Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Good bye, July

Good bye, July. Don't take it personally, but this year, you sucked. I don't mind heat in the summer. It's the Midwest. That's normal. But three whole weeks of temps at 100 degrees or higher? And heat indexes up to 110? Really? Was that necessary? I set a personal record for number of showers in one day - 3.

Other July highlights: watching our county go from dry to moderate drought to severe drought to extreme drought; watching crops start to burn up in the fields; not mowing the lawn for nearly 7 weeks; open burning bans; water usage reduction requests from our rural water service (hmmm, too many people are taking 3 showers a day); training between 5:30 and 6 a.m. because it's still to hot to function outdoors in the evening.

Surely August has to be better. Right?

On the bright side, the Lily Lake at Amana is in full bloom. It's pretty much a dry lake bed at this point but the lilies (American lotus or great yellow water lily) are blooming anyway. They're cool.

Friday, July 27, 2012

Big tough malinois . . .

. . . enjoy chasing bubbles.

Phoenix gets a kick out of this. Last night wasn't the greatest for bubble chasing since by the time I got to it, the lovely breeze had died and the bubbles just hung in the air - fun but not as much fun as when they drift along on a breeze. I don't think Jamie can see them any more. He wanders around and wags his tail and looks at his brother like "What is wrong with you, dude?"

I have a visual! Target acquired!

I will sneak up on it . . . it will never see me coming.

OMG, they're everywhere, they're everywhere!

Take that!

My life goal as a photographer is to take an in-focus shot of my dog biting a bubble. Clearly, this is going to take more practice.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Baby pictures

When Jamie was a puppy, I made it a point to take several pictures of him each month for the first year. (Wish I'd done this with Phoenix but he was so busy eating my house, my clothing, my fingers, the cats, etc. apparently I didn't have time to pick up a camera.)

Since Jamie just turned 13, I thought it would be fun to post a couple of his early baby pics. The last one is on his first birthday.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

In case you were wondering . . .

The stretch of Highway 6 between South Amana and Homestead in Iowa County has been renamed the Highway to Hell. At 104 degrees, I'm pretty sure we're IN Hell.

I so promise not to complain about cold weather this winter.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Sit. Stay.

The abyssmal weather continues. Yesterday the high was 104. Tomorrow is forecast to be 105. That's just air temperature. Tack on another 5-10 degrees for the heat index. This is not funny. I am not amused. Make it stop.

This weather has actually been good for Phoenix's training because it makes me pinpoint very specific things to work on in our 6 a.m. sessions. When the weather is lovely, it's easy to dawdle and mess around and let sessions become totally unfocused because it's just nice to be outdoors playing with my dog. When it's already close to 80 degrees and very humid at 6 a.m., it is not nice. We get down to business — work/play and get back in the AC.

Something we've been doing on hot summer nights is working stays, both indoors and out. Since stays will always be a weak link with Phoenix, they need constant maintenance. I will never take our stays for granted.

I have spent a lot of time proofing stays with some very creative and helpful friends. We've tossed food, bounced balls, squeaked toys, rolled around on the floor next to the dogs, picked up the dog's leash, clipped it on and asked them to come with us, we've pulled, pushed and revved them up with a game of 1-2-3-go!

It's all done with the goal of building understanding - don't  move. Distractions and proofs are low key until the dogs show they understand, then we ask for more effort at resisting temptation. Gone are the days of jerk and yank "corrections" for moving out of place. We're looking for that light bulb moment where the dog thinks about moving, then clearly decides, "No. Not gonna. I'm gonna sit right here."

At home, I'll get the vacuum out (just get it out, not even turn it on - oh what a test!) I might leave Phoenix on a stay in the living room and take Jamie outdoors. Or open the back door and call "Kitty, kitty!" He does sits on a balance disk, on the bed, in the recliner.

Nope. Not budging.

Once, I put Phoenix in a stay on the front porch, got in my van and drove down the lane. Then I turned around and drove back.

He didn't move. I could tell he thought I was totally out of my mind but he didn't move.

But what if . . .

. . . you just put your dog in a sit and do nothing?

Because this is the scenario that happens in the ring. The dog is left to his own devices for 1 or 3 minutes. To sit there. And look around. No flying food, no bouncing balls, no remote control rats (don't laugh - I have one) no people teasing or coaxing or otherwise keeping his brain engaged. Just sit there. And . . . sit there some more. Yawn.

So we've been practicing plain old sit/stays. Not excessively, because stays are poke-your-eyes-out boring. But enough that I feel comfortable that my dog understands he is expected to sit still when nothing else is going on. We spend so much time proofing stays that sometimes I think we overlook the obvious: can my dog just sit still for 3 minutes when nothing else is happening?

Proofing is good. It's builds understanding. So does occasionally presenting the exercise just as the dog is going to experience it in the ring. Fortunately, this is the perfect thing to train when the weather defies working anything energetic outdoors.

Jamie practices these stay sessions with Phoenix. He usually practices being the naughty dog who lays down. Good boy. Cookies for everyone.

Friday, July 20, 2012

Jamie is a teenager

Happy birthday, Jamie! 
He turns 13 tomorrow. 
Yeah, I'm a day early but I've got a bazillion things 
to do tomorrow so I'm  posting early.

So now I get to live with a teenager. 
He already pretty much does as he pleases, so that won't be anything new.
I suppose now he'll want to drive.

Love ya, Big Red Dog!

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Making an effort

This is getting very old but Blogger seems determined that there shall be no paragraphs ever again. My sincere apologies for this glitch, especially on a fairly long post. Much of the emphasis of Phoenix’s training this summer revolves around asking him for effort. How much effort does he have to make before he gets a cookie? It’s so easy to pop our dogs a cookie after every little thing that in no time you can create a dog with a huge sense of entitlement. This soon turns into the all too familiar “no cookie, no workie” that many of us have encountered. I think I also managed to teach him that cookies were affirmation that he was doing what I wanted. From his point of view, the absence of cookies in the ring was a startling and sad situation. I had clearly not taught him to value the interaction with me (per Susan Garrett, become the cookie) but had relied on poking food at him as a suitable reward. The praise I thought I’d been giving was not enough. Something Denise Fenzi mentioned at her seminar was being “big” with your praise, especially in environments where the tendency may be to become very quiet and “small.” Having a handler who is acting “small” can cause a dog who is worried or depressed in a show environment to become even more so. Not unexpectedly, weaning ME off the cookie habit has been a bigger issue than I anticipated. I still want to feed him a lot but I’m getting much better at asking for genuine effort (making skills slightly more demanding, stringing multiple skills together) before the food and play come. Play is important. Play is effort. Playing tug is effort. Playing with me without any toy probably represents the most effort because there’s no THING that’s driving the play session. It’s just me and Phoenix. When he really turns on and plays with ME it’s a wonderful high. It has taken a lot of effort on my part to figure out how to ask him for more effort. Training for longer sessions or drilling over and over would certainly require more effort but that’s not the approach I wanted. Here are some examples of things we’re doing: • Articles: working a double set. I put out 20 articles instead of 8. At first he was convinced this was entirely too much work and did a couple of grab-and-goes. When that didn’t get him anywhere, he settled down and worked. You can also set a lawn chair in the middle of the pile or scatter some cardboard boxes around the article pile. Put the scented article under the chair, on the chair seat or in a box. Next time, put the scented article in the regular pile. • Heeling: this is our biggie. The dog who gave me 40 point heeling in Novice had deteriorated to just going through the motions. Clearly heeling was boring him half to death. Marching around a building doing forwards, halts, turns and speeds was not going to fix it. Now when we heel, I ask for leaps, spins, 180s, 360s, shove him backwards and run so he has to catch up and suddenly release him and have him chase his tail or roll over. It’s a bloody lot of effort on my part to break the marching habit. On the figure 8, we go right first (oh, the absolute YEARS of training I’ve had to overcome in order to not reflexively step off to the left!) A lot of time during this heelwork, Phoenix is not in perfect heel position. Do I care? Not really. This isn’t about perfect heel position - it’s about driving to stay with me and he’s doing that. When he gets there and everything is right with the world, then I release him. • Signals: doing unexpected things, like doing the signals out of order and asking for additional “tricks” while Phoenix is at a distance (chase your tail, roll over, back up, etc.) Not only does this require more physical effort than the mind-numbing monotony of down-sit-come, it also requires mental effort to stay engaged to see what comes next. • Dumbbell: I put Phoenix on a stay about 40 feet away with the dumbbell between us. When I tell him to get it, I run toward him. If I get to the dumbbell first (okay, this happened exactly once), I grab it and have a party. Of course now he thinks it’s a fun game (albeit kinda stupid cuz the slow human NEVER wins). • Gloves: turn to Glove #1 and mark Glove #2 or vice versa. Is he actually marking the correct glove or just taking whichever one is visually most appealing? • Drop on recall: after the initial drop, I ask him to drop again. This is a game he’s been taught. He’ll back up, still in the drop. I keep asking him to drop and he keeps backing up. At some point, he’ll start barking at me. I am not terribly concerned about the bark transferring to the ring. • Cue word: constantly, constantly, constantly making sure he’s in drive, up, bright, engaged, alert and maybe just a little pushy and bossy before we start any exercise.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Another day, another heat advisory

I apologize for the format of today's post. Blogger will NOT let me put in paragraphs. So, dear readers, you get to create them yourself. I know you're smart like that. You know the line from the movie “Field of Dreams” where the guy asks Kevin Costner, “Is this heaven?” and he answers, “No, it’s Iowa.” I think he was confused. Iowa is in one of Dante’s seven rings of hell. The entire state is at some level of drought condition. The Farmer and I have the questionable distinction of living and farming in what is now a severe drought area. We’ve had virtually no measurable rain in the last 8 weeks. The only thing I’ve been emptying out of the rain gauge is dead Japanese beetles. Apparently, my rain gauge is where beetles go to die. Our grass is dry, brown and crunchy. I can’t remember the last time we mowed. The weeds aren’t even growing. The ground is cracked and trees are starting to drop their leaves already. And it’s not just dry, it’s hot. Average daily temps are in the upper 90s. This isn’t “dry” desert heat, either. It’s loaded with humidity. Heat indices soar into triple digits on a regular basis. The Farmer runs a sprinkler for his cattle to stand under. So. I’m not training much. Which is partially why I haven’t been blogging much the last couple of weeks. That and work getting crazy. You wouldn’t think a job at a small town newspaper office would get too crazy. Think again. It’s hard to be energized and inspired to do creative, exciting training and write about it when it’s this bloody hot. For awhile, Phoenix and were going out to train about 8:30 at night. The air temp was still 90 degrees and the day’s heat was radiating back out of the ground and off the buildings. We usually ended up playing ball in the wading pool and calling it a night. So then we switched to training at 6 a.m. It was all the way down to 75 or 80 degrees. Brrr. The 6 a.m. sessions are fun. I’m one of those whacko morning people who is organized and functional enough to train while the sun is coming up. I realize I may be in a minority here. But it’s this or nothing, at least until the weather breaks and I don’t see that happening any time soon. My focus for this summer with Phoenix is building enthusiasm for work and building value for play. Doing this when training conditions are unpleasant is an extra challenge. Our sessions are short because in order for him to be up and bright, I have to be up and bright. When sweat starts pouring into my eyes, brightness dims considerably. The bottom line is, if I am not enjoying it, how can I expect my dog to enjoy it? Approaching obedience training from the standpoint of my dog WANTING to work with me vs. MAKING my dog work with me, doing prolonged training in this heat is counterproductive. There’s no point in it. Sessions are fast and focused and then we dive back into the central air. Weenies. Yep. Phoenix is fine with it. I’m the weenie. Folks who live south of the Mason-Dixon line are probably laughing their heads off. Weather like this is probably normal for you. How do you guys function? Seriously! I don’t mind a warm spell now and then but I have a real problem with being roasted alive on a daily basis. Tonight we’re off to a show-and-go in a wonderfully air conditioned building. I’ll probably have to take a jacket. There’s four months and two weeks until meteorological winter begins on Dec. 1. I can’t wait.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Hug a farmer

I bet a lot of you have already seen this but it's too good not to share. I love these guys!

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Very odd odds and ends

What do these two pictures have in common? Um. That would be nothing. But I finally downloaded my little camera (as opposed to my big camera) and this is what happens when I start playing catch up.

This icebox came out of my aunt's house cleaning project. She grew up in a house with no electricity for much of her childhood and this was the 1930s version of a refrigerator. When she moved to Iowa, the icebox got moved into the garage and a groundhog lived underneath it for a number of years. In spite of that (and a really ugly coat of paint), it's in excellent condition, only missing the lower panel, which I suspect was knocked off by the groundhog. It was one of those "You want it? You take it" deals. And yeah, I wanted it!

I took it to a local furniture repair and refinishing guy a few weeks ago. The guy there got kind of excited about it. It's still got the original maker's plate, under the hideous paint, and all the interior hardware. He said it will be at least eight months before he gets it stripped and refinished. No prob. It gives me something to look forward to - and time to decide where I'm going to put it in our house!

Next odd thing: went out to train Monday morning and my ring gates had these little critters stuck all over them. Well, I guess the critter isn't there any more. These are cicada shells. The cicadas are now in the trees, shrieking their hearts out in the late afternoon and evenings.

Phoenix finds cicadas amusing and tasty. It's only a matter of time this summer until I catch him running around the yard with one clamped in his teeth. The bug will be buzzing for its life and Phoenix will look happily demented. At least he doesn't try bringing his special snack into the house.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Effort and mirrors

One of the best things Phoenix and I have accomplished so far this summer is building a strong response to a cue word. “Ready?” sends him leaping around in paroxysms of malinois delight. Well, it does most of the time. He’s such a “pressure sensitive” dog that if other people are standing close, he is not sure he can leap around and get excited. So we’re still working on that and he’s getting more comfortable offering it with people standing close and even touching him. 

This will translate to energy and silliness on ring entries which are typically “pressurized” places (lots of people milling around) for him and where he often deflates. Getting an enthusiastic “Ready?” response puts him in a good frame of mind for whatever comes next and should go miles in preventing that initial ring entry funk. 

One of the biggest errors I’ve made in my training with Phoenix has been rewarding for too little effort. This created a dog who was happy to deliver a performance as long as the rewards were coming thick and fast. But when the rewards dwindled, so did the performance. Phoenix did not understand how to give MORE in order to earn his cookie.

That’s been our major focus this summer and blending it with his “Ready?” cue allows me to get him animated and engaged, then ask for an obedience behavior while he’s in that frame of mind. We are gradually drawing out the duration of the behavior (more complex heeling sequences, several retrieves in a row, etc.) before he gets his cookie or ball. Building this understanding of effort-yields-cookie/tug/ball, combined with interactive play with me, will greatly improve the strength we need as a team to work through 4-7 minutes in the obedience ring without losing attitude. 

Weaning me off the cookie habit is something else.

It’s easy to get into the “one behavior equals one cookie” habit because that’s how most of our training starts. Heck, in the early stages, the puppy or young dog doesn’t even have to perform an entire behavior, just offer the beginning of it, to get a goodie.

Then somewhere along the line, we get our dogs to the point where they are capable of performing complex behavior chains and we’re still poking cookies at them for every little thing. It’s no wonder they’re a bit disappointed when they go in the ring and find it devoid of treats. For a dog who relies heavily on cookie delivery to confirm that he’s performing correctly, it’s a sudden and unpleasant shock.

Getting ME to remember to ask for more effort has almost been harder than getting Phoenix to give it. I’m still so excited to see him perform certain skills that I want to stop and treat him for being such a brilliant dog. Yeah, I know that’s silly but I NEVER want to reach the point where watching my dog nail a straight front or do a fast signal drop leaves me thinking “Ho-hum.”

Now, about mirrors. I think dogs by their very natures become attuned to the emotions and body language of their human partners. All of my dogs have done this, to an extent, but Phoenix is the hands down winner. In fact, I swear the dog reads my mind because more than once I’ve thought, “This would be a good time to trim toenails” and he’ll bolt from the room. Seriously. Kinda spooky.

If there is any conflict or tension in my mind when we start working an exercise, he is reluctant to engage. This used to make the conflict even worse in my mind - I wasn’t sure how to handle a training issue and now my dog didn’t even want to look at me! Recognizing that Phoenix was reflecting my unsettled emotions has helped me clear my mind so I can focus clearly on what I need to do to make it a good session.

This has happened several times when I’ve been training with friends. We’re working heeling and they’re shouting encouragement and suggestions. This is all fine and good but you know what it’s like when you’re concentrating hard and other people, even good friends, are shouting out things you should be doing differently or new things you should try. I must have really tensed up because Phoenix immediately pinned his ears back and went wide. He mirrored my tension perfectly.

I’ve also noticed when I am short of breath (exercise induced asthma and yes, too much brisk heeling will trigger it), he reads that I am not enjoying the activity and his engagement level drops. Before I realized what was happening, I would ask for more heeling so I could work on his engagement, which made my breathing worse, which made his heeling worse, and round and round we went. I think our heeling is the best when I don’t push myself beyond the point of being short of breath and my own stress vibes start to kick in. This means asking for effort in other ways, like spins, touches, pushing him out of position so he can catch up, etc.

Lesson of the week: if the dog is just going through the motions, maybe the handler is, too.

Burn a calorie, make extra effort, hug your dog and enjoy every day together.

Monday, July 9, 2012

It's been a year

It’s been about a year since Phoenix and I totally crashed and burned in the obedience ring following the completion of his UD. Since then, I’ve explored several different obedience training methodologies with the goal of having a joyful partner in the ring. 

If joy is present, high scores will fall in line, providing the technical skills are in place. High scores are a byproduct of a strong relationship between dog and hander. I am pretty good at teaching technical skills. Phoenix has proven I need work in the area of creating a dog who values working with me, no matter the availability of cookies and balls. I’ve never had a dog who needed that. My previous dogs JUST DID IT. They wagged their tails and went in the ring and worked happily and got OTCHs and that was that. They were totally a blessing and a curse. 

Phoenix needed more from me but I didn't know what it was.

Last summer I briefly experimented with what can only be called “boot camp” obedience training. It was not physically harsh but it was mind-numbingly boring. In spite of glowing reviews and promises of problems solved, this was definitely not going to produce the joyful partnership I was seeking. The zero-external-motivator, drill-until-you-get-it-right method left both Phoenix and I less than excited about training. Maybe that style works for some people and some dogs but it was not for us. I abandoned it and will never go back.

My second method, which DID provide some very short-lived success, was the “do no harm” method. I quit nagging Phoenix about every little mistake he made in training. I stopped being the Obedience Nazi. At that point I didn’t really give a damn if we ever won anything ever again - I just wanted my dog to be happy when we trained and showed.

This method launched us into the spring of 2012 with fabulous results - he was happy, he was winning and life was good.

Until it wasn’t. As we showed through the spring, both attitude and accuracy began to spiral downward. Although we didn’t hit the rock bottom evidenced in 2011, by late spring into summer Phoenix was clearly back to just going through the motions in the ring. Some runs were good. Others, not so much.

In March of this year, I audited a Bridget Carlsen seminar at a local training club. In June, I had a working spot at one of Denise Fenzi’s problem solving seminars near Chicago. With input from both these trainers, I am feeling better about Phoenix’s training than ever before. Our problems are far from solved but now I understand how to target our biggest issue: attitude.

Both women use highly motivating methods to create dogs who WANT to work. Make no mistake, these are not methods for a lazy trainer. Although they can be physically demanding for the handler, the biggest adjustment I’ve had to make is to stop “settling” for merely adequate behaviors and ask for MORE: more effort, more enthusiasm, more speed, etc. before delivering the reward.

The thing I liked best about Bridget’s seminar was her explanation of training “in drive.” She is careful to make sure the dog is in a drive state before asking him to do anything. This ensures the dog never gets a chance to merely go through the motions. All training is done with the dog working with speed and enthusiasm. 

The thing I liked best about Denise’s seminar was her explanation of personal play to reward the dog. Too often “play” never goes further than playing tug. Playing tug is great for creating energy but it can’t go into the ring, so having a dog who thinks YOU are fun all by yourself is a huge step in overcoming ring stress, anxiety, boredom and any number of other training/showing issues.

Our learning curve continues. I've become much more interested in the process and less interested in the outcome, as determined by judges and certificates from the AKC.

This summer I’m enjoy discovering what works with Phoenix without obessing about the technical aspects of training - what brings his ears up, what makes him turn away in pissy malinois annoyance (oh yeah, that's a treat!), what he really enjoys in terms of play.

Next post: effort and how Phoenix is a reflection of my mood. They’re connected, sort of, in a weird way.

Friday, July 6, 2012

Men - can't shoot 'em

I love the Farmer.

Don't get me wrong.

He's a good man. He loves me. He loves the dogs.

But he's a man. He tends to solve problems the quickest way he knows how. This does not always include looking beyond the initial problem. This frequently creates a bigger problem. (Being married to the Farmer is often very much like dog training.)

We had a bug problem at our house. (Note use of past tense: had.) Millipedes were taking over. I can deal with one or two millipedes on the kitchen floor when I get up in the morning. I cannot deal with one or two hundred.

I don't know where they came from. Well, yes, I do know where they came from. They were in the basement. I don't know why they didn't stay there. There are a lot of things in the basement. They could keep each other company.

But they were not content to stay in the basement. Which is why I was vacuuming a millipede invasion off the kitchen floor at 5:45 a.m. on the 4th of July.

The Farmer and I discussed the problem. Apparently he felt being awoken by a crabby woman assassinating bugs with a vacuum was not an acceptable solution. I agreed to pick up some bug bombs in town. Millipedes aren't dangerous. They don't bite or sting. They don't really do anything. They just crunch when you step on them. And they don't look good on my kitchen floor.

Phoenix and I left for agility class at 7:30 a.m. Since it was the 4th of July, we were having class in the morning so everyone could enjoy their evening at home. Remember that. Enjoy. Evening. At. Home.

Keep in mind the Midwest has been baking like a foil-wrapped potato on top of a charcoal grill for the last two weeks. The lowest daily high we've had has been 97 and tropical humidity easily shoves the heat index up to 105 to 110 degrees. Unlike other desert climates, it doesn't cool off at night. We're lucky if it drops below 80.

When Phoenix and I got home from agility, all I wanted to do was chill and work on a couple of projects in the house for a few hours before going to a nearby town to shoot 4th of July celebration pics for the paper.

I opened the kitchen door. I stepped in. I gagged and bolted back outdoors.

The chemical stench was nauseating. My eyes watered. My nose ran. I choked. I could not breathe. I bolted back into the house, grabbed Jamie and drug his furry butt outside. He had been sleeping and looked totally annoyed.

I went and found the Farmer. We had another discussion. He had decided waiting for bug bombs was an unsatisfactory plan. He had decided to wage chemical warfare and sprayed insecticide around the foundation of the house. The man has a private pesticide applicator's license (most farmers do these days) but in the tradition of using a sledgehammer to swat a fly, he'd used a field chemical that probably was never intended for anything a simple as a millipede.

It would have been okay if he'd stopped once he'd sprayed the foundation.

Then he sprayed part of the basement.

And the central air cycled it right up into the main floor and throughout the house. I don't know how long Jamie had been breathing the stuff but he's okay.

We shut off the central air and opened every window and door in the house. I turned on floor fans and the Farmer brought a cattle fan in from the barn to ventilate the basement.

It was now pushing a 100 degree air temp and we couldn't run the air conditioning.

I gave the Farmer the hairy eyeball, put the dogs in the outdoor kennel with lots of shade and huge buckets of water and left to take my photos.

Got home several hours later and the reek in the house had faded to a lingering stench. I managed a fast shower and we were out the door again, going to a parade and festivities in another nearby town. The dogs were fine in the outdoor kennel. Since the chance of rain seems to be in the negative numbers these days we left the house open to continue airing out.

Fortunately for the Farmer, by about 8 o'clock that evening, we were able to close up the house and put the central air back on. Otherwise I was going to put up a tent in the back yard and sleep there. He could join me and the dogs in the tent (he is not a fan of tents) or sleep in the weapon of mass destruction zone.

Haven't seen a millipede since.

We'll be married 21 years next month. Really, some days I wonder what he's going to do next.

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

More stuff to obsess about

Confession is good for the soul.

Yes. I — the bag lady —  am also the same person who at one time had 18 crates and 2 dogs. Although I feel this is perfectly normal, rational behavior since we all know how easy it is to accumulate crates. You need one for the van, the house, the motel, the show-site and the training building, at a minimum. Multiply that by multiple dogs and it can add up in a hurry. That explains why one of the empty bedrooms at our house is called “the dog crate room.”

I DID downsize crates several years ago. But I held on to most of my sheltie-sized crates because you never know. If my next dog is not a 24 or 26” Belgian, I would hate to have to go out and buy all new crates again. I may be crazy but I’m not stupid.

And Molly, I know your dilemma. I am entirely too familiar with thirtyone.com. One of my co-workers is also a Thirty-one salesperson. She knows I have an addictive personality when it comes to cute and adorable bags. She casually drops catalogs on my desk and walks away. She is an enabler. I love her.

Leashes. I love leashes. I love leather. I love latigo leather, fancy braided leather, bridle leather . . . oh here we go again. The only thing that’s keeping me from going off the deep end on buying expensive, fancy leashes is Phoenix. Leashes tend to end up in Phoenix’s mouth in the course of training. His mouth is full of teeth and this frequently does not end well for the leash.

Dumbbells. Oh Graydogz, do not get me started. Dumbbell-collecting trumps crates, leashes and bags. I agonized over finding the right size of dumbbell for my shelties, then went through it all again with Jamie. It was nothing short of a freakin’ miracle that one of Jamie’s many rejects (which I had carefully squirreled away) fit Phoenix perfectly. I called up J&J and had them make me another one with those measurements immediately, knowing that this perfectly sized dumbbell would somehow get lost or destroyed. That was 4 years ago. We’re still using the same one and the back-up dumbbell is in safe keeping.

So, have I found the perfect dog bag? That's such a philosophical question. Does such an item exist? At one time, I had the perfect dog bag. I wore it out. The zippers jammed, the fabric frayed, it looked like it had been through the wars. When I tried to replace it, they no longer made that style any more. Story of my life - I like something, they quit making it. 

My current dog bag is a microlite tote bag from LL Bean. It’s roomy, has excellent pocket distribution, good posture (doesn’t flop over when you set it down), nice long shoulder straps, is a dirt-resistant brown color and - this is so cool - has light blue interior lining so I can actually SEE what’s in the bag. I hate bags with black interiors. Sure, they don’t show dirt but I can never find anything unless it’s white. Which means I can always find Phoenix’s dumbbell and maybe an errant glove but nothing else.

In other news, we are apparently living in one of the seven rings of hell. We’re under an excessive heat warning until Saturday, when a “cool down” will bring temps below 90 and heat indices will only be in the mid to upper 90s, not the triple digit heat we’re looking at for the next 4 days. The humidity is stuck on "equatorial" with no change in sight.

I’ve switched training time to 6 a.m. and even at that, we only work for 10 minutes or less. Sometimes we train late in the evening, too, for 5 to 10 minutes. The heat is a blessing, in one respect, because it’s making me condense my training plans down to the very essence of what I want to achieve in a given session — no dawdling or messing around. 

Since 98% of my training is done outdoors, I could use the heat as an excuse not to train but the National Weather Service is calling for above normal temps for the entire month and I don't want to take that much time off. Besides, Phoenix and I are making progress on using play to build focus and drive, plus an understanding of jackpots, and I don't want to lose that momentum.

Sunday, July 1, 2012

Bag lady

Today's episode of the Great American House Purge of 2012 focuses on bags.

Tote bags. Hand bags. Dog bags. Overnight bags. Duffel bags. Little bags. Big bags. Laundry bags. Mesh bags. Fabric bags. Leather bags. Shoulder bags. Cross-body bags. Sling back bags. Cute little "go to a wedding bags." Big practical "go to work" bags. Bags that were borderline luggage. Article bags. Exhibitors' bags from national specialties. More dog bags. And did I mention, dog bags?

You get the picture.

OMFG. And I am not using those words lightly.

Someone should have staged an intervention years ago.

My name is Melinda and I am addicted to bags.

I've known this for years and have pretty much come out of the closet when it comes to my love for bags. That's because there's no room for me in my closet. It's full of bags.

A girl can never have too many bags, you know. Having just the right bag can make or break a trip. Training is guaranteed to be more fun and your dogs will Q more often if you have just the right gear bag. Everyone knows that. I know I'm not alone. There are more of you out there just like me. Sisters, unite!

So today I sat down with all my bags. I reminisced. I laughed. I cried. Okay, I didn't cry. I thought what the hell . . . seriously . . . what the hell. How did this happen? This is like the woman who wakes up one morning and realizes she's living with 64 cats. How did it get to this point?

I drug all my bags out to the dining room. First, I made sure the Farmer was far, far away. Like on another farm. In another township. We've been married 21 years this summer but there are still some things he doesn't need to know. I'm pretty sure he's fairly oblivious to my bag addiction although he will occasionally narrow his eyes and say, "Is that a new bag?"

Hmmm . . . maybe. Oh look! The cows are out!

Today, I downsized. I made piles: a pile to keep, a pile for Goodwill, a pile for my obedience club's spring garage sale, a pile to take to work and try to sell to unsuspecting co-workers.

I'm horrible about buying bags for dog training gear. This is totally my weakest point. Over the years, I've bought and abandoned an alarming number of dog bags. Many were returned, re-sold or re-purposed. Each bag had a favorite feature. Unfortunately, all these favorite features were distributed among a number of different bags. I keep waiting for a manufacturer to combine all these features into one product. Hasn't happened yet. I'll keep shopping. You can't stop me.

Apparently I have spent the last 40-odd years of my life buying every bag that caught my eye. I have bags for every possible packing contingency. And that's the ironic thing - I don't travel that much any more.

Maybe 10 years ago, the dogs and I were on the road a lot, going to agility trials in Missouri, Illinois, Minnesota and Nebraska. Now local clubs are offering more and more three-day trials and nearly all are day-trip drives. I still do a few occasional overnights but not like the old days. It's awesome to come home and sleep in my own bed at night, but my bags were collecting dust.

The house purge is nearing its end. Sorting through all my bags was one of the final tasks. As much as I hate trying to figure out what to keep and what to downsize, I love the feeling of freedom that comes from hauling box after box to Goodwill or loading up storage totes for the spring garage sale.

And with all that new-found space, there's room for more bags. Seriously. I can stop any time I want to. But I don't want to.