Saturday, December 28, 2013

Does this happen to Martha Stewart?

Last year I hosted a family Christmas gathering and our furnace quit working. This year I hosted a family Christmas gathering and my oven broke. It has been suggested that I stop hosting Christmas gatherings before I manage to blow up the entire house, but since no one else is offering to have them, I'll continue my reign of domestic terror and see what household appliance I can break next.

The oven actually broke before Christmas. It happened at some point while I was baking. I can't pinpoint the exact moment the thermostat or the heating element went whack-a-doodle but it was shortly before I took a sheet of semi-charcoaled cookies out of the oven.

I don't burn cookies. Ever. Period. This is not open for discussion. Cookie baking at our house is a sacred activity and Cookies Do Not Burn. The smoking tray of cranberry/white chocolate cookies was distinctly un-Martha Stewart-esque. Something was amiss.

As it turned out, the thermostat worked. It just didn't work correctly. Reminds me of some dogs I know. A temp setting of 350 degrees yielded anything from 275 degrees to 425 degrees. I got the holiday baking done by constantly monitoring an oven thermometer and juggling, shifting and turning the trays accordingly. My apologies to any friends who received slightly under-baked cookies this year. I prefer to err on the side of caution. Using the smoke alarm as a kitchen timer is frowned upon.

So the Farmer and I hitched up the team, went to town and bought a new oven. Oops. We bought a new range. There's the oven part and the stovetop part and collectively they are known as a range. Like home on the range. Which gives me visions of cooking in a cast iron stove fueled by wood and corn cobs. Which was kinda what I felt like I'd been doing because the old oven couldn't hold a steady temperature setting to save its life.

The good news was they had a model I liked and it was on sale and there was even a rebate. The bad news was that they couldn't deliver it until after Christmas. Which meant I got to cook Christmas dinner for the family with an oven that offered complete unreliability. I planned side dishes that could be fixed in the Crock Pot or microwave, said a prayer for the well being of the ham and promised family members I would not serve them baloney sandwiches. My mother wisely offered to bring the pie. I thanked her for it. Pie is sacred.

Flash forward. Delivery day arrived. The delivery men assured me they would call 30 minutes before getting to our house. Fortunately, I took the entire afternoon off of work and was at home, because they didn't call 30 minutes ahead, they just showed up. And tried to deliver my range to my mother-in-law, who lives down the road. That was just the beginning.

We have a pretty solid coating of snow and ice at our place and once they finally got here, the delivery men were flummoxed regarding how best to park their delivery truck so as not to damage the new appliance, the truck or themselves. There was a great deal of backing up, pulling forward and circling around. Then the hydraulic ramp thingie on the back of the truck refused to cooperate, resulting in a lot of whacking and banging until they got it lowered.

They came in and took the old stove out. The dogs were shut in the bedroom. Really, these guys didn't need any more help. Or maybe they did. There was some dispute about getting the old stove through the door onto the porch. Seriously, I have drug enough over-loaded crate dollies through doors at show sites I could have told them all they needed to do was back up and get a straight approach, then run like you're on Platform 9 3/4 at Kings Cross. But nobody asked me.

Once they got the old one out, I thought things were going to get better. I hung out in the house and waited. And waited. And waited. The new range is electric. All they needed to do was unload it, plug it in and shove it into place. But nothing was happening.

There were two guys, a big husky guy and a skinny little guy. They were standing at the back of the delivery van, waving their arms. Finally the skinny little guy came in. "We broke the glass in the oven door of the old stove," he said.

This didn't concern me too much but I was starting to have doubts that my new stove was going to ever make into my kitchen in one piece. It was looking like baloney sandwiches for supper for the immediate future.

The big husky guy came in. "I'm going to pick up the glass," he informed me. Well. Yay for you.

In the mean time, the skinny little guy hauled the new range in, plugged it in and after a great deal of grunting and groaning, got it shoved into place. The big husky guy came in when he was done. "I got all the big pieces," he said. "Pretty sure I got most of it."

I signed the delivery form and they left. I  looked at the kitchen floor. It was covered with mud and melted snow.

I went outside to look at the place where the glass had broken. I wondered what constituted a "big piece." The ground sparkled with thousands of tiny bits of shattered glass, mingled with snow and gravel. I got a scoop shovel and shoved up about a six-foot square section of the driveway.

Since the back porch door had been propped open the whole time the kittens had come inside and made themselves at home. They were sprawled atop the grooming table in the sunshine, batting at the leashes that hung from nearby pegs. One of them had drug all 40 feet of a tracking line off its peg and wrestled it into submission, creating a delightfully snarled mess. Weezel was happily chewing a leather leash in half. Seriously. He chews like a dog. This whole litter of kittens has some very canine characteristics, not the least of which is they run in a pack.

I rescued the leash, untangled the tracking line, shooed the kittens outdoors, mopped the floor and turned the dogs out of the bedroom. Does Martha Stewart have days like this?

Monday, December 23, 2013

A weather-induced rant

In the last five days, the National Weather Service has issued four separate watches, warnings and advisories for the area where I live: a freezing rain advisory, a winter storm watch, a winter storm warning and a windchill advisory.

Some were issued concurrently and the winter storm watch came out last Friday, before winter even officially started. So special. The irony of that was not lost on anyone who calls the Midwest home.

Not to put too fine a point on it, but I am descended from freaking crazy people. That’s the only explanation for why my ancestors chose to settle here. Or maybe I am descended from perfectly normal people who arrived in this part of the world on a day that was cloaked in deceptively mild weather.

When my Cameron, Mills, Andersen and Hanson ancestors immigrated from Scotland, Ireland, Sweden and Denmark, respectively, they must have arrived in the Midwest on a lovely day when the sun was shining and the rolling hills were ripe with the promise of fertile farm land and soft breezes. It looked like the ideal place to start a new life.

If they’d arrived in the dead of winter they would have taken one look at the glacial wasteland that is Iowa in December, gotten right back on the train and kept going. Then I could be living somewhere sensible like southern California, where Mother Nature only occasionally tries to kill people with earthquakes. But no. They liked what they saw, built farmsteads and planted crops and raised livestock and managed not to freeze to death long enough to produce the next generation of crazy people, who chose to continue living here.

The Swedes and the Danes, after all, came from lands that spent a good part of the year locked in ice and snow. They probably felt right at home. Crazy Vikings. I would like to think my Celtic ancestors had better sense, although Scotland has been called “the land that invented weather,” so maybe not.

Depending on which account of history you choose to believe, Clan Cameron was at the forefront of the Highland charge against British troops in the Battle of Culloden in Scotland in 1745. That didn’t end well for the Scottish Highlanders in general and Charles Stewart in particular. I have no idea if I can claim a direct ancestry to Sir Donald Cameron of Lochiel but if I could, it would be great to blame some of my questionable decision-making skills on genetics.

But I digress. The Farmer is a German whose ancestors apparently didn’t have any better sense than mine so here we are - lifelong residents of Iowa for better or worse.

Winter in Iowa generally qualifies as worse. During the summer when it’s so hatefully hot, I swear I won’t complain about winter. Then when it gets here, I’m the first one to complain. It’s a God-given Midwestern right. If you live through it, you get to bitch about it. We recently had a string of days here in Iowa when it was warmer in Anchorage, Alaska. That. Is. Just. Wrong.

The problem with winter here is that it rarely presents itself as the Currier and Ives print of happy people skating happily on frozen ponds and riding happily in sleighs pulled by happy horses. In Iowa, we don’t get happy ski resort winter. We get freezing rain that turns highways to greased skating rinks. Then we get snow on top of it and spend the next four months falling on our butts and crashing our cars into ditches, deer and each other. The ice is happily insulated by the snow, ensuring that it lasts until March. We get winds that scream straight down out of Canada until the mercury drains out of the thermometer. There’s nothing between Iowa and Canada to stop them. Minnesota is clearly not up to the task.

Snow and bitter cold are only fun (translation - "tolerable") during the holidays. I can pretend to enjoy ridiculous amounts of crappy weather by telling myself it adds atmosphere. Santa is coming and everything is a cocoa and pine trees and roaring fires and cookie-baking winter wonderland. How fun. If you needed proof that I can be delusional, this is probably it.

Once Christmas passes, the novelty wears off and shit gets real in a hurry. Or in the case of this year, it got real before Christmas. When the holidays pass, there are still three more months of snow and cold to endure before spring comes and I can start complaining about mud. Mud sounds deliciously attractive right now. No one ever cut their paws open on mud. The jagged ice razors lurking outside our back door guarantee at least one incident of bloody pawprints coming back into the house before spring arrives.

Living in the Midwest provides a skill set that people who live on the West coast or in the South will never experience. Over the years, I’ve become a pro at gauging how much speed I need to bust through the drift at the end of the lane without spinning out of control and doing a Wile E. Coyote on the back of the neighbor’s machine shed with my van. I know exactly where to put the space heater to thaw frozen pipes and am capable of doing it at 1 a.m. in my pajamas without actually waking up. Shoveling sidewalks is a cardio workout and I can maneuver across an ice-glazed parking lot while carrying grocery bags with the delicate balance of an Olympic gymnast.

I could happily spend the winter months ensconced in a sweatshirt and flannel pajamas, stuffing myself with carbs and binge-watching "Game of Thrones," seasons one and two, which were thoughtfully loaned to me by a friend. In fact, I plan to do just that once I am released from the familial obligations of this coming week.

On the bright side, from December through March, all it takes for me to have a perfectly wonderful day is to get up in the morning and A) the furnace is working B) the pipes aren’t frozen C) my van starts D) I can get the garage door open E) there’s no snowdrift in front of my garage door (or if there is, I can blast through it) and F) I can get to the highway without yelling "Yeeeee-haw!" as R2 goes sideways or airborne more than twice and G) I can see at least 50 percent of the pavement markings on the highway on my way to work. That qualifies as a damn fine day, no matter what else might happen.

Merry Christmas, everyone. I've enjoyed this last year of sharing my life, my dogs, the Farmer, the Adorables and Phoenix's and my on-going training and trialing journey with you. I hope you all have warm, safe, wonderful holidays and I wish you all the best in the new year.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Because I don't want to break my dog

In the spring of this year, I made the decision to stop running agility with Phoenix so we could focus on his obedience work. Trying to excel in the upper levels of two demanding sports was not going well. Our training time was constantly in conflict and seemingly governed by whatever trial was coming that weekend. This wasn't a recipe for success in either arena.

Eight months later, I feel I made the right decision. As long as Phoenix was having a delightful time on an agility course (regardless of whether it was the course the judge designed and I attempted to handle or one of his own creation), I could happily ignore the engagement and effort problems that arose when agility obstacles were not present and we were faced with a much less self-rewarding performance venue.

Through the summer and fall, I’ve gone to several agility trials to watch friends run or to work and support the clubs I belong to. The question is always the same: Why aren’t you running? This is followed by a secondary question, usually spoken with a combination of concern and disbelief: But you’ll come back, right?

I don’t know. Honestly. I don’t.

I haven’t undergone a zealot’s transformation and I don’t hate agility, but stepping outside the sport for the better part of a year has allowed me to see some things I did not see before.

The primary reason I backed off training and running agility is that I want to earn an OTCh. with Phoenix worse than I want to earn a MACH. Anyone who has embarked on a journey for either knows this is not a quest for the faint of heart or something you’re likely to achieve without absolute dedication.

The secondary reason I backed off is that I don’t want to break my dog.

Without a doubt, Phoenix loved agility. He loves anything he can do at high speed with reckless abandon. In spite of being trained and handled by a middle-aged woman who admittedly does not like to push the envelope, he happily compensates for my cautionary tendencies. As a trainer, I have worked hard to master timely cues, set realistic lines on a course and give him safe approaches to all obstacles - all in the name of keeping him from getting hurt.

Phoenix will turn 7 at the end of this month. He’s been running agility since he was 2. In those 5 years, fueled by the adrenaline high that comes from running at trials, he has leaped off the top off A-frames, flown off sides of dog walks and launched himself from teeters. He has gone through muscle-wrenching contortions to accommodate courses with complex twists and turns. He has crashed through jumps and face-planted on turns. He has hit weave entries with so much speed I swear I could hear his ribs crack. The dog who runs with controlled elegance in the back yard becomes a crazed speed addict when put on the start line at a trial. He apparently has no pain threshold and the word "caution" is not in his vocabulary. He is the most physically and environmentally sound dog I’ve ever owned, a natural athlete with a love of the game and no fear. Some trainers might consider him the ideal agility dog. For me, running him was becoming a nightmare.

I was seriously afraid he was going to break himself.

My two previous agility dogs never ran fast enough to get hurt. They took courses at a canter and didn’t slip, crash or do fly-offs. In a sport where handlers work to shave fractions of seconds off course times, this casual approach was not looked upon as a desirable quality.

I thought getting a dog who ran balls to the wall would be a wonderful thing. It wasn’t.

Maybe my ears are just more open to it now, but there is quiet litany that hums under the surface conversation at every agility trial. Listen closely and you can hear it: my dog is limping, my dog is lame and the vet doesn’t know why, my dog pulled (insert muscle group here), my dog has a soft tissue injury, my dog needs a month of crate rest, my dog has to be leash walked for six weeks, my dog tore his ACL, my dog needs surgery, my dog needs six months of rehab, the vet doesn’t know what is wrong with my dog, I’m taking my dog to (insert name of veterinary college or rehab facility here) for an evaluation, my dog is retired from running agility.

You can’t swaddle your dog in bubble wrap to insulate him from every potentially injurious situation, no matter what games you play. Phoenix could (and has) hurt himself chasing a cat. He ended up with a neat line of stitches across his ribs a few years back when he smashed himself into a piece of farm machinery. Case in point. That had nothing to do with any training venue. But I’d like to think I can control the odds to some extent and that means not giving him repeated opportunities to fly off dog walks and crash through spread jumps every weekend.

Agility is marketed as a sport for everyone and their dog, yet looking at the spectrum of dogs who are running, there are undoubtedly some that should not be on the course due to structural or conditioning issues. The impact of repeated jumping and negotiating contact pieces at speed is not doing their bodies any favors, and this repeated stress may or may not eventually catch up with them in the form of injury.

Yet other dogs are truly natural athletes who perform weekend after weekend without showing any ill effects. I often wonder if their love for the game simply overcomes minor degrees of pain until an injury becomes debilitating. Then there are middle-of-the-road dogs who appear fine for years, then suddenly come up with a lameness that defies diagnosis. Maybe it’s an agility injury. Maybe it’s not.

I’m not saying agility is dangerous and I’m not saying every dog who runs agility is going to get hurt. I’m just calling it like I see it in respect to my own dog.

When Phoenix is 10 or older, I’d like to still be showing him - maybe in veterans classes, maybe tracking or doing nosework or exploring some venue we haven’t tried yet. Most of all, I’d like him to be fit and strong and not plagued by chronic pain from an injury that perhaps I could have prevented.

It’s a choice every handler has to make, based on their priorities and goals for their dog.

Can I guarantee that by not running him in agility he will avoid all injuries? Of course not. Will I return to agility at some point? I don’t know. It’s a fun sport and I’d like to think I could get a grip on my wonderfully insane dog to allow him to participate in a safe manner. I’m not sure how realistic that is. For the immediate future, our focus remains on obedience.

Saturday, November 23, 2013

The other '99

Jamie was born in 1999, one of a special group of puppies of different breeds born that year who came to be known among my friends as "The '99s."

The '99s got OTChs, MACHs, CHs, group placings, tracking titles, went to the National Obedience Invitational, agility nationals and brightened people's days as therapy dogs. Many of them have crossed the Bridge, many of them are still with us, a little deaf, a little creaky, but still enjoying life.

But wait. There is another '99.

Winnie The Cat was born in April 1999, one of a litter born to Critter, who was given to the Farmer and I as a wedding present. She is 14 years and 7 months old (3 months older than Jamie) and has lived an absurdly blessed life for an outdoor farm cat.

She comes onto the back porch from time to time, to hang out on the old couch and eat from bowl that she doesn't have to share. 

I am trying to update my rogue's gallery of cat pictures. The Adorables are easy to photograph, providing I can get them to leave me alone long enough to do it. Newcomers Bonus and Wild are a little more difficult, given that they are not convinced Phoenix is not going to eat them. Phoenix has discovered that having this many cats on the place means there is much more cat food available and his focus seems to have switched from pursuing unauthorized cats to stealing their food.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

It's loose!

If you have sensed a disturbance in the Force, Phoenix has been granted loose-in-the-house-during-the-day-when-no-one-is-home privileges. He will turn 7 next month.

These privileges have been a long time coming. For most of his life, I doubted this day would ever come. My previous dogs all had free run of the house by the time they were 3. There was occasionally some minor collateral damage as they adjusted to unsupervised freedom but it was no big deal.

I knew from day one things were going to be different with Phoenix. He was a . . . busy . . . puppy.

Busy. Yes. That sounds nicer than feral cat on crack.

Before Phoenix, I scoffed at people who told tales about their dogs tearing up things in the house or stealing things off the counters. That would never happen in my house, I thought smugly. Everyone knew you had to keep an eye on young dogs to teach them house manners and prevent them from committing transgressions.

In Phoenix’s case, you had to keep both eyes, both hands, a collar and a six foot leash on him. And never turn your back on him. And never assume anything was “safe.” And still his list of transgressions continued to grow.

People who owned his littermates posted on the email group about how well-mannered their puppies were. They had full house privileges at 6 months of age. They were unsupervised during the day and slept on the bed at night. I shuddered in horror at the thought. If Phoenix was loose at night, I was pretty sure there would be no sleeping for any of us.

His reign of domestic terrorism continued. Even with humans around to keep an eye on him, his level of criminal activity escalated as he grew bigger, faster and  . . . busier.

I remember chastising the Farmer once for letting 3-year-old Phoenix steal laundry out of the hamper and run amuck with it through the house.

“You were supposed to be WATCHING him,” I said.

“I was watching him,” the Farmer replied. “I watched him run into the bathroom and grab your bra out of the clothes hamper. He’s really fast.”

Phoenix didn’t care if he was being watched or not. He delighted in committing crimes right under my nose. He didn’t care what he took, the reward was simply in the possession: socks, books, magazines, cooking utensils, tubes of hand lotion, entire boxes of kleenex, the TV remote, shoes, training gear, CDs, pens, pot holders, house plants. Anything he could grab off any surface was fair game.

I quit counting how many tubes of lip balm were sacrificed to his eternal thieving quest. Once I pried my little point and shoot digital camera out of his mouth. (It had been allegedly “safe” in the middle of the kitchen table.) Another time, it was the 14K gold chain and pendant I’d bought to commemorate the American Belgian Tervuren Club national where Jamie went High In Trial.

Then there was the honey incident. The Farmer didn’t get Phoenix’s crate door latched after taking him out to potty and he spend the afternoon in a merry romp through the house, culminating with the theft of a plastic squeeze bottle of honey off the kitchen table. I came home that day to find honey liberally applied to the floor in every single first floor room.

There was no way I was ever leaving this dog loose in my house unsupervised.



When I left the house, Phoenix went in his crate. I could rest assured the house would still be standing when I got home and that I would not need to buy more lip balm.

Years passed. Phoenix’s thievery continued but now he stole things and brought them to me to exchange for a cookie.

“If you wouldn’t feed him for bringing you stuff, he wouldn’t keep doing it,” the Farmer said.

“If I wouldn’t feed him for bringing me stuff, he would take it where I couldn’t see him and chew it up,” I said.

I started to give Phoenix tiny tastes of freedom while I ran outside to help the Farmer with one chore or another. He worked up to being loose for a couple of hours while we went out to dinner. I tentatively started letting him stay loose with full run of the house when I had to be gone in the evening for work, cautioning the Farmer to, “Please watch Phoenix while I’m gone.”

“What am I supposed to watch him do?” the Farmer asked.

A couple of years ago, Phoenix graduated to sleeping loose at night. Once it was established that the bed was for the humans and the thick fleece pad on the floor was for him, it was all good. Granted, Phoenix tends to do a fair amount of nocturnal hunting and I’m still trying to convince him that barking at the top of his lungs and throwing himself at a window because there’s a bunny on the lawn at 3 a.m. is not acceptable behavior.

During the short daytime intervals when Phoenix was loose in the house, a pattern evolved. To his credit, by now he was no longer stealing things and munching them up. He just stole them and re-purposed them. I usually found any purloined objects scattered in front of the living room picture window.

“He starts as soon as you turn at the end of the lane,” the Farmer told me. “He goes and gets stuff and piles it in front of the window. Then he sits on it and waits for you to come back.”

Well. That seemed relatively harmless and oddly sweet. 

As this continued, a new pattern formed. When I came home, I would greet Phoenix in the kitchen and ask, “What did you take?” Phoenix would race off into the living room and return with a shoe or slipper or random piece of my laundry. I collect the item and ask if there was anything else. There usually was. He would bring me everything, I’d put it away and life was good. But I still didn’t trust him for longer than an hour or two, with or without the Farmer’s questionable supervisory skills.

When I was home on leave after surgery in September, Phoenix was with me 24/7. For 4 weeks, he never saw the inside of a crate in the house. When I returned to work, I only went back for half-days at first, and decided Phoenix could be loose in the house for the 4 hours I would be gone each morning. He proved trustworthy, still collecting one or two shoes for his stash in front of the living room window.

When I returned to work full time, I put him in his crate before leaving that first day. He looked at me like. “Seriously? I took care of you for a month and this is what I get?” I relented. What the hell.

He’s been loose during the day since then, carefully gathering shoes and bringing them to me when I come home from work. 

Wednesday, November 13, 2013


For Team Phoenix, the 2013 obedience trial year is over. We’ve shown the last two weekends in a row, with mixed but optimistic results and are ending the year on a high note of achievement and discovery.

2013 was not a year of dazzling glory for us. It was more like a roller coaster ride of random delight and head-banging frustration. If I had to pick a single word to describe this year, it would be renaissance. The classic definition of renaissance is a revival or rebirth, characterized by learning.

This year I learned that a lot of popular training methods, although sparkly and inviting on the surface, just didn’t work for me. I learned that some methods worked wonderfully even though they were deceptively plain, without much whiz-bang surface appeal. I learned to sift through the mind-numbing amount of information available to trainers and to find peace in knowing I’ve chosen methods that are right for me and my dog. I learned about fixing problems with our foundation work and continue to be amazed both at what my previous dogs learned in spite of me and at Phoenix’s ability to learn foundation elements I had overlooked and to incorporate them into current behaviors.

This was the year I stopped running agility for several reasons, the main one being to concentrate on our obedience training. When we quit running agility in the spring, I was under no illusions that we would magically start earning 200s. Our obedience issues were grounded in a lot of mis-communication and unrealistic expectations on both my part and Phoenix’s. Our road to confident, happy, trusting teamwork has taken us over some rocky ground. We still stumble and take unplanned detours but I’m feeling better about the journey than ever before.

In obedience training as in life, very few problems have a quick fix. Truly fixing something takes time. I learned that many of our problems were based in a lack of some basic fundamentals - things I thought I’d taught but which Phoenix apparently had not learned. I learned more about understanding drive and how it can be a double-edged sword. I learned the dog determines the motivator.

I learned about the importance of making our training look like showing, of finding a balance between working on individual skills and building mental stamina to perform formal exercises in the ring. I learned (again!) the value of my wonderful friends and mentors in this sport who continue to give endlessly of their time to help me brainstorm and problem solve and keep saying, “He can do it, I know he can, he’s going to be awesome.”

This year we earned 2 U-UD legs. We added an AKC Utility win to our hard-fought collection, bringing us about half way to completing his OTCh. UDX legs remain a hit and miss proposition because I pulled Phoenix out of Open B for about six months to work on out-of-sight stay issues. Happy to report we were 2-for-2 on his debut return in the Open ring last weekend. Is the problem fixed forever? Probably not. Will it require constant maintenance for as long as I continue to show him? Probably so. But dang, it was a rush to come back with the other handlers and see my dog sitting confidently in the line up, not being held by the steward.

Phoenix is not an easy dog to train. If I ask him for 110%, he demands I give it in return. He is brilliant, independent, pushy, headstrong, sweet and funny all at once. He gives nothing for free. He is renaissance all wrapped up in fur.

Thursday, October 31, 2013

Can you be more exciting than a squirrel?

Over the years, I’ve been told repeatedly that I need to be the “most exciting thing” in my dog’s life. If I can be “exciting,” my dog will ignore everything else and work happily in the face of any distraction. I overheard it again at a recent trial, as someone gave a newbie trainer advice on how to handle her highly distracted dog - “You need to be more exciting than anything else in her world.”

Exciting is probably not a word anyone would use to describe me. I am a relatively quiet kind of person. Even after a couple of cups of coffee and multiple corner pieces of MACH cake with inch-thick frosting I still wouldn’t register very high on the excitement scale. Focused, organized, optimistic, driven? Yes. Exciting? Not so much.

So after being told for the umpteenth time a few years ago that in order to get Phoenix to work with me I needed to be more exciting than a squirrel, I stopped and thought about it. No. No, I don’t.

First of all, I physically cannot be more exciting than a squirrel. Even on my best days I cannot mimic a furry little  three-pound rodent who can do acrobatics through the branches and run up and down tree trunks both forward and backward. Nor can I make those annoyed squirrel noises.

Second, if I am to prove myself more exciting than a squirrel, I will have to compete with said squirrel. I choose not to do that. The squirrel would win and I would look like an idiot. And probably get hurt.

Oh, I’ve tried. I’ve cheered and waved my arms around and made funny noises and offered toys and treats and run around until I was sweating, exhausted and couldn’t breathe. When it was all over, Phoenix just thought I was weird and maybe a little unstable and he still wanted the squirrel.

What I can do, however, is be the most important thing in my dog’s life.

There’s a difference. It’s not a whole lot easier but it is a whole lot more realistic.

As with most things, it’s taken me a while to learn this. Being the most important thing in my dog's life means he is empowered to make a choice between me and the squirrel without me being required to behave in ways that would attract odd stares at best and men with butterfly nets at worst.

I’ve seen a T-shirt with the slogan “I’m not crazy, I’m training my dog.” If you ever train in a public place, you know what I’m talking about. While even “normal” training involves a degree of odd (from a John Q. Public standpoint) behavior, I am not extroverted enough to act like an escaped inmate from the asylum every time my dog faces extreme distractions.

I would prefer my dog be able to make the choice by himself: squirrel or me. Just plain ol’ me. No bells and whistles. What you see is what you get. This is the me you get in training and in the ring.  I’m not going to lure or bribe you, because the minute the lures and bribes disappear and the erratic behavior ends, the squirrel wins. And that makes me tired.

Sounds great on paper. How to make it happen?

Obviously, by consistent training using a sensible and realistic plan of working closer and closer to things your dog may find very appealing (sight, scent and noise distractions - which one does your dog find most enticing?) By managing a long-term training plan, not just by managing the moment. By rewarding engagement and showing your dog what options ARE available if he chooses to engage (chase games, tug, goodies, etc.) and also by helping him learn that the squirrel will never actually be available. (If my dog wants to chase squirrels on his own time, that’s fine. But he doesn’t get to check out of a training session and leave me in the dust to do it. Although I will admit it has happened. Bad trainer. Needed to be more forward thinking and set up for success, not hot squirrel pursuit.)

A simple exercise is to have someone else offer your dog a cookie while you are engaging with him. The helper will never allow the dog to actually get the cookie. What happens if your dog tries to get it? Does he look back to you when the helper closes her hand over the cookie? Yay! Reward! The goal is for your dog to choose YOU over a cookie he will never be allowed to eat. Eventually, the squirrel will become the cookie he is never allowed to eat.

But beyond that, build your importance by helping your dog understand you control access to everything he wants (treats, toys, other dogs, the back yard, the recliner, etc.) AND by using genuine, sincere, honest, heartfelt praise BEFORE shoving food and toys at your dog as a reward. Let your dog know he (and his behavior) is important to you before you deliver the goodies.

Over the years, I have had students whose dogs lived in homes with doggie doors so they could go in and out as they pleased. They were free-fed from bowls that were never empty and they had a huge collection of toys at their disposal to entertain themselves with. They were allowed access to the furniture as they pleased, never waited at doors and charged out of their crates the second they were opened. Then the student wanted to know why her dog wouldn't listen to her.

Why should he? In the grand scheme of life, he probably loves his owner but she’s really not all that important. While it’s possible that she might be able to make herself more exciting than a squirrel at any given moment, when it’s all said and done, he can still let himself in and out of the house, feed himself and entertain himself while enjoying all he comforts of his owner’s home without any interaction with her. Or without any sort of rules governing his "pack."

The “be more exciting than anything else” premise works only as long as you are able to become exponentially more exciting than anything that comes across your dog's path at any and all times for as long as your dog’s career lasts.

Being the most important thing in your dog’s life is a commitment you will have to work at every single day of your journey with your dog.

Enjoy the journey.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Rain, cats and go-outs

Since my plan to win the lottery and build a state-of-the-art training center is not moving along as quickly as I’d hoped, Phoenix and I train outdoors a lot. Since I'm back at work full time and it's late October and gets dark earlier and earlier, we train outside when we get the chance.

Which explains why we were working go-outs last night. In the rain. In 37 degrees. This was clearly not a formal run-through session as Phoenix and I haven’t worked a lot of blank wall go-outs. Although nearly all of the sites we show at have gates along the back of the Utility ring, we are showing at a site in November that presents only a blank wall, not even an electrical outlet to provide a visual mark.

Last night I used food on a semi-hidden (in the grass) target next to the outside back wall of the garage to give Phoenix a reason to run straight at solid cinder blocks. Tonight I will be using a different method to provide better control of A) the reward and B) the kittens. Which are not the same in spite of Phoenix occasionally thinking they should be.

Our training session went like this:

Give kittens a big bowl of food inside the garage so they will leave us alone. They find training very entertaining, especially when it involves food on targets. Phoenix is used to having them appear in the middle of whatever we are doing. Sometimes he can deal with them. Sometimes he can't. I don’t get on his case about it, we just work through it.

Place target on ground and put food on target. Mark Phoenix to target and send, let him get the food, call him back.

Run out and put food on target. Run back. Mark Phoenix to target, which is being approached by a kitten. So much for thinking they would stay in the garage and eat their own supper. What - and miss the floor show?

Shout at kitten. This does no good. Send Phoenix fast.

Too late. Kitten is faster and is eating the food off the target. Phoenix decides it is not possible to do go-outs under these circumstance.

Take Phoenix by collar and run to spot to show him that a 5-pound kitten is not a clear and present danger and that he is still expected to go to his spot. Scoop up kitten from spot so she doesn’t get sat on. Praise Phoenix for overcoming the Threat of Cat. Gently toss kitten out of the way with suggestion she go play somewhere else.

Turn to walk back across yard. Feel sharp pain in my leg. Remove kitten from leg (it’s Siren, the leg climber). Set Phoenix up and mark him to the target, which now contains no food but two kittens. He looks at me like, “Are you serious?” I remind him the kittens are not treats.

Farmer comes in from chores, squints at me through the mist and asks if I don’t have enough sense to come in out of the rain.

I tell him if I had my own building I wouldn’t have to train in the rain. He gives me the “I married a crazy woman look” and goes in the house.

Send Phoenix. Kittens scatter. Sit! He sits. Kitten pounces on his tail. I reward with hazardous duty pay.

Run back across the yard. Set up. Mark Phoenix. There are now three kittens between him and his go-out spot. I send him. Kittens run left. He runs right, in avoidance. Collar hold and run to spot. Show him the cookie he could have had for going straight. Decide it would take too much time to round up kittens and shut them in a crate.

Set Phoenix up. Peel Siren off leg. Stuff her under my arm. (I should have documented the amount of training I’ve done this summer with a cat tucked under my arm. Might qualify for Ripley’s.) Mark. Two remaining kittens are running amuck. Send. Phoenix flies across the yard, ignores kittens and sits fast when I stop him. Praise. Treat. Nose is running. Fingers are numb. There are muddy little cat paw prints on my jeans. End session.

Tonight’s plan: food stuck on the garage wall vs food on a ground target. I would like Phoenix to actually get a reward at the point of success (going clear to the wall) without having it stolen by the kittens first. I have no idea how high the kittens can leap. I expect to find out.

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Part IV: The Rules

 The problem with rules is that when someone tells me “You have to do it this way,” I immediately start thinking of reasons why no, I don’t have to do it that way. This is probably human nature – I’m not that much of a rebel and generally, I’m pretty good about following directions. But rules are often restricting and don’t encourage the experimenting and “what if . . .” thinking that can make training a dog even more fun.

So posting a set of training rules is probably not a good idea for me because A) too many rules equal too much rigidity which leads to cookie cutter training where there are no allowances for individual dogs and B) as soon as I think I’ve established a hard and fast rule, Phoenix immediately presents a reason for an exception.

On the other hand, if there is no structure to guide what you’re doing, it can be entirely too easy to stay in your (or your dog’s) comfort zone, thus missing the chance to work through some problems and improve as a team.

So the rules I’m listing here are the baseline I’ve set up for Phoenix and me. It reflects where we are right now. It could change tomorrow!

Keep in mind my primary goal with this plan is to make a substantial portion of our training look like showing so my dog becomes comfortable being asked for formal work without any tangible rewards over a period of time that would mimic our ring time at a trial, and to teach him that the rewards he values are still very much available.

Having said all that, here are The Rules.

• This approach (using formal run-throughs as part of my training routine) is only for a dog who is truly “ring ready.” It wouldn’t be appropriate for dogs who are still learning individual skills.

• We can still work on specific skills in separate training sessions. In fact, we will NEED to because run-throughs don’t involve active “training.” They are tests. (Major exception – if the wheels totally fall off, STOP and go back to training mode. Don’t practice a bad run through just because it was on your agenda for the day.)

• We can have a real ring set up with gates and stanchions (indoors or out) or an imaginary one where I designate part of the building or back yard as the ring and part as the crating area. I put my crate or chair with all my stuff on it outside the ring. Phoenix and I can do anything outside the ring that we would do a real trial – play, give cookies, do tricks, etc.

• When I’ve warmed up my dog, I give my “it’s time to work now” cue (verbal and/or body language) and we go into the ring. No food or toys on me or near the ring.

• Phoenix is wearing a ring-approved collar. 

• We enter the ring, I take off his leash, set up and we do whatever I’ve chosen as the first exercise. Complete the exercise and release.

• Now I have a choice – we can go on to the next exercise OR return to the ring gate, put the leash back on, leave the ring, go back to the chair/crate and have cookies. Putting the leash back on is in important. I can’t let my dog run out of the ring (real or imaginary) to get his goodies. He wouldn’t do that at a trial, right? We need to go together. Have a cookie, play with a toy, then back into the ring, leash off, set up . . .

And so it goes. My goal is to make it black and white to my dog what is expected of him and what he can expect as a result. There will never be cookies in the ring. There will never be toys in the ring. But there can always be cookies outside the ring and I want him to know they are available and he CAN earn them.  Going into the ring is not the end of all things wonderful.

One thing we're working is the engagement factor before, during and after exercises. He'll drop his head and go into "ho-hum" mode at any given time. I've been doing a hand-in-the-collar hand-touch "correction." Take collar with one hand, ask for a touch with the other hand, touch, touch, verbal praise, leash back on, leave the ring, have a cookie, then back into the ring and start again. This seems to be working for us and gets him in the right frame of mind to stay engaged without being verbally rescued or putting the leash back on and giving a collar pop correction. I know it's working because I'm having to do it less and less. Unfortunately, we have a couple of years of practicing disengagement and the ho-hum attitude to overcome because I allowed it. Bad trainer, bad, bad.

Initially, I started doing run-through training by just going into the ring, setting up and releasing to go back out and get cookies. We’ve built from there. Right now, releases for cookies come either at the conclusion of an exercise OR after we’ve moved to the set-up spot for the next exercise. I want Phoenix to know food is available, food can be earned with sustained effort and food will not be delivered in the ring. That’s very clear to me but it’s a concept that has been difficult for him to grasp. For him, the formality of the ring procedure, combined with the cessation of food delivery, pretty much spelled the end of the world. It looked nothing like our training sessions with all their wonderful informality, working bits and pieces and inclusion of food/toys as part of the training.

If he commits an error during a run-through, I correct it with a minimum of fuss and we move on to whatever comes next. There are no do-overs. We can repeat the exercise later in the session if I want to. Error correction is a gray area. It’s an individual decision on what to fix and what to let go during a run-through. I’m willing to allow minor errors. We can address those in skill-training sessions. A run-through is not about being perfect – it’s about sustained effort with good attitude and earning something he wants.

If you have an exercise that needs serious work or a certain skill that is weak, take it off the table when doing run-throughs and work it separately. Don’t practice doing something badly.

One of the major benefits of doing run-throughs is that it forces me to present the “silent handler” my dog will see in the ring. Left to my own devices, I will happily chatter and cheerlead during training. The handler Phoenix had in training was often a very different person than the handler he had in the ring.

What if the session starts to head south? This happened to us after a week of really great sessions. The farm next to the park where we do a lot of our outdoor training moved a herd of cows into a nearby pasture. Phoenix acted like he had never seen cows before in his life. This, the dog who lives on a cattle farm and sees, smells and hears cows every day. But these were new cows. In a place where there had never been cows before. So fascinating. Who knew?

He could not function for keeping an eye on those cows. After struggling with set-ups and two very distracted exercises I gave up on using the run-through approach for that session. We finished by working on attention skills. Add flexibility to the rule list.

Having written this series of posts, I will be the first to agree that yes, I would rather train bits and pieces of exercises that do a lot of formal work. I would rather teach tricks and games that enhance the exercises than focus on repeating the entire exercise much of the time. I would love to have the kind of dog who needs no cookies or toys to make our obedience work sparkle. But that isn’t working for us right now.

I also realize that the instant I post this, I am going to think up a dozen other points I wanted to make. So there may be more to come on this topic.

The journey continues.

Monday, October 14, 2013

Pictures. Cuz they're fun.

I haven't put up any pictures lately so here ya go. iPhone photography at its finest.

Harvest in Iowa Township.

Seriously, woman, taking care of you is exhausting.
Can't a guy catch a nap?

The site of many, many walks over recent weeks.

This morning we saw squirrels and deer.
Phoenix says he saw other things, too.
I didn't ask.

Not  much fall color here yet but gorgeous weather for walking.

The Adorables at seven months.
If you give a cat a box . . .

From left, Siren, Weezel, Gryphon

Sunday, October 13, 2013

Old School Part III: The why's and wherefore's

While doing formal run-throughs as part of our training may seem un-inspiring, I’m finding it fun because Phoenix and I get to fly through the exercises without anything disrupting the flow of our teamwork AND I get to give my dog the cookies and toys he wants afterward – currently we’re breaking for reward after 2 or 3 formal exercises. 

We’ve only been training like this for a couple of weeks and asking for a complete Utility run before getting a reward would not help build the idea of delayed gratification, which is my secondary goal. (More on “the rules” in the next post.)

This ability to give rewards is an important consideration for this training approach. I would love it if Phoenix found playing obedience with me to be enough of a reward that he didn’t need/want anything else to drive a happy and confident performance, but at this point in our journey, it isn’t. Perhaps it might be in the future. Or it might never be. That’s okay – that’s who he is and that's the dog I'm training.

The dog determines the motivator and right now, Phoenix loves his cookies and balls. (Tugging, too, but until I get healed from recent surgery, being yanked around by the malinut is not an option.)

I very much like the “your dog should find it a privilege to work with you above all else” training approach, but this is not a realistic expectation for Phoenix and me right now. My dog loves me. I love him. We enjoy long hikes in the timber, playing with toys and snuggling while watching TV. He’s a fun, complicated, challenging creature and I am delighted to share my life with him. He may not share my world-view on the importance of 40-point heeling and I’m okay with that, too. It’s my job to make 40-point heeling worth his time, so if he wants cookies and balls, that’s okay.

My primary goal for the run-throughs is to make Phoenix comfortable with the picture he will see in the ring, to blur the line between training and showing. This picture includes exercises that begin and end formally and a quiet handler who is not spontaneously pulling cookies or toys out of her pockets or asking for a spinning release in the middle of an exercise - just engaged, confident work without disappointment (and the resultant wheels falling off) when there are no immediate goodies.

I know there are folks out there shaking their heads and saying, “But all you’re teaching your dog is that he will never get any food in the ring.”

And you would be right. Although there's a little more to it.

Unless the AKC makes a drastic rule change, I will never be allowed to give my dog food in the ring. My previous training with Phoenix, which included food and toys as part of the exercises (delivered directly, placed on a target, chased or leaped for), unintentionally created a sense of expectation that can never be fulfilled in the ring. When food failed to be delivered when we showed, I think he perceived it as being wrong, at best, or as punishment, at worst.

BUT! There are tons of food available outside the ring and if my dog works with me, he can have it. EVERY. SINGLE. TIME.

Next installment: The Rules. Honestly, I only intended this to be a 3-part series. But it got away from me and no one in their right mind would want to read the entire thing all at once. If you haven't read Parts I and II, please do, to get the complete picture of where I'm going with this.

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Kickin' it old school, Part II

Through the years, obedience training has evolved from a fairly straight forward process involving a leash, a collar, physical corrections and verbal praise to an incredibly complex process of motivators, lures, rewards, random reinforcement, negative punishment, clickers, toys, targets, guides, shaping, “offered” behaviors and even gadgets that release goodies at a distance via a hand-held remote.

It’s quite en vogue now to add multiple levels of complexity to obedience skills so the dog may be asked to do half a dozen different behaviors all in the name of performing one exercise. I understand the need to keep the dog’s mind engaged and maintain a sharp competitive edge and think a lot of these "bonus" exercises are a lot of fun but . . .

. . . after looking at Phoenix’s roller-coaster obedience career from lots of different angles, I find myself wondering if I have muddied the waters of his training to the point where he simply does not understand how to perform a string of formal obedience exercises as he is expected to do in the ring because those formal exercises look nothing like our training sessions. When he acts like he’s never been asked to do them before . . . well . . . maybe it’s because he hasn’t.

I think my biggest failure with this wonderful dog is that I have put 98% of our training time into informal work and 2% into structured formal work . . .

. . . because I’ve been told repeatedly that formal training is boring. Demotivating. Dull.  Counter-productive to building a partnership that sparkles with energy. On the surface, perhaps it is. And for a majority of dogs, perhaps it is true. 

But I am not training a majority of dogs – I am training Phoenix. As his trainer, I need to give him what he needs to understand his job and to perform it with confidence. He is clearly not generalizing the bits and pieces he sees in training into the complete picture he is asked to perform in the ring.

I love playing games and working separate skills versus whole exercises in training. It’s a lot of fun and I do believe it’s a great way to keep dogs fresh and challenged. However, the fact remains that my training with Phoenix in the last six years has not produced the level of performance I had hoped for. Some days he’s brilliant. Some days he’s dismal. We’re about halfway to his OTCh. but have absolutely zero consistency in the ring.

With this in mind, I’m trying a new approach to our training. Okay, it’s not new. It’s not some brilliant concept that I just dreamed up. It’s old fashioned and I’m sure a lot of people will wrinkle their nose and think, “Really?”

It’s training like we show so we can show like we train. Kickin’ it old school.

We’re doing formal run-throughs multiple times a week.

But wait, there’s more! Stay tuned for part III.

Monday, October 7, 2013

Kickin' it old school, Part I

Come and take a walk down memory lane with me.

In 1988 I graduated from college, got my first real job, my first apartment and my first sheltie, Jess. I joined my first dog club, the Iowa City Shetland Sheepdog Club, and met a small group of wonderful people who also loved obedience.

We got together one night a week to train at a local community center. It was a one-room schoolhouse that was probably built around 1900 (it still had class photos of all the graduates hanging on the walls), with an attached gymnasium that was probably built around 1950. The Sheltie Club stored their mats in the schoolhouse. Every week, we carried them down a small flight of stairs to the gymnasium, rolled them out, set up jumps and ring gates and trained our dogs. When we were done, we rolled everything back up and carried it all back up the stairs to the storage closet.

Our training consisted of trading run-throughs. Full, formal run-throughs, just like we would do at a trial. We didn’t train with food or toys but we gave our dogs cookies and played with them after their run-throughs. We trained like we showed. We didn't know there was any other way to do it.

I loved those training nights. We quit training there shortly before I got Jamie, in 1999. A new club had formed in the area and they rented the local National Guard Armory. Bigger space. Bigger group. More willing hands to carry and roll mats. No stairs. The community center training nights became a fond memory. Years passed. Some of us trained with the new club at the new site. Others grew disillusioned with obedience and drifted away to other venues. The old community center underwent a huge renovation. I’m pretty sure they don’t let people train dogs in the gym any more.

But I’ve been thinking about it a lot lately. The place. The people. The way we trained. The way our dogs worked in training and the way they worked in the ring.

Jess was the first dog I trained past a CD. He was my first CDX, UD, UDX and U-UD. He was a consistent worker who knew how to do his job. He qualified a lot and placed occasionally. When sheltie Connor followed, I paid attention to all the things I hadn’t cared about with Jess: fronts, finishes, forging, crowding, bumping, reckless dumbbell pickups and killing the gloves.

All the while, I was going to obedience seminars and learning new things – new ways to train, new ideas, new theories.  I have no doubt my dogs benefited from my growth as a trainer. My skills improved, my dogs improved and I was ecstatic to finish my first OTCh. with Connor.

Jamie followed and became my second OTCh. The seminars continued. Ideas and theories changed and the face of obedience reflected training methods that were no longer dominated by force and drilling. Cookies were king and obedience training was full of fresh and exciting new concepts for teaching the same old skills without boring the dog and handler half to death.

I learned about motivators and training in drive. I learned about training games to play with my dog instead of drilling. I Iearned how to break exercises down into their component parts. I learned about clickers, purely positive training, shaping behaviors and teaching body awareness, flexibility and balance. I learned about using targets and how to proof for any possible ring scenario. I learned that “formal” training had become the red-haired stepchild to be locked in the attic and never spoken of.

I taught Phoenix how to walk backward, sit backward and scoot backward in a down. I taught him to chase his tail both to the left and to the right and how to sit up and wave. I taught him how to touch no matter where I held my hand. I taught him to weave between my legs, to chase food and to find heel while I was moving away from him. I incorporated all of these tricks into obedience skills. He loved to tug and I incorporated it into our training routines, too, always having a slobbery tug jammed in the waistband of my pants.

I taught impulse control by working him through food and toys on the ground. I implemented jackpots. I practiced random reinforcement schedules. I was careful to never drill anything. I was careful to only train for short sessions and even started setting a timer to make sure I didn’t over-do it.

Training with Phoenix involved all kinds of fun and goodies. I was careful to avoid anything that looked formal or risked the specter of boredom. The days of the community center run-throughs seemed dull by comparison.

Then, as Phoenix’s obedience career progressed, I realized my dog who was awesome at bouncing, tugging and weaving through my legs was not prepared to deal with seven or eight minutes of quiet, formal, sustained work in the ring.

Stay tuned for Part II.

Thursday, October 3, 2013

Too many questions

Subtitled: Things that make you go "hmmm". . .

I have spent entirely too much time in doctors’ offices in the last six months. Doctors, nurses and lab techs all love to ask questions. Sometimes I wonder what they do with the vast amount of answers they collect on each visit because at the next visit, they ask the very same questions all over again. (Disclaimer: my medical care providers have been awesome through my recent experience. This post is written totally tongue-in-cheek. If you work in the health care field, please do not be offended. You're doing a fabulous job. You are appreciated. I love you.)

On April 19, I affirmed I am not allergic to latex. On June 12, I re-affirmed I am not allergic to latex. I continued to be questioned about potential latex allergies on Aug. 30, Sept. 4 and Sept. 18. (All by the same doctor’s office.) I’m not sure how quickly one can develop an allergy but apparently it can happen over night. By the time I had my recent surgery, I was surprised they didn’t wake me up half way through and ask if I was allergic to latex.

The question that always makes me want to laugh out loud, although that would be totally politically incorrect because it is a very sad reflection on our society, is, “Do you feel safe in your home?” I live with a malinois. What do you think? (Granted, the implied answer runs the spectrum from “absolutely, totally safe” to “in danger of bodily harm most waking hours.”)

I have gone to the same gynecologist since I moved to this area 25 years ago. I go for an annual appointment every spring. Every year they ask me how old I am. Umm . . . one year older than the last time I was here? Can’t you look at my file and figure it out for yourself or is this some kind of mental acuity test to see if I've gone round the bend?

Sometimes the questions have legitimate merit but seem to invite untruthful answers. Example: do you use illegal drugs? Um, no . . . but what happens if I say yes?

When I was discharged from the hospital, I had four pages of instructions regarding medications, do’s, don’ts and what to expect as I healed. Carefully typed between the prescriptions I was to have filled and phone numbers to call if I had any questions was the sentence, “Bring these papers to your next doctor’s appointment.”

I could not figure out why in the world I would need to bring my discharge instructions to my follow-up appointment but I stuffed them in my bag and took them along. (I already live with a malinois, no sense tempting fate.) No one asked to see them and no information contained on those pages was requested. It was almost as good as puppy Phoenix’s “required” $50 health certificate to fly from Oregon to Iowa that not a soul at the airport showed the slightest interest in inspecting.

I am happily celebrating The End of the question that has come at every gyn visit since the beginning of time: when was the first day of your last period? As a rule, I have no idea. This always resulted in me staring blankly at the nurse until she sighed and handed me a calendar, at which point I would pick an often random day that seemed likely. On any given day I have a lot of things on my mind. What to have for supper. How to improve Phoenix’s UKC glove exercise. Why OnStar keeps sending me messages about low tire pressure when my tires are just fine. But I have never spent a lot of time thinking about the first day of my last period. And now I never have to. Ever. Again.

Sunday, September 29, 2013

Things I've learned

Over the last couple of weeks, I have learned a few things. Gentle readers, I know you are always on a quest for knowledge, so I will share the highlights.

• If you need to have surgery, schedule it first thing in the morning. Since my surgery was not an emergency sort of thing, I had a fair amount of flexibility in scheduling. They wanted me to have it done in August but that would have meant missing two obedience seminars, a five-day cluster show seven miles from my house and a three-day cluster show with amazing shopping. So that wasn’t going to happen. 

I scheduled for mid-September. I had a 2:30 p.m. time slot. All fine and good except when you factor in no food or drink after midnight. That’s left a lot of time the day of surgery for sitting around hungry and thirsty. Plus when you schedule first thing in the morning, you don’t run the risk of having previously scheduled surgeries taking longer than expected, thus pushing yours back. This happened and my 2:30 p.m. turned into 3:30 p.m. What's another hour of being starved and dehydrated?

• If you have multiple meds to take after surgery, it helps to write down which drug you’re supposed to take and when you’re supposed to take it. Then check it off when you take it. Seriously. I thought I could remember but more than once, the concept of counting forward six hours from 1 p.m. and remembering it at 7 p.m. was more than my anesthesia- and narcotic-fuzzed brain could handle.

• Always take ibuprofen with food.

• Ice cream is food.

• Pain makes your heart beat faster. Lower the pain, lower the heart rate.

• Ask for specifics. When I was discharged from the hospital, my doctor only said “If it hurts, don’t do it.” The problem was that what felt fine on Wednesday had the potential to hurt like hell on Thursday.

• Take a notebook to doctor appointments so you can write things down. It’s amazing how easy it is forget the simplest answer when you have a lot your mind. I even took one to the hospital and kept it on the bedside table. I’ve spent the last 25 years writing down what other people say, why stop now?

• You only get once chance to heal right.

• Nurses are amazing. I don’t know what they get paid but it’s not enough. Appreciate them.

• Steri-strips need to stay on for one week after surgery. Mine were apparently applied with cement. When I peeled them off on Day 10 (with permission), they took a layer of skin with.

• Gals, if you are having a female kind of surgery that might result in bleeding afterward, take your own lady things to the hospital so you'll have what you're comfortable with. After being repeatedly assured by my surgeon and nurses that I would experience “occasional spotting,” I was handed a pad that could have soaked up Lake Michigan. Seriously? 

• Before going to the hospital, I made several of my favorite salads, thinking it would be great to have some tasty things to enjoy when I came home. I don’t know if it was the anesthesia or what, but food didn’t taste right for about the first week. Nothing but toast tasted very good and I ended up throwing out most of my pre-prepared food.

• It’s helpful if you can get any prescriptions filled in advance so you don’t have to mess with an additional stop on the way home from the hospital. My doctor wouldn’t do this (not sure why, I think some will, some won't) so the Farmer went into our local pharmacy on the way home while I sat in the van. In reality, it didn’t take that long but it sure seemed like an eternity while I was waiting.

• Stool softeners + apple cider + grapes = sprint to the bathroom. You have been warned.

• Give yourself permission to do nothing after surgery. I’m one of those people who is always doing something – working, gardening, training, cooking, cleaning, laundry, shopping, teaching a class, helping at a trial, etc.  I’m really lousy at doing nothing. 

Realize that while healing after surgery, the last thing you need is to feel guilty about going back to bed for a nap after breakfast or watching a Harry Potter movie marathon while your co-workers/significant other are working their butts off, doing their jobs and covering for you. Too bad. They didn’t just have their bodies cut into and their guts re-arranged. Make your health your number one priority.