Monday, December 31, 2012

Adieu, 2012

I was going to write a long, flowery piece about all the things I learned in 2012 but then I decided none of us had that much time.

What I mostly learned in the last 12 months is to pick my own path and listen to what my dog tells me. Sounds great on the surface but harder than hell in reality when it seems like everyone around you believes they have THE ANSWER TO YOUR PROBLEMS and it clashes with what you feel in your heart. (Ha-ha, now I've probably freaked out all my training buddies who think I'm talking about them. LOVE YOU GUYS!)

I am even more appreciative of my friends after losing Rilda in October. Her death left me with a new awareness of how I spend my time and who I spend it with. People come and go throughout one's life. I believe all my friends have come (and sometimes, gone) for a reason. I value all of them.

I spent a lot of time this year wondering what I'd ever done to deserve Phoenix. He is an absolutely incredible dog. With patience (usually) and single-minded determination, he is making me learn new "rules of engagement." Often, these are in direct conflict with 35 years of training by compulsion or bribery. I have nothing to lose and everything to gain by listening to him.

A huge step for me this year has been learning to look beyond the technicalities of skill training to that undefinable quality that makes a dog and handler's teamwork sparkle with joy and energy. Oh, what a rush when you know that your dog is working, not just to get a cookie or avoid a correction, but because he loves the work and he loves you!

Happy new year to everyone! Wishing you all the best and a wonderful journey in 2013. Celebrate safely tonight. Being the party animals that we are, the Farmer and I will go out to dinner at a local restaurant and be home, asleep, by 10 p.m. Yep, we're livin' in the fast lane.

Friday, December 28, 2012

Happy birthday, Wild Dog

Phoenix turns 6 today. 
Happy birthday to the Carousel Malinois
 Wild litter of 2006!

7 weeks
(Photo courtesy of Catherine Shields)

10 weeks
(Photo by Sheryl McCormick)

6 years
Thank you, Nix, for 6 absolutely incredible years.
Can't wait to see what happens next!

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

12 Days of Malinois Christmas

I mean to post this before Christmas but too many cookies got in the way and that didn't happen. Technically speaking, I think the 12 days of Christmas actually start after Christmas and run through the first of the new year, so maybe I'm not late after all.

The rhyming may be off a bit here and there but very little else in my world is perfectly balanced so let's just go with it.

On the 12th day of Christmas, my malinois brought to me:

12 cats a running
11 bunnies hopping
10 weavepoles rattling
9  mangled leashes
8 nose-smeared windows
7 furballs drifting
6 premium lists
5 french linen tugs
4 munched on gloves
3 chewed up socks
2 dead mice (traps included)
and a dumbbell in a tree

Very happy belated Christmas wishes to everyone! With the holidays soon to be wrapped up, I hope to get back to regular blogging soon. The amount of ideas rattling around in my mind and the amount of time available to form them into coherent thoughts are frequently in conflict.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Snowplace like home

We're having a blizzard today. 

No snow at all for 289 days (the record was 290 days without measurable snowfall, set in 1913, if you're interested) and now we get this - screaming wind and ridiculous amounts of snow. I think we actually only got about 6" of snow but it's hard to tell, since none of it will stay put. It's pretty amazing it's blowing around at all because it's very wet, heavy snow. Other parts of Iowa got more than 12 inches. 

I would have taken more pics but it's not nice out there and I'm a weenie.

The snow started about 7 a.m. and the wind has gotten worse throughout the day. I'm guessing 30 to 40 mph sustained winds with higher gusts. I'm pretty much in denial about windchills right now. I was really liking our non-winter up to this point.

Visibility is slowly improving. This is St. John's Lutheran Church, maybe 1/4 mile from our house. You can see it now. Sort of. Earlier we had total whiteout conditions and couldn't even see to the end of our lane.

See the fence? See the tree? See the tree on the fence? See me swearing? The tree came crashing down this morning, scaring the bejeebers out of me while I was standing at the kitchen sink, peeling potatoes for soup.

Initial damage reports by the Farmer indicated the fence's imminent demise. Further inspection by me revealed things are not as bad as they might have been. Phoenix jumps the fence any time he feels like it anyway so having a squashed fence really doesn't change anything.

Fortunately I'd already planned to take this day off from work anyway. It's been a cooking-baking, soup-making sort of day. Which is exactly what a snow day should be. Especially when you haven't had one for 289 days.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

I can't make this stuff up

Subtitle 1: Truth is stranger than fiction.

Subtitle 2: How to get bit in the butt by your own dog.

And no, it wasn't the Skinny Little Dog, who has occasionally been known to have issues with improper tooth placement.

It was Jamie. Dear sweet gentle Jamie. Yep. Bit me in the butt. It was actually more of a nip. Didn't break skin. Didn't break jeans. Still stung.

I'm pretty sure he didn't mean to.

The fact there was a toy on my butt might have had something to do with it.

I'm blaming it all on work.

It was a bad day at work. A hide the knives, lock up the guns bad day. I got home late. It was almost dark. I was in a seriously honked off mood. All I wanted to do was take the dogs out to chase their cloth flippy and not deal with any member of the human race for any time in the immediate future. Like the next six months.

So I did. The dogs love their flippy. After a few "free" throws, I asked Phoenix to heel. He was happy to oblige. He was doing a lovely job. My spirits were rising. A beautiful heeling dog makes me happy, especially when it's my dog.

The flippy was in my right hand. In the vicinity of my backside. Which is located behind my back.

Which is why I didn't see Jamie stalking me. If the Skinny Little Dog had to work, Jamie didn't see any reason why he shouldn't have the flippy in the interim. At 13 1/2, Jamie wants what he wants. The "don't grab the toy out of my hand" rule has apparently gone the same place "stay."

If he'd grabbed the edge of the flippy, it would have been all good.

But no. He grabbed it dead center. My right butt cheek was underneath it.

In the words of the immortal Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist Dave Barry, I swear I am not making this up.

It's a good thing we live in the country where no one can hear you scream.

Then I laughed. Nothing like a good butt chomp to remind a person what's important in life.

Pay attention to the Old Dog. Age and treachery will defeat youth and skill every time.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Go play

Today I’m writing about something that’s been on my mind a lot lately: playing with my dog. These are just random thoughts and observations. I’m not even sure I have an actual point to make, except that play is powerful and I’m very glad Phoenix has helped me understand that.

Over the years, I’ve gone from thinking play was not very important in the overall scheme of dog training to developing a new understanding of how much it can enhance my relationship with my dog. Oh sure, I’ve always taken the dogs out in the yard and thrown a ball for them but until the last six months with Phoenix, I didn’t tap into play to enhance our obedience work.

For the purpose of this post, “play” means interaction between dog and handler, with both focusing exclusively on one another. It can happen with or without a toy or even with food. It is certainly “play” to take 3 dogs and a tennis ball out to a field and let them chase each other while you throw the ball, but that is dogs playing with one another, not you. You are part of the fun but mostly in the capacity as the ball launcher, since the real fun is taking place wherever the ball lands and gets grabbed.

As an instructor, I’ve found that many students equate “play” to “tug” and are instantly turned off if they do not have a tuggy dog. This is unfortunate because there are lot of ways to play with your dog and not all of them involve tugging.

Often, proponents of tugging have dogs that they can control without much effort, either because the dog is small/soft or the person is big/strong. It’s one thing to tug with a 25 pound sheltie. It’s another to tug with a 55 pound malinois. Not only are the dogs’ physical make-ups much different, their mental approach to playing tug may be drastically different as well. For a short person (me) to tug in a safe and rewarding fashion with a powerful dog (Phoenix), I had to learn some skills beyond just “offer the toy and hang on.” (I did that for a long time and the problem was that I couldn’t hang on and the game usually deteriorated from there.)

If you have a dog who has always played easily and naturally and you’ve encouraged it, it can be hard to understand working with a dog who seems to have no natural interest in play. Many of us who have had non-players in the past started early with new puppies to make sure we laid the groundwork for a lifetime of play. Puppies play readily. Encourage it. Nurture it. Build on it.

For adult dogs who are tentative about play, most can grow to enjoy at least one or two forms of it if encouraged with an approach that doesn’t overwhelm the dog. The owner has to be willing to experiment with different ideas and give the dog a reasonable amount of time to realize what he’s doing can be fun. We’ve all seen the student who dangles a toy in front of the dog’s face, wiggles it a few times while the dog looks bored and says, “See, he won’t play with me!” If the owner wants badly enough for the dog to play tug, he or she will be successful in teaching the dog to tug. If not, the team would be better off exploring other avenues of play.

Non-tugging play includes moving games (chase, tag, push and shove and a combination of all 3) and food games (chase the food, chase me to get the food, find the hidden food, leap up to get the food). Notice all of these include some kind of movement, most of it on the handler’s part. There is no stationary (bump on a log) food delivery.

The energy generated during play can be a double edged sword - it’s very fun for the dog but it requires the handler to MOVE. Many handlers choose not to play because they either have physical limitations or they just don't want to make the effort. You don’t need to be an Olympic athlete to play with your dog but you do need to move.

I admit to sometimes choosing not to play tug games with Phoenix during a training session because I am physically not up to it that day. He is a very demanding dog (the Farmer says he is bossy) and I need to be on my game to play his. Tugging with him is akin to fighting with animated cinder blocks and while I enjoy it, there are days when I just am not up to it. On those days we play other games instead.

Tugging aside, I’ve noticed 5 kind of dogs when it comes to play (there are probably more). There is no right or wrong in this list, simply observations.

1) The dog who does not know how to play because his owner uses food rewards exclusively.

2) The dog who would play but the owner overwhelms the dog, making play not fun.

3) The dog who has initiated play with his owner but has been discouraged so often that he doesn’t try any more.

4) The dog who loves to play but is physically strong and his style of play is not fun for the owner.

5) The dog who loves to play but easily escalates “over threshold,” resulting in behavior that is not fun for the owner.

At one time or another, I have shared my life with all of these dogs. They have taught me both the power of food and the power of play. There is no absolute wrong or right when it comes to training rewards and relationship building. There are just some things that work better than others, depending on the dog/human dynamic. Don’t be afraid to try something new.

Monday, December 10, 2012

Let them eat cake

I love cake. I am starting to think the main reason I go to agility trials is to eat cake. Seriously, on any given weekend, there is usually at least one MACH cake at a trial. Is this a Midwestern thing or do people do it from coast to coast to celebrate the achievement? Sometimes MACHS are celebrated with cupcakes or cookies but mostly its cake. A great big honkin’ sheet cake that disappears within minutes as soon as it’s cut. (I am refraining from a plague of locusts reference but, well, you get the picture.)

I find eating cake with gobs of sugary frosting at 9 a.m. to be very normal behavior, although judging from responses to my initial Facebook posting of the cake’s picture, it appears perhaps we DO eat an inordinate amount of cake at trials here in the Midwest.

New topic - dogs born in 1999 (there is a connection, go with me here). We have quite a collection of them among my friends. We call them “The 99s.” My Jamie is one of them.  Most are still with us, a few have passed. They were a well-accomplished bunch and until just recently, two of them were still running agility at age 13. They are a special generation, those last puppies of the old century.

I decided it was time to honor The 99s. Naturally, with a cake. I decided to bring a “99s” cake to my club’s recent agility trial.

I enlisted the help of an experienced cake procurer, my friend Paula. She has been responsible for designing, ordering, picking up and delivering a variety of cakes to a variety of events. She knows people who know people. I knew my idea was in good hands.

The only error that ever happened to a cake on her watch was when she ordered a carefully designed cake for a fellow agility friend’s 50th birthday. It was to have green tinted frosting with an agility course designed on it, complete with little dogs running. When she picked up the cake at the bakery, it was plain white and said “Happy Birthday.” That did not end well. Well, actually, it did, because it ended with a free birthday cake, in addition to the non-agility-course birthday cake, which we all ate anyway.

So Paula and I decided a Christmas theme would be appropriate for The 99s cake. Simple, with holly leaves and berries and the dogs’ names listed at random. Really. What could go wrong?

She texted me a photo the night she picked the cake up.

It had white frosting with the dogs’ names carefully and neatly spelled out in red piping. Red and black pawprints adorned the top. In each corner was a cluster of . . . marijuana leaves?

Clearly “holly” is open to interpretation. Perhaps the cake decorator had a different frame of reference than we did.

We laughed. We ate it. It was very good. We’re still laughing.

Here’s to The 99s. You guys rock.

The 99s
OTCh Jamie
Ch. Breeze
MACH Simon
MACH Rylee
MACH2 Nina
Sydney PAX
Magic TDIA

Monday, December 3, 2012

It's gonna get cold some time, right?

The irony of this post is that today's temps are hitting near record highs — 60s on December 3, un-freaking-real — and are predicted to stay above normal for most of the coming week, confirming my theory that the whackadoodle weather pattern from this summer plans to stick around for a while. Not a snowflake in sight. Seriously not complaining.

But we live in the Midwest and eventually reality is going to hit and I’m not going to have the ambition to make the hour round-trip drive to the club building to train. There’s only so much snuggling on the recliner we can do before Phoenix starts bouncing off the walls.

Here’s what’s on our “train without leaving the comfort of your home” list for the winter. We can do all of this indoors at home.

1) Scent article room search. Instead of putting articles in a traditional pile, scatter them around a room.  The dog has to work harder to find his article and this has the added benefit of encouraging easily frustrated dogs to settle and do their job. Phoenix is a poster child for this - loves doing articles, loves the instant gratification of finding them easily in a tradition pile. He was definitely challenged when I scattered them around a room. As the dog gets more proficient, articles can be hidden in more difficult places. We are up to “hiding” articles in plain sight on the seats of chairs and the couch or under an end table.

2) Body awareness: backing up stairs. Phoenix mastered this in about 2 sessions, leaving me to wonder at what point in his development did he learn the foundation for this. He is an easily shaped dog and is willing to try different behaviors when faced with new situations but sometimes it really scares me how freaky fast his mind works. Now that he’s learned how the mechanics of it, I’d like him to do it without barking at me. Is that too much to ask?

3) “Go to (fill in the blank)”: this is something I’ve taught all my dogs because I’m often too lazy to walk from one end of the house to another to take something to the Farmer. We use this system a lot for mail delivery. The shelties and Jamie were all good at it. They went straight from Point A to Point B. Phoenix takes the offered item and then runs amuck, ignoring the Farmer until eventually delivering what’s left of whatever I gave him. This winter I need to load up the Farmer with treats, then practice sending Phoenix back and forth. At the moment Phoenix clearly finds possessing the item more rewarding than actually delivering it. Who knew the "Iowa Farm Bureau Spokesman" was so much fun.

4) Touch (in the context of go outs): strengthening the understanding of “go touch what is straight in front of your nose.”

5) Core strengthening - balance disk: right now Phoenix is sitting up and waving on his balance disk. He looks like a demented prairie dog. I have 2 disks so may do something with hind feet on one disk and front feet on another.

6) Body awareness - bowl work: good for moving hind quarters, glove turns, finding heel, moving laterally while working fronts. Plus he thinks its fun to put his feet on a bowl and do stuff. He’s apparently a reincarnated circus dog. I should get a big ball and teach him to roll it with his front paws.

7) That stupid pet trick you saw someone else’s dog do and thought it was hysterical. In our case, it’s balancing food on his nose and having him toss it into the air and catch it. Since he can catch flying cheese at 30 feet, I figure this might take all of 17 seconds. We haven’t tried it yet.

8) Fronts and finishes. Forever. Amen.

9) Backing up on the flat (no stairs). This falls under a number of categories: tricks, body awareness and adding an element of silliness to obedience exercises. While I don’t think he needs to back half way across the county, I like using a “back” cue during any distance work. For example, Utility signals: give the drop signal, then cue “back.” Phoenix finds Utility signals an annoying imposition on his time but he thinks backing up in a down is crazy fun. I don’t know why. He’s nutty like that. I also use it on the drop on recall: come, down, back, release.

10) Tugging skills. Phoenix has always been an enthusiastic tugger and I’ve let him develop some bad habits through my own lack of understanding of the mechanics of tugging with a strong dog. So we’re working on more TUGGING (biting and staying on the tug) and less MUNCHING and THRASHING, which helps him work with a clearer, calmer mind and is easier on my body with more effort from my dog and less work for me. His “outs” are improving, too.

When we go to the building or get together with friends we can work "big" stuff, like heeling and retrieves and directed jumping and all that. But these little exercises will keep both of us from getting cabin fever and keep body and mind active. Plus, tugging with him really is better than any gym workout!

So let it snow, let it snow, let it snow.

Did I type that out loud?