Friday, November 30, 2012

How not to take the Christmas photo

Having recently endured a formal family portrait with four generations of the Farmer’s family (19 of us, including a 3-year-old in a very bad mood whose vocabulary that day consisted largely of “NO!”), I really enjoy the simplicity of taking pictures of my dogs.

One is an OTCh. One is an OTCh.-pointed UD with UDX legs. They can do a simple sit/stay, right? No brainer! Pose the dogs in a scenic setting, tell them to stay, get the camera, snap a few dozen frames and there you go - brilliant new pics for the blog and the Christmas card. Impress my friends and family.

Do you see any new pics here?

There you have it.

I am developing an unnatural attachment to this blog header, which I’ve had for over a year. I kept intending to replace it with a more seasonal snowy pic during the winter but we hardly got enough snow last year to make the effort worthwhile. It was the Winter That Wasn’t.

Several times throughout this fall, I set out to take new pics. All attempts met with limited success. Here is a condensed list of things that can go wrong when photographing allegedly trained dogs.

Pose dogs. Both dogs act like they’ve have no idea what “stay” means.

Pose dogs. Remind them firmly to stay. Dogs stay but give you a hateful, non-photogenic look.

Pose dogs. Jamie moves. At age 13 1/2, Jamie has decided he doesn’t need to do anything he doesn’t feel like. And why would he feel like staying over THERE when the cookies and Mom are over HERE.

Pose dogs. Jamie tips over. Although his vestibular issues have greatly improved since the episode in early October, he is still wobbly and occasionally just loses his balance.

Pose dogs. Phoenix’s ears disappear. I don’t know where they go. Apparently he can fold them directly into his skull.

Pose dogs. Dog A decides he wants no part of Dog B touching him and shifts just enough to wreck the composition of the photo.

Pose dogs. Dog suddenly feels the need to perform personal hygiene.

Pose dogs. Line up shot. Nobody moves. Perfect! Dog sneezes just as I press the shutter.

Pose dogs. Dogs refuse to look at the camera, no matter how many kissy-squeaky noises I make.

Pose dogs. Peel Phoenix off my head. Assure him "Kitty, kitty" was just a joke.

Pose dogs. Phoenix hears a command beamed from the starship Enterprise and takes off to go where no Malinois has gone before.

Pose dogs. Line up shot. Notice huge eye goobers that were NOT there 10 seconds ago.

Pose dogs. Jamie forgets what he’s doing and wanders out of the frame.

Pose dogs. Dogs look in two opposite directions. Not sayin' "Kitty, kitty" again. I don't have a death wish.

Pose dogs. Now Jamie’s ears are sideways. He looks like a Belgian version of Yoda.

Pose dogs. Phoenix decides he needs to hack up a hairball.

Pose dogs. The Farmer pulls up in the pickup and both dogs bolt to go see their papa.

I swear they are trained. Apparently very badly.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Livin' la vida loca

My apologies to Ricky Martin. I’m sure the subject of this column is not at all what he had in mind when he sang his 1999 hit.

But the song title seems most appropriate to my life right now so I’m going with it.

Frequent blog readers know we are under a mouse siege at our house right now. After a rather unfortunate series of events (mouse poop in places it does not belong - which is ANYWHERE in my house), I decided that more than one or two casual traps were needed to remedy the situation.

I went to the mouse trap store. I stocked up. I went home and began a highly scientific project with the goals of A) catching mice B) finding out what bait catches the most mice C) not catching malinois.

I suspected C might be the most difficult since Phoenix is all about mouse traps. Experience has taught him that mouse traps often lead to VERY fun human behavior. I am careful to always set them with the baited trigger pointed away from inquisitive Belgian noses. More than once, I've caught him nudging them repeatedly, leaping into the air when they snap, then looking at me like "COOL! Make it do that again!"

So far, all efforts have been successful. I have caught a lot of mice. I have caught mice using peanut butter,  dog treats (Zuke’s, for the record), Purina Cat Chow and, although it’s a cliché, cheese. I have not caught a malinois.

Oh no. The malinois has not been snapped on the nose. He’s obviously smarter than that. He knows where every single trap in the house is set. He waits until the trap catches the mouse, then he springs into action.






You get the picture.

Phoenix has taken to snatching mouse traps and absconding with them.

I have done some crazy things in  my life. (Feel free to substitute stupid for crazy. It’s usually appropriate.) Until last week, I had never tried to get a mousetrap, with deceased mouse securely attached, away from a dog who was experiencing a great deal of mental conflict about A) wanting to be left alone long enough to figure out how to get the mouse out of the %$#@! trap and eat it and B) knowing this was never, ever, ever going to happen so he might as well just give up now.

Welcome to my world.

What do normal people do with their time?

Saturday, November 24, 2012

You know it's cold when . . .

 . . . you come home and find the Old Dog sleeping on the couch with his tail over his nose.

Yep. Sound asleep. Didn't wake up while I took several shots. Then realized his sleeping beauty-ness was being photographed and looked annoyed.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Thankful for the little things

The couple on the right are my paternal grandparents, Laurel and John Hanson. The lady on the left is Ada Gaskell, one of their cousins.

It was taken in 1921 and they were ice skating on the Mississippi River near Burlington, Iowa. My aunt just shared the picture with me. She commented that if they fell down, at least the women had plenty of padding with the long skirts and long coats. Guess my grandpa was just out of luck if he fell. Not much padding there.

I'm no expert on the history of textiles but in 1921, I'm guessing they had cotton clothing and wool clothing and short of things made from fur or leather, that was about it. Maybe there was silk for women's underthings but kind of doubting my pre-Depression era ancestors could afford it.

No Polartec fleece. No moisture-wicking base layers. No Thinsulate insulation. No Smartwool socks. No Gore-tex waterproof membranes or jackets with Windwall or Windbloc. No synthetic blends. No flannel sheets from LL Bean. No fleece blankets to curl up with in their La-Z-Boy recliners to watch TV. Um, no TV.

I'm very thankful I was born in the 1960s and get to enjoy all the wonderful fabrics we have today that allow us to be outdoors in cold, wet weather without being totally miserable. If' I'd been a child in the 1920s, I probably would have frozen to death.

If I'd grown to adulthood, I would have been a very bitter woman who had to hand wash all her limited clothing. My grandparents didn't have electric lights in their rural Iowa home until after World War II, let alone an electric washing machine. They farmed with horses, pumped water from a well, milked cows by hand, separated cream, churned butter, grew a huge garden and preserved food for the winter by drying, curing and canning.

If my grandparents were alive today, they would be amazed at the array of conveniences that are so easy to take for granted in today's world. So on the day before Thanksgiving, I am extremely thankful for the "little" things we might not think twice about - warm clothing, electricity, hot and cold running water, indoor plumbing, refrigeration, a furnace and the local grocery store. I love my microwave, self-cleaning oven, washer and dryer, dog-fur-sucking Dyson vacuum, iMac and iPhone.

And I am thankful for the Farmer, Jamie and Phoenix and everything we've laughed about, cried over, endured, explored, learned from, succeeded at and swore we'd never do again in the last year.

Have a wonderful, safe Thanksgiving, everyone!

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Thanksgiving #1

Today, I am thankful for sweatpants.

No. Seriously.

The Farmer's family had Thanksgiving today: 25 people, two turkeys, an insane number of side dishes, three pies and my own contribution, Death By Chocolate.

I got home in time to take the dogs for a waddle . . . um . . . wobble . . . um . . . walk before dark. It probably only burned off a tiny fraction of the calories I consumed but it's the thought that counts, right?

Now I can relax in a food coma for the rest of the evening. I am also thankful for my recliner and my fleece blanket that Marsha gave me for Christmas last year. I plan on spending quality time with both.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Malinois in a bubble

This morning a friend helped me with Phoenix for a few minutes after we did a lesson with her dog. I wanted to see how he would react if another person deliberately put pressure on him while I was asking him to play and heel. (This is from Week 3 of the on-line class I'm taking, the topic is how dogs respond to the pressure we create, often inadvertently, by how we use our bodies and how you can add and remove pressure to help them in training.)

Susan did a great job - following, approaching, moving in close and really getting in both his face and mine. She never touched him, didn't need to. This was totally mental pressure created by her physical proximity. Her presence inside his "bubble" was enough to bump him out of his comfort zone even though he knows her and she is very non-threatening.

I've always known Phoenix has a big personal space when it comes to other dogs. But since he is such a goofball around people, I never thought much about PEOPLE exerting pressure on him by being too close.

What happens at an obedience trial? You go in the ring and here comes the steward to collect your leash and the judge to welcome you to the ring and direct you to the first set-up. No wonder Phoenix frequently de-railed quickly. People were invading his space from the get-go and it made him very uncomfortable because he was not free to go interact with them on his terms. Then they made it worse by following him around the ring the entire time he was there.

It took me a long time to recognize this - he warmed up well in congested areas outside the ring but no one there was confronting us directly, we were all going about our own business. But in the ring, both stewards and judge created pressure as we were the focus of their movements and they frequently moved into our space.

If Susan had sat on a chair on the edge of the ring, Phoenix would have been fine. If she had walked around the perimeter of the building while we worked, he would have been fine. But to have her THAT close to us, he was not fine. He didn't react aggressively and he didn't act "distracted," it was more of an overall concern that she was in his space and how could he be expected to think?

He had a choice to make: watch her or engage with me. He could engage on a tug or doing what Denise Fenzi calls "personal play," just interacting with me w/o toy or food. Heeling would be fine, too, if he could relax to the point where he could give it.

We started with hand touches and tugging. Initially, there was a great deal of eye flicking and ear twitching while Phoenix decided how to deal with another person moving around close to him. Every time he looked at her, I turned around and ran. He clearly wanted ME more than HER because he ran after me. Running and chasing was fun. It temporarily relieved the pressure. (I've noticed this in the ring, when he can "chase" me between exercises, he brightens a lot.) When he "caught" me, we tugged or I asked him to heel while Susan caught up with us and we started again.

It took about 2-3 minutes before he settled into a new comfort zone, able to heel with ears up hard, eyes bright and not flicking, no longer concerned by the presence of another person moving very, very close to him.

He had made the decision that Susan was not worth worrying about and he would rather interact with me. We accomplished it without adding any additional elements of stress or anxiety by trying to "correct" the lapses in focus. I kept the session short, we worked less than 5 minutes and stopped on a high note.

I think Phoenix will always have a big personal space. Now that I understand that space is not only related to other dogs, we can address it specifically in training since my friends are always up for helping.

Today, I am thankful for people who put new ideas in my head and friends who help me train.

Friday, November 16, 2012

Training and/or playing

Mutually exclusive: Adj. 1. unable to be both true at the same time. contradictory . incompatible.

Are training and playing mutually exclusive?

Until this summer, I would have said the two were distinctly separate activities. Play was play and training was training and ne’er the twain shall meet.

Learning more about playing with Phoenix has been an adventure. It’s fun. It’s physical. It’s occasionally painful (which has spurred me to find ways to play beyond tugging - these hands and wrists can only take so much.) It’s shown me the weak spots in my approach to improving his obedience work. It’s shown me that people interpret play in very different ways and they use it in very different ways. Or they don’t use it at all, often because they don’t know how or don’t think their dog will play with them.

Phoenix and I played from the start, when he was an itty bitty baby dog. He was the first dog I’d ever had who genuinely loved to tug and I was delighted. My previous dogs ran hot and cold on tugging. So Phoenix and I mostly tugged or fetched a ball. What else was there, right?

So we trained. And we played. Distinctly. Separate. Activities.

I used food during training as “rewards” and as a “motivator.” Or so I thought. In reality, the food wasn’t doing much motivating. When it disappeared, Phoenix didn’t try harder to make it come back. All it did was create a sense of false enthusiasm that never managed to carry through in the ring.

If the food was present and being delivered at regular intervals, it was all good. When the food disappeared from the equation, or when external pressures increased (show ring), Phoenix didn’t really see any particular reason to continue being an active participant in what he thought was a very unrewarding activity. I bribed him to work through a fairly high level of achievement but struggled to understand why we were getting worse as a team and not better, in spite of mastery of technical skills.

I blamed stress, confusion and lack of confidence for our lousy ring presentation and I’m sure those were all elements, to a degree, of our downward spiral. But the bottom line was my dog did not think I was much fun. Great Pez dispenser. Not much fun otherwise. We did not know how to have fun doing obedience if it didn’t involve eating food.

It’s taken me the better part of 5 years to get a grip on the power of play and start using it to our advantage. I wouldn’t say we’re ready to start getting 200s but our obedience training sessions throughout this fall have improved tremendously, with a marked increase in play and a marked reduction in food. I no longer have a weekly cheese budget! (Well, okay, I do, but now it’s all MINE. That’s another issue.)

Tug is still the foundation of our play but I’ve been putting a lot of time into building personal play - chase games, hand touches, push games and just silliness in general that is not dependent on a toy.

We finished our “training” session last night and it occurred to me that I had spent the entire time focused on elements of play. Obedience skills were there, but they were not the object of the session. Whoa. First time in YEARS that has ever happened. Big step for me, the obedience OCD poster child.

Phoenix is a well-trained obedience dog. He has earned a UD. His Novice and Open scores were all above 195. His Utility work was a roller coaster but he was generally in the lower to mid 190s, with occasional surges to the upper 190s. He has given me some very lovely, solid work. He has HITs from AKC and UKC trials.

Knowing this, there is no point in continuing to drill technical skills in the name of “training.” He has shown me he knows how to do them. When he is happy and truly enjoying working with me, he is amazing. This has been evidenced in brief flashes throughout his obedience career to date. Where I’ve failed is learning how to keep him in that happy place with any consistency.

Having finally figured this out, our “training” time is no longer a black and white division between playing and training. We heel, tug, heel, leap and chase (he leaps, he chases - not me), we do a recall, we heel, we tug, etc. It’s very different from my previous approach to “working” specific exercises.

Most trainers would agree that playing with our dogs is fun. So why don’t more people tap into play? There’s the cookie addiction that most of us have suffered from at one time or another. It was hard for me to put the cookies up and offer interaction with myself as the reward and motivator. What if I was rejected? And I was, frequently, initially. I got over it. Phoenix wasn’t rejecting me personally, he just didn’t understand that fun existed beyond the cookie zone.

Plus, if you have a non-tuggy dog and don’t know any other way to play, food seems like the only way to go. It’s generally very easy to use and most dogs turn on for it, at least on the surface. It lets you make behaviors happen quickly, which makes your dog look brilliant and make you feel like Trainer Of The Year.

Probably the biggest reason more people don’t use play more is play takes energy on the handler’s part, especially if you have a big athletic dog. It’s one thing to tug with a 25 pound Sheltie. Tugging with a 55 pound Malinois is a whole different ball game. Plus, you can’t turn your dog onto running and leaping if you’re standing still, so you have to burn a calorie. (Privately, I think there’s a whole diet plan here just waiting to be marketed.)

It’s not all about tugging. It’s not all about balls or all about food. It’s about doing things that make your dog smile and say “I want to be with YOU and do what YOU’RE doing.”

I’d like to do a series of “thankfulness” posts leading up to Thanksgiving. Today, I am thankful for dogs and people who make me think and help me learn.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Truth is stranger than fiction

Today’s post comes to you from the I Swear I Am Not Making This Up files.

CURRENT DAY: The Farmer has decided we need a new television. He’s probably right. Our old TV qualifies as an antique. It’s not a flatscreen. It’s not digitally compatible. When the switch to digital broadcasting happened a few years ago, we had to get a converter box. Which meant more things to wire up and another remote control. It now takes 3 remote controls and much choreographed button-pushing to watch a DVD. But I digress.

The problem is not that the Farmer wants a new TV, the problem is that he wants one the approximate size of a drive-in movie screen. That wouldn’t be so bad except it obviously will not fit in our current entertainment center, which is a lovely oak and brass affair with glass doors and lots of shelves and cubby holes.

It will have to sit on top of the entertainment center, which will leave me and the Farmer sitting in our recliners, tipped completely back, feeling like we’re sitting in the front row of the movie theater, watching “King Kong.” (Which we did once, by the way. Let the jury note I am not a front row fan.)

While discussing this problem, the Farmer gave the entertainment center a calculating eye and said, “No problem, I’ll just cut the top off and drop it down.”

FLASHBACK: Earlier this year, I wrote a story for the newspaper where I work about an area couple who had remodeled their old farm home and done some rather spectacular stuff. During the interview, I commented (diplomatically, I hoped) on the rather odd configuration of the “old” part of the house. The home owners, son and daughter-in-law of the previous owner, laughed and told me the story.

Apparently this is well-known local lore but I live on the opposite side of the county so hadn’t been exposed to it before.

Fritz Kinzenbaw Sr. owned the rural Ladora farm, which included a barn, cattle sheds, machine sheds, tall trees and an American foursquare house built in the 1920s. In June of 1998, a straightline windstorm tore through the county and demolished nearly everything on the farmstead except the house. (This was the same storm that hit our farm which much the same effect.)

In the years that followed, Fritz Sr. cleaned up the wreckage and rebuilt the buildings. Then one day, he viewed the skyline of his farmstead and didn’t like what he saw. The two-story house now stuck up above all the other buildings and the few remaining trees. He felt this was not aesthetically pleasing. So he solved the problem in a very straight forward fashion.

He took a chain saw and cut off the second floor of the house.

His wife didn’t know what he was going to do until she heard the chain saw fire up.

I swear I am not making this up.

CURRENT DAY: So naturally, when the Farmer announced his intention to “just cut the top off” of the entertainment center, I immediately flashed to visions of Fritz Sr., armed with a chain saw, whacking away at the second story of his home.

I had a very brief freak-out. Having forgotten all about the Fritz Kinzenbaw story which I had regaled him with several months earlier, the Farmer misread my twitching and convulsions and thought I was against the new TV, which I’m not. I guess he forgot about the early years of our marriage when he used a chain saw to cut a hole in an upstairs floor to wire the kitchen ceiling fan. (It’s all good.) I am pretty sure he is genetically predisposed to solving problems with chain saws. Or maybe it’s just the Y chromosome. Either way, I'm not taking any chances.

Now we’re going to have the Farmer’s brother-in-law, who is a gifted woodworker, take a look at the entertainment center and see if it can be dismantled and re-configured into a pedestal for the new TV. Which we haven’t gotten yet, but there’s been a great deal of muttering and measuring and calculating going on.

Stay tuned for further developments.

Thursday, November 8, 2012


At last. It’s over.

The confusion. The doubt. The indecision. The pros. The cons. The frustration. The research. The opinions. The commitment. The final decision. The official act. The second guessing.

I’m talking about ordering this year’s photo Christmas cards. What did you think I meant?

Every year, my goal is have the cards ordered by mid-November. My second goal is to get them addressed over the long Thanksgiving weekend and ready to mail in early December.

The reality of this is often substantially different from the goal. My real incentive for early Christmas card completion is being able to hand deliver bunches of cards to my friends at our last agility trial of the year, a couple of weeks before Christmas. Saves hand cramps from addressing envelopes and lots of money on postage, since about three-quarters of my cards go to dog friends.

I ordered my cards yesterday. Oh sweet relief. Oh blessed joy. One more decision checked off the pre-holiday to-do list.

Yeah, it's time to think about the holidays. Thanksgiving is two weeks from today, then it's totally open season on Christmas. Okay, it was pretty much open season on Christmas before Halloween but I try not to think about that. I love the holidays. I don't love the commercialism that starts at Labor Day. The Christmas commercials are a welcome relief, however, from the barrage of political BS we've endured since the caucuses in February. Life in a swing state is over-rated.

Sending Christmas cards is a tradition I’m willing to make time for. Over the years I’ve abandoned Martha Stewart-esque home decorating, elaborate cookie and candy making, and stupid holiday letter writing. Some things are worth my time. Some aren't. I’ll send the cards, decorate my mini-tree, bake sugar cookies and gingerbread dogs, go shopping, celebrate with family and friends, enjoy some lazy evenings at home with the dogs and the Farmer and call it good.

Last year, Phoenix kicked off the holidays by eating corn cobs the night before Thanksgiving (long story, they had a side dressing of cattle manure). I spent the evening trying to get him to vomit (preferably outdoors) while baking a pumpkin pie to take to my mom's the next day. He eventually did vomit (indoors, of course). The pie turned out just fine. That's not a tradition I plan to continue.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Fun with an iPhone

I occasionally forget I can do more stuff with my phone than just make and receive calls. Not sure how I could forget this, since when I bought it, the sales guy walked me through setting up e-mail, Facebook, loading apps, how to use the iTunes store, video and camera functions and using GPS to track weather in other cities. I had to ASK him to show me how to make a phone call. He looked puzzled and said (I swear I am not making this up) "Oh, yeah, it's a great little phone, too." Silly me. I am of the generation that expects a cell phone to be used primarily as, well, a PHONE.

But I digress. I don't use the camera part very often, although I'm using the video app more and more for filming agility runs. My nifty li'l video camera is becoming outdated and I forget to take it half the time anyway. I always have my phone with me.

Here are a few shots from a walk we took over the weekend.

Can you spot the hidden malinois?

Phoenix enlarged this groundhog hole opening quite a bit.
No groundhogs were harmed in the process.

iPhones are great for pics of dogs standing quietly in hay fields or sticking their noses in groundhog holes but not so great at capturing fast dog play. Still, it was fun to get some quick shots of the Belgians entertaining themselves last night while I was cooking supper.

Outta my face, punk! I will show you my teeth!

Okay. I will show you one tooth. Respect the tooth.

"Don't make me get up and bite you, Punk."
"Dude! Bring it!"

Really. You guys scare me.
Wish I'd had a better camera to catch this shot but oh well. 

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

The UKC weekend

For the first time in a long time, I’ve come home from an obedience trial weekend feeling like Phoenix and I are making genuine progress - not merely spinning in circles or going backward. YIPPEE!

We did three days of UKC Utility at a local trial and they were a brilliant success. We came home with one U-UD leg (and 1st place) and a clearer understanding of what is working in our training and what needs more work.

Since early September, I’ve put a much greater emphasis on play in our training - both as a reward and just playing because it’s fun to play with my dog. We’ve done much playing with tugs and balls and not quite as much playing with just the two of us (no toys). We need to work more on play between the two of us -  that’s one thing I learned over the weekend. I still use a little food but have reduced overall food use by probably 90 percent.

Since Phoenix was not used to getting much food in training any more, he didn’t expect it — or  miss it — in the ring. This was a huge step for us. Although earlier this year I’d incorporated play in training, I’d also continued to use (what was apparently an over-abundance of) food, as well. Removing most of the food allowed us to concentrate on play and true interaction, not me just being a Pez dispenser.

One might argue that I’d only substituted tugs for food but playing with my dog created more lasting energy, built more fun into the work and established more value for ME than simply popping a cookie in his mouth as a reward. And YES - it carried over into the ring. He was much brighter and happier in the ring than he’s been in months, played willingly with me between exercises and even on the third day, he was starting to initiate play before I asked for it. I really didn’t care about the Qs - this weekend was about attitude and I got it.

Several times I am sure he was looking for his tug and was slightly disappointed when it did not appear. That’s okay - at least he considers it worth looking for now. Phoenix is a wonderful dog because he has both strong food drive and strong toy drive. (I need to learn more about using his food drive in a constructive way, too, not just plugging him with cookies and calling it good.)

Phoenix went into the ring with enthusiasm, set up and gave me a hard muzzle punch when asked to touch before we started heeling and signals, which are always the first exercise in UKC Utility, no matter if it’s the A or B class.

Friday and Saturday, his heeling was lovely even though he missed a sit each day. Not sure why he was missing the sits except that we honestly haven’t worked them much with someone calling commands and my footwork is probably rusty.

Signals remain our weakest skill. We got the signals on Saturday; Friday and Sunday he did not drop. I have decided, after watching him miss the drop signal more often than not throughout the year, that he is not confused or distracted or being deliberately obtuse. He is worried. I’m fairly sure he’s worried about the presence of the judge behind him.

Not sure where this came from, since he’s Mr. I Love You Here Let Me Lean On You Now Scratch My Butt to total strangers. But it’s different when he’s under command and the stranger is lurking behind him and he is not free to handle the situation as he sees fit. In any case, he’s very reluctant to lie down and that’s what has been screwing us in Utility all year.

But he gave me a beautiful drop on Saturday, the day we Q’d. Why drop that day? Dunno. Judge was the same, ring was the same. Who knows? It’s his secret and he’s not telling.

Articles are still his favorite exercise, guaranteed to get the tail up and wagging. Not being able to watch the articles being set out was not an issue.

He aced the dual glove exercises at all three trials and I was happy see all the work I’ve done on turning his gloves into “toys” paid off as his retrieves were happy and bright and much better than the AKC work he had given me previously. (You should see his “training” gloves - talk about tattered rags, hope Santa brings some new ones.)

The back-to-back drop-on-recall/straight recalls went okay, although lacked the speed I’d like to see. Admittedly, I’d probably overworked them in the days preceding the trials.

Go-outs and directed jumping were lovely without any sign of the dreaded “short go-out” which can become a side-effect of the second glove exercise if you’re not careful to keep the training balanced and maintain the long “goes” separately.

Sunday night I sat down and made a list of what we need to focus on this winter because now we are really and truly done with obedience trials until mid-February. Our list is heavy on play and informal elements of exercises and light on technical skills.

One thing I especially want to work on are our personal play skills. Phoenix is a fun dog to play with because he engages easily and is an enthusiastic tugger. The downside is that he is a physically strong dog and his play style is often rougher than is comfortable or enjoyable for me. I’d like to be able to engage him on a toy-less level that is fun for both of us and will be meaningful in the ring.

And I have no problem using food in training if I can do it in a way that builds and rewards energy, not rewards my dog for sitting there like a lump. My use of food has previously been mostly in the “lump” category.

It’s dark by the time I get home from work on most nights now, so we’ll move back into the empty upstairs bedroom for winter training at home. Not the most spacious digs but they’ll do, even though the Farmer says we are putting cracks in the dining room ceiling.

Sunday, November 4, 2012


There are times in my life when I stop and think, "This is not going to end well.”

Perching on top of the not-a-Hoosier cupboard on the back porch, leaning over the top of the upright freezer, flashlight in one hand and broom in the other, trying to sweep a leg-caught mouse in a trap out from behind the freezer before it drug the trap under the freezer was one of those moments.

Phoenix was helping.

He is my vermin dog.

If there is any kind of scurrying, slinky, ratty-tailed rodent in the vicinity, he will tell me about it. Repeatedly. Often at 3 a.m. He is a great at alerting but that is usually as far as it goes.

Even though he’s made a couple of spectacular catches – including digging a ground squirrel out of the house foundation and carrying it around the yard in his mouth until he dropped it and it escaped – he’s never killed anything he caught. Except the baby rabbit earlier this summer. And a couple of birds that probably died of fright when he literally grabbed them out of mid-air.

Fortunately, this vermin alert came at 8:30 p.m. I’d let the dogs out and when they came back on the porch, Phoenix immediately tried wedging himself into the 5 inch space between the upright freezer and the not-a-Hoosier cupboard. (It’s not a real Hoosier cupboard. It just looks like one. Actually it’s sort of falling apart but it works great for storing miscellaneous dog and gardening stuff on the porch.)

I knew there was a mousetrap set in the narrow space between cupboard and freezer and figured Phoenix was telling me there was a mouse in the trap, so I hauled him out. 

The mousetrap was not there.

I said some bad words and grabbed flashlight. Crawling around on the porch floor revealed no mousetrap under the not-a-Hoosier, no mousetrap under the front part of the freezer and the fact that I really need to vacuum both places before there is a fur-ball apocalypse.

I said some more bad words. Mousetraps do not disappear by themselves. They usually disappear when the inhabitant did not commit proper mouse suicide and ended up getting caught by the leg or tail and drug the trap off underneath some very large and impossibly heavy piece of furniture, where they promptly die and stink up the place.

If the mouse wasn’t under the not-a-Hoosier, logic held that it must be behind the freezer and I was praying mightily that it was not already under the freezer.

Nothing like a missing mousetrap to make me get religion.

I drug a chair out of the kitchen, climbed up on it, stepped onto the work shelf of the not-a-Hoosier and briefly, seriously, with total sincerity, reviewed my commitment to lose 15 pounds.

I laid over the top of the freezer and once again noted my candidacy for world’s worst housekeeper. When was the last time I dusted up here? Apparently never.

I flashed the light between the back of the freezer and the wall and bingo! There was the mouse, caught by the leg and determined to get even with humankind by dying and making a big stink.

I was swiping at the mouse with the broom and the mouse was running backward on three legs for all it was worth, dragging the trap, and Phoenix was leaping around making crazy squeaky noises. That was when about 10 different visions of how this could end flashed in front of my eyes. Most of them involved gravity coming into play and me explaining to an ER doc how I got a concussion trying to take a mouse out of a trap. (Hey, it could happen. A friend dislocated her knee by hitting her head on her van's overhead hatch. Don't laugh.)

Just as I swept the trap clear of the freezer danger zone, the mouse made one last frantic bid for freedom and pulled loose of the trap. Now I was doing an insane parody of a housewife teetering atop a piece of furniture, swinging a broom and screaming, “GIT THE MOUSE!”

With a mighty pounce and snap, Phoenix caught and killed his first mouse.

I don’t know who was more surprised – me, Phoenix or the Farmer who opened the porch door just in time to see his wife standing atop the antique kitchen cupboard or his dog, with a mouse tail hanging out of his mouth.

Yep. We have all the fun.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Do you appreciate your dog?

I’m taking an online course at Agility University. This is the first time I’ve ever taken an online course and even though I’m only taking it in an observer’s capacity, it’s still kind of exciting.

The title of the course is “Building Relationship Through Play,” and the instructor is Denise Fenzi. I went to one of Denise’s obedience seminars earlier this year (how many different ways CAN you get lost in Mundelein, Ill.?) and enjoyed it a lot. At least I shouldn’t get lost doing an online class.

How many of you have ever gone to a seminar or class that taught you how to play with your dog? Just play? Why do we spent so much time learning how to train our dogs but very little learning how to play with our dogs? I know I seriously undervalued play with Phoenix.

Sometimes people shy away from playing with their dog because they think they’ll have to tug and maybe their dog isn’t a big tugger. Or maybe THEY aren’t big tuggers. I’ve had students tell me “I really don’t care if my dog tugs because I don’t enjoy it.” Well, sometimes you can build tugging in a reluctant dog but if the handler just plain isn’t interested, what are the other options?

This class is going to cover different aspects of play, including play with toys, play with food and personal play, which I find most intriguing and have been working hard to build with Phoenix.

The class just started yesterday but I want to share something I found very enlightening in Denise’s opening comments and it applies to every possible canine sports venue and discipline out there.

In the context of video homework, Denise requested short videos of typical play sessions so she could observe  dog and handler interaction. She encouraged students to submit honest, actual sessions, no matter how good or bad the handler might perceive them to be.

Then she said, “Some people like to complain no matter how brilliant their dog is. I can’t help your dog if you cannot appreciate what your dog does well.”

Love. It.

I often hear people ringside being extremely critical of their dog’s performance. We were probably all taught as children that no one likes a bragger but the opposite is true as well. No one likes to hear someone picking and nagging at elements of a performance that were very lovely.

The fact that you can go into a competitive ring, especially at the higher levels, speaks to a certain level of prior achievement. You didn’t get there by accident and you didn’t get there by yourself. Your dog is your partner. He adores you. Refusing to acknowledge the things he does really well undermines your relationship. Don't get so focused on the weak spots that you can no longer recognize what is truly good.

Try watching video of your run through a stranger’s eyes. Pretend you’ve never watched a dog show before. What makes you smile? What makes you say “Wow, look at that!” Are there moments that make you think, “OMG, that is freaking amazing!”

Of course there are. Remember them when other things don’t go so well. You can’t improve the weak spots if you don’t truly appreciate the energy and effort and skill your dog is giving you in other areas. Don't sell your dog short. Being hyper critical of every foot-fall is not necessarily going to help you get better.

Everyone has different criteria for their performance as a team. Wanting to constantly improve is a worthwhile goal. But don’t neglect to appreciate your dog in the process.