

Monday, June 18, 2012


Well, here it is, the teeter fly-off of the year at my club's trials over the weekend. The teeter is the third obstacle from the end, right after the weaves.

Phoenix barely tipped the board, just launched and sailed right over the end. Actually, he launched from the mid-point of the teeter and jumped half the length of the board before going totally airborne. Obviously he didn't even touch the down contact, although I believe he was hovering in yellow airspace. I honestly think he thought he was doing the dog walk and was leaping up onto the crosswalk board, only it wasn't there.

Glad you got this on video, Michele! (Turn up the volume, her comments on video-ing with my iPhone are funny, too.) I guess it was fairly spectacular for the folks sitting ring side who got an up-close view. Maybe it's true, malinois ARE made of steel belted radials and industrial springs.

Not exactly the teeter performance I'd care to have my dog repeat but no one got hurt and the following day he did a lovely job of controlling the board to the ground. I was ready to do some teeter management when we got there but he handled it all himself. Good boy.

Friday, June 15, 2012

Denise Fenzi Seminar, Part III: Odds and ends

I’d like to wrap up the highlights of the Denise Fenzi seminar and touch on a few ideas I found helpful and/or thought provoking. Since this was a problem solving seminar, my notes are all over the place, since they reflect the issues each new dog and handler team brought out on the floor. So these are pretty random. Again, any misinterpretation of her ideas and theories is my fault.

• Before you try solving a problem, make sure you know what problem you’re solving. Is it:
A) An emotional well-being and comfort problem for your dog?
B) Does your dog WANT to work for you or is he doing it only because you’re making him?
C) Motivation problems - look at your motivator - if your dog doesn’t want it, it’s not a motivator, might be time to change to better food or different toy or play style
D) Handler skills or lack thereof: these show up both at home and in the ring. Are YOU causing the problem? Example - dog chronically heels wide because handler can’t walk a straight line.
E) Does the dog understand access to his motivator is linked to work? Some trainers produce motivators at such random and haphazard times, they dilute the “behavior=motivator” equation and dog really doesn’t understand WHY he’s getting the cookie.
F) Trial preparation. Don’t confuse dog’s ring errors with mis-understanding of the skill. If he can do it at home, he knows how to do it. But he may not be motivated to be attentive and engaged at a trial, leading to errors. So this is actually a motivation problem.

• If the dog makes an error, instead of a compulsion correction, show him the cookie he’s not going to get. Uh-oh, so sad, look at this delicious cookie you missed! Put the cookie back in your pocket (or even eat it yourself!), then try again. (Seriously, there’s a reason I train with cheese tortellini!)

• “Take a break.” This exercise is from the book “Control Unleashed.” It allows the dog to make the decision to ignore distractions and to value you more than “the world.” It also allows the dog to “see the world” and make the choice without the added stress of a compulsion correction, which is good for dogs who have environmental issues. Through repetition, the dog is able to build a positive emotional reaction to distractions because distraction=look at mom=get reward. (Obviously the dog is on leash so his access to the distraction is controlled; you’re not going to turn your dog loose in a room full of cats and expect miracles.)

• Stress can be the result of taking the motivator away during training.

• When taking motivator off your body, increase reward schedule briefly.

• For the dog who drops his head and checks out during heeling, try backing up a few steps and insisting he come backward with you. Dogs hate backing up. Going forward will be a relief.

• Build strong hand touches with high reinforcement, so you can psyche the dog up in the ring with an “Oops! Missed it!” hand touch and dog will be “truly remorseful” (Denise’s words, love it) that he missed the cookie. (The cookie won’t be there in the ring, of course, but he doesn’t know that.)

• Build strong cues that tell your dog “We’re working now.” Don’t get your dog out of his crate, put on the collar, connect the leash, grab your gear, then stand around and chat with your friends.

• Avoid too much heeling in a straight line. Mix it up with circles left and right, turns, hand touches, tag and run away.

• Be aware of putting too much frontal pressure on a dog. This can be very confrontational and dog will be offended by it and may become “depressed.” (Not sad, just low energy and not engaged.)

• Work scent articles with a variety of items, not just traditional articles.

• Build a feeling of approval and connection with your dog when you’re in the ring.

• Condition ring entries. Good for young puppies as well as older dogs. Teach the dog nothing fun happens outside the ring, then going through the gates make marvelous things happen.

• If your dog goes flat at a show or in training, give him only slightly more energy when trying to bring him back up. Don’t overwhelm him with too much crazy energy or he may shut down even more.

It was a great two days and I'm looking forward to putting some of her ideas into practice with Phoenix this summer. We're already play a lot of tag - it  may be my new exercise program.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Denise Fenzi Seminar, Part II: Tugging

Today’s post topic is what I learned about tugging from the seminar. Any misinterpretation of Denise’s explanations are totally my fault.

When it comes to playing with our dogs, tugging is often considered the ultimate interaction and a better reward than food treats because it ensures the handler is involved in the reward process, not just handing off a cookie. It builds energy and, if used sensibly, strengthens the dog/handler relationship.  Many times we are lead to believe that being able to play tug with our dog is the answer to all our problems. I’m not saying that isn’t true, but life is full of exceptions. What if your dog has zero interest in tugging and is all about The Cookie?

At her seminar last weekend, Denise stressed that a motivator is not a motivator if your dog does not want it. You could have the most awesome fleece-bunny-fur-food-stuffed-French-linen-bite-stick tug in the world but if your dog doesn’t find tugging rewarding and you are unable to find a way to engage his interest with the toy, it is not a reward.

That’s NOT to say you can’t teach your dog to tug and down the road he’ll be able to enjoy tugging and find it rewarding. You can.

If your dog tugs now, does that mean all your troubles are behind you? Will playing tug miraculously fix your training and motivation problems?

Only if you understand that there’s more to successful tugging than letting a dog bite a toy and hang on while you swing him around.

Denise pointed out there are several elements of tugging many of us don’t think about beyond the simple mechanics of teeth on a toy. Understanding this from the dog’s point of view can help both dog and handler enjoy the game more. I had never thought of any of these, so it helped my understanding tremendously.

Tugging is essentially a prey sequence. Different dogs find different points of this sequence more rewarding than other points. Imagine your tug toy as a live rabbit and you may have a new appreciation for how your dog views a “game” of tug. Yeah, that’s kind gross because it's not going to end well for the rabbit but remember we’re looking at it from the dog’s perspective. Here are the stages of the sequence:

• Prey drive - all about sighting, stalking and chasing the prey
• The bite - the initial contact with the prey
• The fight - the battle to subdue the prey (generally the most interactive part of tugging and what most people think of when they visualize a dog tugging)
• The re-bite and/or shake - the killing bite to snap spine or neck
• Possession - dog takes toy and runs off with it (Look what I caught!)
• Tearing up the toy - eating the prey

Dogs may be higher in one or two elements than in others. Phoenix absolutely LOVES chasing and making that initial bite but is lukewarm about a sustained fight. His eyes actually dilate in anticipation when I produce a tug or ball on a rope. Jamie, who was never an enthusiastic tugger, simply loved to take the toys off by himself and field dress (gut and eat) them.

Denise pointed out that a dog who enjoys the prey and initial bite parts of the sequence may not enjoy being asked to tug strenuously for long periods of time and if asked to do so, may soon be turned off of playing tug. Likewise, a dog who really enjoys “fighting” will not be satisfied with brief tug sessions and if you constantly have them “out” the toy and end the game, they may soon lose interest as well.

I suspect tugging with some dogs could be a case of “Be careful what you ask for, you might get it.” If the handler is not enthusiastic about or physically capable of sustained tugging, this might not be the answer either handler or dog are looking for. Tugging with a 25-pound sheltie is considerably different than tugging with a 55-pound Belgian. There are days when tugging with Phoenix is simply physically not enjoyable for me. I’m a weenie.

Denise noted that using a tug as a pacifier will eventually spoil the value of the tug. How often have you seen people standing or sitting at a trial, allowing their dogs to chew mindlessly on a tug while the handler chats with friends and ignores the dog? While a few dogs don’t care who or what is attached to the other end, most dogs enjoy the interaction tugging provides with their handler. Using a tug as a pacifer can dilute that.

A few technical aspects about tugging that Denise mentioned included:

• Keep the tug moving. Don’t stand still with it. Few dogs will find a dead (non-moving) tug any fun. This means effort on your part to get the dog engaged.

• When playing tug, if the dog drops the toy (you’re holding the other end), that’s not  your problem, keep moving, encourage the dog to “catch” the toy again. When they get it in their mouth, give little tugs instead of steady pressure.

Who knew tugging was such a complicated dance?

Finally, what if your dog absolutely has frickin’ zero interest in tugging and nothing you do can change that? Reward with food! No one is going to come arrest you.

But don’t deliver the food quietly while the dog sits there like a lump. Food does NOT need to be a sedative but it largely depends on how you deliver it. Have the dog leap for the food. Turn the food into a tiny piece of prey and have the dog chase it in your hand. Throw it. Toss it and let the dog catch it. Make it come alive.

Don’t obsess about delivering the food to reward in the exact position - this can be helpful in some situations but try marking the behavior with a clicker or verbal marker, then allow the dog to leap for his reward.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Denise Fenzi Seminar, Part I

Where to start!

Phoenix and I went to Denise Fenzi’s obedience problem solving seminar near Chicago last weekend. Aside from getting lost multiple times (seriously, it was nothing short of a miracle that I found the motel), it was a very fun and worthwhile weekend. Thanks to Margaret at One Happy Dog for organizing and hosting. The lunches were wonderful - so many salads, so little time.

The seminar was billed as “problem solving” but this can be a pretty gray area. A number of the dogs with working spots didn’t really have what I would call problems so their floor time was spent in progressing to the next step in their training. That's okay, I guess if you’re not sure what to do next, that is a problem!

And truly, the problem with a problem solving seminar is that very few problems have an easy fix. Dogs with serious hang-ups about an exercise or skill or overall attitude can’t be rehabbed in a matter of minutes. If the dog can’t quickly work through the first few steps of fixing the problem, it can be hard to see any improvement in the context of the seminar. No matter what the seminar presenter suggests, it’s going to take sustained work on the part of the dog and handler over time before you can expect to see lasting change.

It was interesting, however, to follow Denise’s common thread of building engagement and allowing the dogs to choose to work versus the traditional obedience approach of “make the dog do it.” It’s frequently that “make him do it” attitude that creates a whole new set of issues when the dog goes in the ring and discovers he does not want to do it and indeed, no one is going to make him.

It’s impossible to re-create an entire seminar but I want to hit the highlights of my floor time with Phoenix. I identified our problem as an overall lack of engagement in the ring. Sometimes he truly enjoys the work and finds it rewarding (resulting in high scores). Sometimes, he just goes through the motions (resulting in really crummy performance.) Sometimes, I get both during the same run!

(Flash forward, Denise felt our biggest problem was not any type of ring stress, but boredom. This made me feel both better and worse at the same time. Glad I wasn't turning my dog into a stressball. Sad I'd made obedience such a dull game.)

I wanted to start with some heeling, since that seems to bring out the worst in both of us. Denise asked if I was happy with his heeling when we train. Yes. It’s generally lovely. Okay, then no treats or toys on my body when I came out on the floor. This needed to look like the “real thing.”

Nothing like walking out in front of a bunch of strangers (although they were very nice strangers!) with a dog who I was pretty sure was going to work like crap.

And he did. Which actually was a relief because the whole experience would have done no good if he’d gone on the floor and heeled a perfect 40 point pattern with bright-eyed engagement.

We started heeling with a moderate amount of focus that dwindled to near non-existence by the time we completed the Figure 8. So there you have it.

Denise suggested incorporating more play into our training routine. She did not say the solution was tugging. Tugging can be play but not all play has to be tugging. She wanted me to build personal play skills that did not involve any kind of tug or ball. Just me, to build my value in the “fun” department without relying on a toy as the focus of the fun.

This method is strongly based on opposition reflex and an over-simplified description is playing tag and chase.

Phoenix loves to chase. He has always had tremendous prey drive. So I tagged his shoulder with the flat of my hand, pushed him lightly, turned (always to the right, to encourage him to drive toward me) and ran. It was important not to overwhelm him but shoving too hard - just a light “Tag, you’re It!” and run. This was combined at the same time with lowering my body posture and turning sideways (invitation, not confrontation).

I ran. He caught me. Being “caught” by Phoenix usually involves teeth. I know this makes people shudder in horror  but he’s not biting me. Yes, my arm was in his mouth during a good part of the time we were on the floor and when it was all said and done, there was not a mark on it. Yes, there were teeth. No, there was no pressure.

Of course, since he accompanies teeth with bloodcurdling vocals, it looks much worse than it is. If I were routinely getting chewed up by my dog, our training career would have ended a long time ago. Denise suggested popping something into his mouth, like a dumbbell, glove or toy, and letting him heel with that, just to give his teeth something to do while he got a grip on this new style of play. (Thanks to Sara for loaning me her dog’s dumbbell for a couple of retrieves and for use as a tooth pacifier on heeling. It will probably never be the same.)

When Phoenix “caught” me, I could continue the game by tagging and running again, I could have him do high hand touches and tag him in mid air or ask for an obedience position (sit, down stand, heel) before he landed. I could flip into heeling posture and ask him to heel. After a few steps I could cue him by lowering my posture, turning my body, asking him if he was “R . .e . . a . . d . . y?”, then tag and go again.

Denise also felt Phoenix is a very pressure-sensitive dog. Any kind of “head on” confrontation is likely to “depress” him or shut him down. In addition to play, this applies to which way I should turn when setting up for an exercise: clockwise (away from him) is better than counterclockwise (toward him). Denise said  he pulls better than he pushes. By turning to the left on set-ups, I was unintentionally putting a great deal of pressure on him.

She also suggested I start our Figure 8s to the right. Starting to the left is automatic “pressure” and can shut an unenthusiastic dog down even further. Good lord, now I have to undo nearly 40 years of  ALWAYS GO TO THE LEFT training.

By the time we stopped working that day, my exercise induced asthma about had me on the mats and sweat was pouring off me like I’d been running a marathon. My dog was happy, waggy and bright eyed. This was clearly more obedience fun than he’d had in a long time. And we'd done it without a single cookie or toy. Guess I CAN be fun!

An important thing about playing with your dog like this is to keep the sessions short, A) because it’s physically draining for the handler and B) if  you try to do it for too long, the dog can get overwhelmed.

Okay, that’s all for today.  I hope to post more about the seminar this week.

Friday, June 8, 2012

Juggling life and dogs

This has been a crummy week for blogging, in spite of having lots of ideas.

Tuesday I found out that my aunt Karene (Mom's sister, like a second mom to me) has breast cancer. Karene has lived with Mom since my dad died 3 years ago. Karene is in the process of cleaning out and selling her house. Finding out you have cancer is one of Life's slaps in the face. Makes you want to slap Life right back and say "I don't have time for this crap."

My aunt would never say anything like that. I suspect she politely and sweetly informed Life that this was a bit annoying and would it please get out of her way because she had more important things to do. Life had better listen if it knows what's good for it.

Karene had surgery yesterday and it went well. They removed the lump as well as several lymph nodes, which did not show cancer cells on initial inspection. Karene got to go home last night. Who would have thunk it - cancer surgery as an outpatient procedure. But I guess people are happier and heal faster in their own homes. From my own brief hospital stay a couple of years ago, I know my entire focus was on GETTING OUT.

Fortunately, the timing of everything worked out that Phoenix and I get to leave for the Denise Fenzi seminar near Chicago this afternoon without any accompanying guilt that I should be sticking around for my mom and aunt. The Farmer and I will be taking several days in the coming weeks to help her with the final move from her house, since the buyer wants to close on July 1.

Really looking forward to this seminar. I enjoy Denise's blog as she details the training journey with her young Terv and am looking forward to exploring more of her methods firsthand. I was wait-listed for a working spot initially, but time is a wonderful thing and enough people had changes of plans that I was able to get a working spot. I have my ever-changing list of training issues tucked into my gear bag and we're ready to hit the road.

I hope next week will bring time and motivation to write about the seminar as well as some other topics. Have a great weekend, no  matter what you are doing!

Monday, June 4, 2012

Weekend agility pics

Thanks, Sheryl, for some great pics of my boy at the Cyclone County Kennel Club trials!

LOVE this one because we've struggled with the table. We spent a lot of time this spring making the table a happy and rewarding place, not just an annoying speed bump. Apparently it worked. Phoenix did lovely tables both days over the weekend. It's nice to see at least ONE thing I've been training hold up in the ring!

Really. What can you say about this?

Performing the dog walk as a hoover-craft.
My dog apparently knows how to levitate.
Who taught him that?
Wingardium Leviosa!

Sunday, June 3, 2012

Cyclone dogs

This weekend we went to the Cyclone Country Kennel Club's agility trials in Ames. They're held on the campus at Iowa State University, home of the Cyclones. I graduated from there with my journalism degree in . . . well . . . a long time ago. I'd say it was in another century but dang, that just makes me feel old.

After the trial on Saturday, the dogs and I enjoyed a long walk around campus to work off a wonderful meal and ice cream at Hickory Park.

Phoenix made some new friends. These sculptures at the Oak-Elm residence halls were done by Christian Peterson, a Danish-born sculptor who came to America, worked with Grant Wood and got himself appointed sculptor-in-residence at Iowa State University in 1935. (Okay, that's a super-condensed version of his life.) His work is all over campus. He's probably best known for his statue "The Gentle Doctor," which is known (dare I say universally? that might be stretching it) as the symbol for veterinary medicine.

Phoenix thought she might have a cookie in her lap. He was disappointed.

The dogs are posing on a wall outside what used to be Old Botany Hall. It was Old Botany when I was an undergrad. To me, it will always be Old Botany. Back in the day it was kind of a wreck, had virtually been condemned and even had a couple of good ghost stories attached to it. Now it's been restored and is Carrie Chapman-Catt Hall. No word on how the ghosts feel about it.

The dogs in front of Old Botany . . . err . . . Carrie Chapman-Catt Hall.

Phoenix found a kitty! These bronzes are also Christian Petersen's work and have recently been restored and placed on the campus. I wanted to get more pics but you can see Phoenix looking at something out of frame.

That would have been the half-dozen very small children were were running at him. They came complete with totally ineffective adults who apparently got their parenting skills out of a box of Cracker Jacks. Mom and Dad were saying, "Don't climb on the statues! Don't pet the puppies! No, no, we don't do that. Stop. No. You're not listening."

Um. Yeah. You know exactly where this is going. I grabbed the dogs and got the heck out of Dodge. And people wonder why there are so many dog bite incidences every year. Fortunately, both my guys were okay with kids but I wasn't going to stick around and wait for something to happen.

I didn't quite get the photo session I wanted on central campus because, darn it, people thought they had to go and get married on a lovely afternoon in June. They were all set up for a beautiful outdoor ceremony at the campanile.

There were several weddings happening on campus. Here's one wedding party on the steps to Beardshear Hall. I remember Beardshear very well. That's where you went to write the BIG CHECK at the start of every semester. You can probably pay on-line with a MasterCard and PayPal account these days.

My final pic was going to another Christian Petersen work, his Fountain of Four Seasons at the Memorial Union but guess what? Another wedding party beat me to it. Okay, fine. We'll try it again next year.

After taking pics, I drove to the Campus Bookstore, just in case they had another T-shirt with a clever saying like "Friends don't let friends go to Iowa, Partnership For a Hawekeye Free America" (that's the University of Iowa, for you non-Midwesterners, and the Cyclones' in-state arch rival).

The Campus Bookstore was closing! They were having a 50% off everything sale. I had to shop. I had to buy things like sweatshirts and hats and scarves. It was horrible. Just horrible.

Good to get home early, van is cleaned out, dogs are crashed and laundry is going. With a little luck, I can get some stuff organized for our trip next weekend to Denise Fenzi's seminar near Chicago.

Friday, June 1, 2012

Life in a small town

I love working in a small town.

This morning, I dropped my van off for a oil change. While the guys at the garage are great about giving me a ride back to the newspaper office on the opposite side of town, today I decided to walk. It was a beautiful morning and to be honest the "opposite side of town" is little more than a 5-minute foot commute.

I made it exactly one-half block when someone pulled over, rolled down their window and shouted, "Hey! Wanna ride to work?"

Of course, I knew him. And of course, I said yes.

It's really hard to get any exercise when you work in a small town.

On other fronts, the Belgians and I are off to Ames to play agility this weekend. The Farmer debated about going with me but finally decided he couldn't bear to be away from the farm for 48 hours. Truthfully, the last time he went to this trial with me, we camped and got hit by something that was very nearly a supercell thunderstorm. My tent collapsed and we sprinted for the van where we spent a damp and cramped rest of the night. The farmer made it clear he has no interest in camping with me again.

Our conversation went something like:

Me: Wanna go to Ames with me this weekend?

Farmer: Isn't that where we nearly died in that tornado?

Me: It wasn't a tornado. But yes. And I'm staying in a motel this year.

Farmer: Hmmmph. (This is a generic Farmer noise that covers a lot of possibilities from "Yes," "No," "Maybe" and "You are out of your freaking mind.")

Apparently in this case, it was the latter.