Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Why I'm turning into a mall rat

Okay, really, how hard can it be to show a dog in the breed ring?

Jamie and I have pretty much mastered gaiting-that-is-not-heeling. He’s gotten much better at free stacking (at least I can get his front feet square, dunno about his hind end and not too concerned) and he’s much more patient about waiting for the cookie to be delivered instead of lunging for it.

He’s not the problem.

I am the problem.

Imagine that.

More specifically, my wardrobe is the problem.

In the last couple of years, I’ve attended several funerals (including my father’s), a family wedding, multiple graduations and anniversary celebrations. Not once did I look in my closet and declare, “I have nothing to wear. I must go shopping.”

But within minutes of mailing Jamie’s veterans sweeps entry I was having wardrobe angst.

I’ve never been much of a fashionista. No surprise there. As long as my clothes are clean and comfortable and my dog can see my arm movements for doing Utility signals, I’m good to go.

My friend, SHERYL MCCORMICK, who talked me into this said sweeps was no big deal. Don’t worry, she said, just wear what you’d wear to show in obedience.

I gave her The Look. I’ve seen people in the breed ring. They dress nicer than I do for church. My obedience attire was not going to transfer across the rings.

Okay, she said, on second thought, you’re gonna need to shop.

I work with a gal who did a lot of breed handling before kids and family sent her life in a different direction. She gave me a list of “do not’s” when it came to dressing the part. Most of her advice consisted of ways to avoid fashion faux pas of the show set. (Seriously, obedience people never think about this stuff. We never get beyond obsessing about our dogs’ training issues, let alone our own clothing issues.)

Another friend’s college age daughter, a veteran breed handler, offered to take me shopping. I probably should have taken her up on it. It would have been an adventure. Kaitlyn is willow thin and very stylish. I suspect we do not shop in the same stores.

So I shopped by myself. I had a vision. I already had a pair of nice black dressy jeans. I had nice black loafers. I bought a new black belt. I bought a lovely dark teal long-sleeved very dressy blouse. Gold hoop earrings, a bit of breed jewelry and I was set. My vision was complete.

Then I checked the forecast. Highs in the 90s with blazing sunshine the week before the show, dropping to the upper 80s on the day of Jamie’s breed ring debut. With me in black jeans and a long-sleeved shirt. Showing outdoors on a sun-baked prairie with no shade. Now I was having visions of being carted away by paramedics.

I went back to the mall.

Now I’m on Vision #2. Dressy brown/taupe/cappucino/mushroom pants with a short-sleeved, multi-hued teal blouse (I like teal, can ya tell?). Brown loafers. Brown belt. Gorgeous Big Red Dog.

Saturday had better get here fast. My Master Card can’t take much more of this breed ring stuff.

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Rain dance

It's raining!

Don't get me wrong, I'm not complaining. We're hurting for rain here in the Midwest. According to the U.S. Drought Monitor (which is exactly what it sounds like), most of Iowa is classified as being in an exceptional drought. I like being called exceptional but this wasn't quite what I had in mind. We're about 10 inches below the normal rainfall for the year.

Over the last few months, we've moved from dry conditions, to moderate drought to severe drought to exceptional drought. I think the next stage is where we just dry up and blow away. Don't drop your cigarette around here. The whole state would go up in flames.

Which is really odd because thanks to some recent rains, things are green again. Sort of. If you don't look too closely. If you ignore the big cracks in the ground. And the fact the trees are already losing their leaves. And many farmers have already started chopping their corn fields to salvage what little they can from a stunted crop. And that you could probably walk across the Iowa River at any given point. And farm wells are going dry. And towns are starting to talk about water restrictions because municipal wells are starting to fail. Anyway, you get my point. The rain is welcome.

I've spent all summer trying to make it rain. I've gone to work and left house windows open. I've left car windows open. I've left laundry on the line. I've left the lid off the poop bucket (usually guaranteed for produce at least a 1" rainfall and bucket filled with poop soup.) A co-worker whose husband is in the masonry business even left his pickup, loaded with bags of concrete, parked outdoors, uncovered, overnight.

Nothing. We couldn't buy a rain cloud.

But not to worry! I have the guaranteed fix for the Drought of 2012.

I'm going camping! In my Big Blue tent!

In fact, earlier this month, I loaned Big Blue to the son of a co-worker and the first night he slept in it, torrential storms blew across the state, complete with high wind and heavy rain. Knowing this particular tent's history of pulling up stakes and collapsing in storms, I called his mom the next day, in a slight panic. She assured me that A) the tent was still standing and B) John had not been traumatized, mentally or physically, by having a tent fall on his head in a thunderstorm at 2 a.m.

Easy for her to say. That exact tent has gone belly up with me inside it several times over the last 10 years. One of those times was the first time the Farmer ever went camping with me. It was also the last time the Farmer ever went camping with me.

Apparently John's trick was to surround himself with big RVs. If I knew that many people with big RVs, I wouldn't be camping in a tent.

Nothing ever breaks on this tent. It will last forever. The rain fly, which does not go clear to the ground (a mark of a fair-weather tent if there ever was one) is the culprit. It catches incoming storm wind, then lifts like a balloon, popping the poles out of the four corners and effectively dropping the tent like a tablecloth over the inhabitants, who are having a minor (or major, if you're Jamie) freak-out inside.

Like the songwriter penned, "It's hard to leave when you can't find the door."

Big Blue comes with fond memories. Bolting out of it at 1 a.m. with a sheltie under each arm and Jamie in tow, glancing through the blinding rain to see my camping companion also abandoning ship as we dove into our vans for the rest of the night. Or bolting out of it at 2 a.m., me with Connor and the Farmer with Jamie, each of us with our pillows, diving into the van for the rest of the night. Good times.

In two weeks, the Belgians and I are going camping for the first time this year. I have Big Blue ready to go. I may need a sledge hammer to get the tent stakes in the ground but the simple act of putting up Big Blue should change the jet streams or the El Nino weather pattern or whatever is responsible for our lack of rainfall this year.

You can thank me later.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

7 days and counting

After two perfectly wonderful months of doing basically nothing, all Hell is breaking loose.

No. Wait. We didn't do nothing. Phoenix and I trained. We trained a lot. We did some matches and trained with friends and trained in the park and trained at home in the back yard while the neighbors' friggin' feral cat population marched up and down the lane. But we didn't travel. And beyond a few local agility trials, we didn't trial.

Not to mention I haven't taught a class for nearly three months. Kinda glad I didn't schedule anything for July and August, given the record-setting molten lava blast furnace summer we've had this year but teaching keeps me on my toes for working my own dog. Left to my own devices it's easy to get lazy.

Well let me tell ya sister, those days are over! (The days of not trialing, not the days of the neighbors' feral cats. They show no sign of stopping.)

Starting one week from today, we're launching back into the thick of it with trials 8 of the next 11 weekends. This includes AKC obedience and agility and UKC obedience. I WILL have Phoenix ready  to show for his U-UD in November. There. I wrote it out loud.

Plus, I've got two classes starting the first week of September: a puppy/young dog foundation class and a Utility class. Helping other people with their dogs always inspires me to work harder, more creatively, more passionately and more joyfully with my own dog.

I have enjoyed our the last couple of months "off" very much. Phoenix and I needed a break after the spring roller coaster of obedience, agility, Malinois nationals and seminars. I needed time to regroup and implement some new training ideas. Some of them have taken root and grown, others not so much.

There's been no pressure to achieve anything, which honestly creates the best training environment. There weren't (and still aren't, in spite of our looming September-October-November schedule) any self-imposed deadlines to make me crazy. Crazier. Whatever. We'll just go and show and have fun. It is what it is.

I'm not holding my breath that we'll go back into the ring next Thursday with all our problems solved. Are we in a better place with our training and showing than we were one year ago? Absolutely. Are we in a better place than than we were six months ago? Yes, I think so. We're making progress even though it often seems like three steps forward and two steps back.

Phoenix is a puzzle. With him (and I suspect, with many dogs), it's a balance between finding the magic technique to "fix" all our problems and discovering what DOESN'T work. I've seen lots of trainers use techniques that clearly aren't producing good results, yet they are determined to use them because that's what their instructor told them to do.

As much as I hate cliches, Phoenix's greatest gift to me as a trainer has been teaching me to think outside of the box. If traditional "solutions" don't work, try something new. The joy in working with him is watching him light up when I manage to choreograph a training session that addresses what he really needs for clearer understanding of his job and delight in performing it. He is a very funny, willing partner but he has no patience for mindless drills or repetition.

Now I need to go take more ibuprofen. We did more tugging in last night's workout than was good for my wrists and hands. It always seems like such a good idea at the time . . .

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

What I do with dogs

This has been stuck on my desk top for quite a while and I keep meaning to post it but time gets away from me. At some point, I'll manage to actually write something. Which will require neurons to fire in a sensible fashion. In the meantime, here are some variations on theme for "the dog lady." We've all been here.

What I think I train my dog to do.

What my in-laws thinks I train my dog to do.

What my neighbors think I train my dog to do.

What my husband wishes I would train my dog to do.

What the judge thinks I've trained my dog to do.

What my co-workers think I train my dog to do.

What my dog has trained me to do.

What I really want to train my dog to do.

What my dog actually does.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Belgians and bunnies, a cautionary tale

Phoenix and the remains of the "bunny stump"

One night last week, I noticed Phoenix in the back yard engaging in odd (even for him) behavior. He was pouncing on a tree stump. The stump was squeaking.

I admit, for about 3 seconds I thought about just going back in the house and not coming out until the pouncing and squeaking had stopped.

But I ran across the yard hoping whatever he had discovered was not going to involve bleeding, biting or spraying. (The Farmer had had an interesting experience with a skunk earlier this summer.)

Phoenix had found a nest of baby bunnies. He wanted them to run, hence the pouncing. They did not want to run, hence the squeaking.

I could tell a Bad Thing was going to happen. The pouncing would soon give way to poking which would  soon give way to nipping which would soon give way to baby bunnies as a bedtime snack.

I drug Phoenix back into the house. If ever a dog has been drug kicking and screaming, this was it. Jamie, on the other hand, was completely oblivious.

I went back out and set up an ex-pen around the nest, which had been cleverly burrowed into a rotten tree stump. The nest would have been even more clever if it hadn’t been located inside the dogs’ fenced yard. A yard which had to reek of carnivore scent.

If you were a small, helpless prey animal, would this be your first choice for a nursery? No wonder rabbits reproduce at such high rates. Only the rabbit Einsteins survive and there are clearly not a lot of them.

Honestly, the fact that the bunnies were big enough to have fur and hop around a little bit indicated they’d probably been there, undiscovered, for a fair amount of time. Amazing.

Last summer I’d fenced my tomatoes with an ex-pen with less than ideal results. Phoenix weaseled his way in and ate the tomatoes anyway. Not wanting a repeat performance (substitute bunny for tomato), I brought him outside to test the set up.

He poked, clawed, shoved and jumped up and down in agitation. The fence held.

Ha, I thought. Fixed your wagon.

Then he started digging.

Holy crap.

The fact that we’ve actually gotten some rain lately, combined with the soft, rotten wood of the stump, provided excellent digging conditions. Dirt flew. Grass flew. Chunks of stump flew. Before bunnies started flying, I called it a night and we went in the house.

After consulting Google and Facebook, I was assured mama rabbits would remove their offspring if their nest site was “disturbed,” but was cautioned not to touch them myself.

If ever there was a disturbed nest site, this had to be it. I went back outdoors and opened the pen so mama rabbit could lead her babies to the Promised Land, which had to be pretty much anywhere outside of the dog yard.

Next morning, the dogs and I went outdoors to check the bunny nest. I slammed the ex-pen shut on Phoenix’s nose as he tried to dive through. The bunnies were still there.

They were freakin’ adorable. Seriously. I know they’re just wild rabbits but they were seriously freakin’ adorable.

Flash forward 36 hours. It’s now been 48 hours since the initial “disturbance.” Bunnies still there. No mama rabbit in sight. Phoenix had been making multiple assaults on the ex-pen and digging like a backhoe. He had a trench at least 12” deep most of the way around.

The dogs and I stood and watched the bunnies. They were hopping around in their stump nest like little brown popcorn kernels. Hop . . . hop . . . hop . . .  

Then the Bad Thing happened.

One of them hopped BETWEEN the ex-pen wires. It landed right between Phoenix’s front paws. 

I remember thinking about the time I heard a seminar presenter discussing using toys in play and how, in order to incite prey drive in your dog, you should always move the toy away from the dog versus shoving it at him because “the rabbit never jumps into the coyote’s mouth.”

I guess this was the exception. The little rabbit probably didn’t even knew what it was doing. Rabbits are not known for their Mensa-level decision making capacity.

It was an executive decision moment. I drug Phoenix back in the house and got a shovel. Using the bunny-on-a-shovel method, I relocated the remaining bunnies to what I hoped would be a safe site. They may not have met with a kinder or gentler future on the other side of the fence but at least I wouldn’t have to watch it happen.

It took at least two more days before Phoenix was convinced there were no more bunnies in that stump. He also pretty much demolished it in the process. If this obedience and agility gig doesn’t work out, we can open a stump removal business.

Monday, August 13, 2012

Just when you think you've seen it all

I went to take photos for the paper at the Amana Festival of the Arts over the weekend. This is Kathi Huebner, of Oldhaus Fibers, Amana. She is spinning yarn directly from the undercoat of her French angora rabbit Hyacinth.

Kathi said Hyacinth is usually agreeable to this sort of thing and if she gets annoyed or has had enough, she either turns so her hind end isn't easily available. Or she pees on Kathi.

I  imagined putting Jamie in my lap and spinning yarn directly from him. The image didn't last long.

Friday, August 10, 2012

Welcome to my life


This is what happens when you reach a certain age.

You have to leave yourself little notes around the house.

Or you forget to do things that should not be forgotten.

Like practice stays.

It's so easy to forget about working stays, so I wrote this inspirational (or at least brilliantly green) note and put it on the shelf over the sink where I will see it about 10,000 times a day because that's how often I'm at the sink - cleaning food, preparing food, eating food, cleaning up after eating food. You get the picture.

Eating and doing stays. That seems to be my life.

That and teaching the Old Red Dog to stand and stare at cheese.

Really. I don't try to explain these things to people beyond my own little special group of fiends. They understand me.

Thursday, August 9, 2012

New rules

Yesterday was day #2 of Jamie's "show dog" training. I am amazed at him - both on how he has picked up on new cues so quickly and on how determined he is that some of the old rules are set in stone.

Gaiting is going well. I think my body language cues here are the key. In all his years of obedience work, I NEVER asked him to heel while my left arm was held down and slightly away from my body. He has figured out this is not heeling and eye contact is not required even though he's on my left side. In fact, he seems to enjoy just running around and around in circles and is good about staying in a nice trot. There is occasional joyful gallumphing but that's generally my fault.

Stopping and stacking is something else. I can throw out a Utility stand signal when we stop and he gets that. What he doesn't get (yet) is that it's okay to stand in one place while I move around in front of him and fiddle with his feet or back him up into a better stack. And he has absolutely no use for staring at cookies.

This isn't surprising. I have never asked him to stare at cookies. If a cookie was presented, it was for eating immediately, not looking at. He has rarely been lured or baited except for a brief period when training foundation skills as a puppy.

For 98 percent of his life, if a cookie was presented in plain view, that was always a cue to ignore it and look at me.

And any time I am at his head, he is sure it means he needs to do a front, especially if I am doing any kind of sideways movement. So at the moment, any time I'm in front of him, our free stacking looks more like a canine dressage routine, with dog and handler doing synchronized sidepasses. I know this will get better because Jamie is the Most Patient Dog in the World.

This is showing me how deeply ingrained certain behaviors become in our dogs. I hope this fall when I go back into the obedience ring with Phoenix, our summer of building excited, happy response to cue words is this strong!

I'm working to change MY body language and cues to help Jamie understand the new expectations. Some obedience cues are helpful here, others not so much. Jamie is reveling in the attention and the joy of having a job other than being a sit/stay and down/stay partner for Phoenix.

Judie, your comment yesterday was dead-on. Jamie is absolutely a We Do Things By The Rules kind of guy and is dismayed they have been changed overnight without any committee discussion or public hearings. Behold the power of cheese, however, and if I manage to get around the sweeps ring without choking on an errant piece, we'll do just fine.

Jamie is apparently recruiting his own media entourage, as several friends have volunteered to video and photograph the event.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

23 days and counting

Now that I've gone and entered my obedience dog in veteran sweeps at an upcoming local ABTC supported entry show, I figured maybe we should review gaiting and stacking.

No. Wait. You can't review something you've never done. You have to learn it in the first place.

Jamie never showed in the breed ring and my years of handling in breed were a long time ago. A very long time ago. A very, very long time ago. I was in my teens. Yeah, THAT long ago.

But I suppose this stuff is like riding a bike.

So outside Jamie and I went last night to learn to be a "show dog."

Me: I don't have a show lead. Can you work on Phoenix's agility slip lead? We'll borrow a nice lead later.

Jamie: Will there be cookies?

Me: Yes.

Jamie: Put me on a piece of baling twine and gimme a cookie.

Me: Okay, this is a down and back. You just trot along.

Jamie: Duh. Okay. Trotting. Looking at you. Done this for years. Where's the cookie?

Me: Um . . . no . . . don't look at me. Look straight ahead.

Jamie: Um . . . no . . . I look at you. That's the rules.

Me: The rules have changed.

Jamie: Did you fall and hit your head?

Me: No. Seriously. Don't look at me. Look. I'm not looking at you either. We're running and not looking.

Jamie: You are going to run into a tree.

Me: Sigh. Let's try stacking.

Jamie: You stop, I sit. That's the rules.

Me: The rules have changed.

Jamie: Holy crap, woman, you're confusing. Just give me a cookie.

Me: Okay. You stand and look pretty and stare at the cookie.

Jamie (lunging): Gimme the $#@! cookie, don't just be waving it in front of my face!

Me: Ouch! Shark! You just look at it and be pretty. Try not to have your feet going in four different directions.

Jamie: Seriously? I will drool and flatten my ears and look pathetic. See. Pathetic old dog. Can't even have a cookie. I will sit. Sitting always gets a cookie. Standing never gets nothin'.

Me: Let's try moving in a big circle.

Jamie: Am I looking at you or not looking at you?

Me: Not looking.

Jamie: I hope you're looking where you're going.

Me: Don't worry. Hey, you're doing a good job!

Jamie: Whee! Look at me go! Maybe I'll gallop!

Me: No galloping! Now we're stopping and you're going to stand.

Jamie: We're stopping and I'm finding heel position. I know exactly where heel position is. I will go there and sit and get cookies.

Me: Noooo! You stand and you get cookies for standing.

Jamie: You've been out in the heat too long.

Me: Sheryl McCormick, this is all your fault.

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Better late than never

Jamie retired from the obedience and rally rings in 2007 and from the agility ring in 2008. He will begin his breed ring career in 2012.

Cue the theme song from Indiana Jones or anything else that gets the adrenaline pumping - Jamie is going to show in veterans sweeps at the ABTC supported entry in Amana on Sept.1. That gives me 24 days to A) teach him to gait and stack (probably not an issue - behold the power of cheese) B) pay attention to his grooming (i.e., not do a whack job on his ears) and C) figure out what in the world I'm going to wear (probably the hardest of all).

This is Sheryl's fault. She put the idea in my head. But she says I still owe her a finder's fee for putting me in contact with Jamie's breeder back in the summer of 1999. So maybe this will settle that debt. She always wanted me to have a breed ring dog. I was fine with that but Jamie had different ideas. He didn't manage to grow all his parts, effectively ending any potential breed ring career.

Jamie's aunt, Breezie, also a 1999 model, is going to show in vet sweeps, too. Both turned 13 this year and will be in the 11 years and older class (otherwise known as the Older Than Dirt class).

You can't rush a good thing.

Friday, August 3, 2012

Fun with crates

Perhaps the title is misleading.

Crates are not intrinsically a lot of fun, unless you're driving your partner crazy with the sheer numbers of them that you possess. That can be fun. Hey, you buy a new tractor/hay mower/manure spreader, I buy a new crate. That's how it works. You spend $80,000. I spent $90. Not a problem.

Crates are especially not a lot of fun when they are big, heavy, metal crates.

But I am compelled to keep trying new crate arrangements in my vehicles. I've done it in my Blazer, both vans, that doGforsaken Acadia and now, in R2. It's like a compulsion. How many different ways can I fit crates into this vehicle?

This summer has brought two realities into sharp focus. One, there are a limited number of ways you can arrange big dog crates in a Chevy Equinox. Second, time is catching up with Jamie.

I can deal with the first one. I'm having a little more trouble with the second. But they are connected.

Since his retirement, Jamie has been the "ride-along" dog. He just rides along everywhere Phoenix and I go. He hangs out in the vehicle since most trial sites are so crowded these days that people really frown on un-entered dogs taking up space. There are a few exceptions but not many. Jamie doesn't care. He gets to come in the building throughout the day and do a meet-and-greet and snag cookies from old friends and make some new friends and life is good.

But this summer has been so hatefully hot, leaving him outside in the van has been out of the question, even at evening agility classes. So he has stayed home.

I used to take Jamie along whenever Phoenix and I went to area parks to train. Nix and I would train, then both dogs got to run and chase a ball while I loaded up gates and jumps. But now Jamie is deaf. It's not selective hearing. He is honestly deaf. This means he cannot be trusted off-leash anywhere away from home because he has virtually no recall unless he's looking at me.

So that meant he rode along, watched me work Phoenix, watched Phoenix run and play and have fun, then it was time to go home. Jamie took a dim view of this. He has become a screamer. No matter how carefully I cover his crate or block his view, he KNOWS his brother is out there, working, getting cookies and attention, and he's having none of it. He screams, howls, yodels and barks.

Jamie has a good set of lungs. I am pretty sure glass in homes surrounding the parks has shattered. I feel awful. I feel awful for Jamie, for Phoenix and for anyone else who has to listen to it. So Jamie stays home.

So for the last 4 months, Jamie's very big crate has been taking up room in the back of R2. I thought . . . what if I took Jamie's crate out and . . .?

. . .what if I put the back seat up, put a seat cover on it . . .

. . . and set Phoenix's crate there . . .

. . . which would open up a bunch of free space in the back (which I obviously neglected to take a picture of) for a folded up crate, lawn chair, general dog training junk, etc.

This is a 26" tall, 24" wide, 36" long General Cage crate. Jamie's crate of the same size will fit neatly in the back, with Phoenix's crate still in place, and yes, the rear hatch with close without arguing.

In some ways, this arrangement gives me more room. In some ways it doesn't. I can easily pop Jamie's crate into the back for the weekend when he gets to go with. Those just aren't as often any more. Sigh.

Phoenix's crate is snugly wedged up against the front seats so even though part of it hangs over the seat, it doesn't tip. I did have to put a rolled up blanket under the right side of the seat cover where the bench meets the back of the seats to level it out.

A third option would be taking all crates out and letting the dogs ride loose on the back seat, but I'm not a big fan of that. I know lots of folks travel with their dogs loose but I'm too much of a worrier. I would need to get safety harnesses for them and that's just asking Phoenix to chew himself free. I wouldn't put it past him. He ate a seatbelt out of Claire II. While he was crated. The dog is a goat.

Thursday, August 2, 2012

Hot summer night

Last night I took the dogs out to the hay field north of the house to get some pictures. The dogs were not terribly cooperative.

"You look right, I'll look left."

"Okay. We're looking at the friggin' camera. Ya happy now?"

We are experiencing the worst drought in over 75 years but the landscape remains deceptively green at first glance. In the foreground is a hay field. I have no idea how the hay can be so green when we've had only a half-inch of rain in the last two months. The Farmer says it is a "good piece of ground."

Across the road to the left is a soybean field. Green, yes. Pods filling? Jury is out on that. Across the road to the right is what's left of our cow/calf pasture. It's pretty much burned to a crisp. The cows and calves are now on hay, something that normally would not start until much later this fall.

Across the road and in the background are corn fields. The gold color is the tassels. What you don't see in this pic are the huge cracks in the ground and the corn stalks starting to "fire" (dry from the ground upward) or curling their leaves tightly to conserve moisture on hot days.

The lack of rain has kept the ears from filling with fully-formed kernels. This translates to fewer kernels on each cob, which translates to much lower yields. Production costs (seed, fuel, fertilizer, chemical, machinery upkeep, crop insurance, land rent and man hours) remain the same. You don't have to be crazy to farm but it helps.