Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Close encounters of the malinois kind

Subtitle 1: They’re everywhere, they’re everywhere

Subtitle 2: A funny thing happened at the gas station

Episode 1: When I pulled into the gas station over the weekend, a dog in the back of the car at the adjoining pump caught my eye. It looked like a malinois but I couldn’t be sure. It’s not every day you see people driving around with a malinois in their car.

When I got out to pump my gas, I asked the woman, "Is your dog a malinois?"

She laughed and looked puzzled.

“I don’t know,” she said, “but people keep asking me that.”

She let Lucy, the mystery dog, out of the car and she greeted me with an exact carbon copy of Phoenix’s ritual greeting: head lowered, diving in straight at my knees, flipping around at the last minute and presenting her butt for scratching. I laughed out loud.

The woman had adopted Lucy from a shelter in northeast Iowa where she'd been turned in as a stray, no history.

Lucy was a little smaller than Phoenix, with his same lean, sleek build. Her coat was honey fawn and she had a black mask and black ears. Big black ears.

I didn’t have Phoenix with me so we couldn’t do a compare and contrast but Lucy certainly appeared to be of the Belgian persuasion. The woman and I had a nice visit without ever exchanging names. Who needs people info when you have dogs to talk about?! Lucy loved people, was reactive around other dogs and rather insane around cats. Sound like anyone else you know?

Episode 2: Last summer, I pulled into a gas station in Iowa City. Phoenix was with me. I parked under the shade of the canopy, rolled down all the windows and pumped my gas. I went into the convenience store to get a pop and when I came out, a Johnson County Sheriff’s Department cruiser was parked at the adjoining pump and a uniformed officer was studying my van with interest.

It’s generally not a good idea when law enforcement is too interested in your vehicle and I truly hoped Phoenix was being a good little dog in his crate and not doing his shrieking car alarm imitation. The officer was standing at a respectful distance, though, and Phoenix was studying him with interest in return.

“Is that a Belgian?” the officer asked, when I approached.

Turned out, he was one of the K9 handlers for Johnson County and his partner was a malinois. He had his dog with him, although he said they’d been “out on an injury.” I didn’t know if he was talking about himself or his dog.

He let his dog out and I was surprised to see he was smaller than Phoenix. (Can’t remember the dog’s name.) I’d always thought most “working” mals were bigger than Nix’s less than 24”, approximately 52 pound stature. We had a pleasant exchange and went on our merry ways.

By now you may have seen the mali who has a role on "Person of Interest" (on CBS, I think) and there were several mals on an episode of NBC's "Grimm" last fall.

They really are everywhere.

Sunday, January 27, 2013

Mama said there'd be days like these

They say no one can ruin your day without your permission.

By noon on Saturday, I decided that “no one” had no intention of bothering to ask permission and they were definitely conspiring against me. Although my days weren’t exactly ruined, they weren’t going according to plan, either.

It started Thursday afternoon when I got pulled over by the state patrol. Sigh. Guilty look. Yes, I was speeding on my way to do an interview for the paper. The officer had me dead to rights. He informed me I was doing 65 in a 55. Really? Yeah. Really. Okay, not arguing. He gave me a written warning and told me to slow down. Maybe that’s two warnings.

Later that afternoon I took R2 to the dealership for an oil change. Phoenix went with me because we were going to train before I taught my evening class. Phoenix is a big hit at the car dealership. That is a post all by itself.

I pulled out of the dealership and within 2 minutes, the “check engine” light went on. Well crap. I turned around and went back. They hooked up a diagnostic computer. Apparently whatever ailed R2 was beyond the scope of that computer. It did the IT version of going belly up.

Thirty minutes and 2 diagnostic computers later, the service department informed me they had identified the problem but didn’t know what was causing it and I would need to make an appointment to come back and have it fixed. (This begged the question of how they were going to fix the problem when they didn’t what was causing it but I didn’t think they wanted to hear my opinion.)

They said there was an air intake problem. I frequently have air intake problems when I run agility but I suspect it’s not the same thing. They said R2 was safe to drive but the check engine light would probably come right back on. (Three days and 350 miles later, it has not come back on.)

Then I went to class and did something I’ve never done in the 15 years I’ve been an instructor. I kicked someone out.

Technically, I kicked her dog out. The owner is welcome to come to the remaining classes, although I’m not sure she will.

Her dog has a number of issues that are not going to be resolved in a class setting and made the class environment extremely unpleasant for the other students. Excusing her was justified but that didn’t make me feel any better about it.

Friday morning, I drove to an agility trial – our first trial in nearly 2 months and it showed. Phoenix was very . . . enthusiastic . . . in his runs and we ended the day 0/3, including getting whistled off in Standard after he put himself back on the teeter.

Saturday morning, our phone rang shortly before 6 a.m. It was the Farmer’s mom. The Farmer’s dad was vomiting blood. The Farmer told me I might as well go ahead and go to the agility trial. His sisters were headed to his folks’ house, too, and he would call me when he knew something. He took off for his folks’ house, which is nearby.

Phoenix and I were in the van, headed down the farm lane we share with the Farmer’s parents when the ambulance pulled in from the road and parked in front of their house, effectively blocking the lane. I decided it would be poor form to go in and ask if they could move the ambulance so I could go to a dog show, so I drove through the field to get to the road.

About halfway across the field, I remembered the Farmer had strung electric fencing somewhere out there in the dark so he could move the cow herd closer to the house in the spring when they start to calve. The way things were going, I was pretty sure I’d find the fencing when I wrapped it around R2’s grill but made it to the road without incident.

I had to shoot pics at a local winter festival in the afternoon and had my fingers crossed I’d be able to get both of Phoenix’s runs in before I had to leave. It didn’t happen. Murphy’s Law ensured the agility trial schedule and the Winterfest schedule were in direct conflict. We ran JWW (another very enthusiastic and NQ-ing run, complete with bonus jumps and bonus tunnels) and headed home.

The weather forecast for Sunday was for freezing rain. Few things will keep me from going to any kind of dog activity but freezing rain is one of them. Deciding to err on the side of caution, I loaded up all my gear at the trial site and figured if I did decided to go back to the show on Sunday, I could just haul it all back in.

Winterfest at Amana actually went well. It was a pleasant January afternoon spent outdoors, taking pictures of crazy people throwing frozen hams, playing hockey with frozen porkchops, watching a beard judging contest and watching people trying to master an old-fashioned cross cut saw, which apparently is a lot harder than it appears.

The Farmer’s dad was diagnosed with a bleeding ulcer and is likely to be in the hospital for a few more days.

Apparently today’s ice storm is a big enough event to warrant a name. Winter storm Luna arrived about the same time I got up this morning, putting an effective end to any notion I’d had about going back to the agility trial today. Freezing rain has glazed our east and south windows, giving them a frosted sort of white stained glass look. The Farmer came back from morning chores and said the country roads were treacherous.

I’ve spent the morning cleaning house and doing laundry. Jobs requiring electricity got top priority on the to-do list because with a forecast for .25” ice accumulation, the power could go out. I’m having minor flashbacks to February 2007, when we were without power for a week after an ice storm.

It’s good to have a clean house and stacks of clean clothes. This afternoon I can groom the dogs and if the power holds on, I’ll bake cookies and work on class material and some things for work. Phoenix and I can play some indoor training games. It should be a fairly relaxing day after three days that felt like one problem after another.

I am carefully NOT asking “What else can go wrong?”

Tomorrow is another day. (Thank you Scarlett O’Hara.)

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Dilemma of the rent-a-handler

Over the years, I have occasionally shown other people’s dogs for them in obedience. We jokingly call this being a “rent-a-handler.” This was in no way, shape or form the same thing as being a "professional handler." It was fun and I enjoyed it tremendously (seriously, who cares, it’s not my dog!) although if I had to count, I’d say my forays into the ring with other people’s dogs have met with more failures than successes.

Why? Because I did not have a real relationship with their dogs beyond a casual friendship and a handful of cookies. I liked their dogs. Their dogs liked me. These were dogs I’d trained with and traveled with for years. The fact that they happily went into a performance venue with me, after very limited practice together, and that we managed to look like we knew what we were doing speaks largely to the good training foundation these dogs had received. I had very little to do with it.

If I were to show someone else’s dog for them long term, with the intent of reaching specific goals, I’d have to put more into it than a few quick spins around the training building and tossing some cookies at them.

Training and showing is about building a relationship with your dog. The titles are by-products. If I took your dog right now and went out on the floor at the training building and he looked stunningly brilliant, it would probably be due to the novelty of working with someone new, not because we shared any mutual respect or trust or understanding of how the game is played together.

If I trained your dog consistently, over time we would develop that relationship . . . but the truth of the matter is, he is YOUR dog. Don’t sell yourself short when it comes to developing that bond that forms from year after year of discovery together - the good, the bad and the ugly, for better or worse, warts and all. It means so much more than ribbons.

While it seems to be quite en vogue in some regions of the country to hand your dog off to someone else to show, for the most part around here, the teams you see in the ring belong to one another.

I never asked anyone to show Jess for me. He was a freak about strangers. At my one and only experience with herding, the instructor insisted on taking Jess into the arena by herself. He spent the entire “lesson” trying to get away from her. When she finally conceded this was not working, he was such a stressed out mess I put him in the car and drove home.

I had a friend show Connor in rally at a trial when I had a ring conflict with Jamie in obedience. Jamie finished his OTCh. at that trial and Connor got his last RN leg so it all worked out. Connor was one of those dogs who would have gone in the ring with anyone. Sending Jamie in with a rent-a-handler, even one he knew, proved to be a bad idea as I discovered several years later when I asked a friend to take him in for Veterans group stays. That didn’t go well. Tracy and I are still friends in spite of it.

I asked a friend to show Phoenix in Open for me at a local trial last fall, when we were experiencing a lot of ring issues. It was an experiment more than anything else. I wanted to see if a different handler changed anything. I did not expect the simple action of sending him in with Michele to “fix” him and it didn’t. In fact, it went so badly she asked to be excused about half way through the run and the judge agreed. I hugged them both (Michele and Phoenix, not the judge) and never did it again. Since then, I have had Michele work Phoenix several times when we are training together and it’s gone very well.

Having someone else work your dog while  you watch really has a way of amplifying what’s good and what’s not - both in terms of what your dog values in your relationship and what he understands or doesn’t understand in the skill training.

If agility is your venue, it’s nice to have a dog who will run for someone else, especially if you get hurt after entries close and can’t hobble around the course. (As my friends and I age discreetly and gently this seems to happen more often.)Who wants to lose $100-plus for a weekend’s entry fees if a friend is willing to run your dog?

Like obedience, this meets with varying degrees of success, depending on the skill of the handler and the bidability of the dog to run for someone who is Not Mom. I would venture to say more dogs are willing to run agility with different handlers than do obedience with different handlers but I have no scientific evidence to back that up. I think Phoenix would be more amenable to doing agility with a rent-a-handler than he was doing obedience but I’d want to test this theory in training before trying it at a trial unless it was an emergency situation.

Bottom line - enjoy your ring time with your dog even if it doesn’t have the end result you were hoping for. It’s all part of the journey. Thanks to Phoenix, I’m learning to value that journey more and more.

Friday, January 18, 2013

"That's my spot"

The Farmer and I moved the bedroom furniture around recently. It was a very small move, more of a tweak, really. A slight repositioning of our bed meant there was less space for Phoenix’s bed along the wall near the headboard, a spot he’s occupied — first in a crate, then sleeping loose on his bed — for 6 years. Thinking nothing of it, I moved his bed about two feet from its original position to a new spot along the adjoining wall.

That night when we all went to bed, Phoenix didn’t. He stood in his old spot and stared at me.

I told him to go lie down, the three magic words that signal all activity is done for the day and the humans are going to be out of commission for the next eight hours.

He stood in his old spot and stared at me.

I told him to go lie down again, just on the off chance he had become suddenly and inexplicably deaf.

He stood in his old spot and stared at me.

I got up and showed him his bed in the new spot, just on the off chance he had become suddenly and inexplicably blind. I had him lie down on his bed in the new spot. I went back to bed.

By the time I got the blankets pulled up, he was standing in his old spot. Staring at me.

Being stared at by a dog in the dark — particularly THIS dog in the dark — causes several degrees of discomfort. It was pretty clear he wanted something. He wanted his bed back in his old spot. The new spot was not his spot.

Well, too bad. I was warm and comfortable and not getting up again.

I faked sleep. Phoenix stared. I faked more sleep. Phoenix stared and (I swear I am not making this up) stomped his front feet.

I gave up. I got up. I picked up his bed. I wedged it sideways into the old spot. He laid down and happily went to sleep.

Phoenix is apparently soulmates with Dr. Sheldon “That’s my spot” Cooper.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Evolution, Part 3

The idea of building value for the handler and blending work and play without constant reliance on food or toys has been a huge part of my on-going training evolution. These were concepts I’d rarely bothered with before Phoenix. Jess, Connor and Jamie ate cookies and worked happily - who need anything else? They say you may not get the dog you want but you WILL get the dog you need. When I got Phoenix, I got a whole lot more than a wonderful dog. I got a wonderful teacher.

After finishing 2 OTChs. that were basically trained with cookies, I hit the wall with Phoenix. He liked cookies well enough. He like obedience well enough, too, but when the cookies disappeared, so did any genuine enthusiasm for the project. I was baffled. How could I make an intrinsically un-rewarding activity fun for my dog?

While the “Make it fun” approach was nothing new — we’d given it lip service for the last 30 years — the emphasis (at least for  me) was starting to shift toward dogs doing obedience work not because they were forced or bribed to, but because they truly enjoyed doing this stuff with their owners. Maybe this had been going  on for a long time and I just finally noticed. (Truthfully, Connor gave me this on a silver platter and I did not recognize it.) The interaction was rewarding. Now dogs worked for the engagement with their owner - not relying on external rewards or the threat of punishment. There were tangible rewards but the reward was no longer the focus of the training experience.

Food was still in the picture but the way trainers used it changed - the dog no longer received it for sitting there like a bump on a log. Food became active. The dog could chase you to get his food or leap up for it or race to grab it off a target. Food suddenly had energy. Fun became FUN! So different from my former teaching to deliver the food directly to the dog’s passive mouth!

Food use aside, I started to explore the concept of letting my dog make the choice to engage with me. Build the relationship and then work the performance skills from a base of voluntary participation, not force or bribery. From day one, I’d been taught that the first step in training was to “get your dog’s attention.” That approach clearly presumed the dog was not paying attention in the first place and you were required to “make” the dog look at you. Even before training started, compulsion or bribery were in play.

In all my years of training, it had never once occurred to me that I could let my dog call the shots, so to speak, and decide whether or not he would be a willing, happy participant in my games. If yes, we would train/play. If no, the session would end without me bribing or forcing, which in all honesty were the two routes I’d been taught to follow - pop the collar or wave the cookie.

There was a great deal of mental agony when I realized that left to his own devices, Phoenix would happily ignore me in the context of training unless I initiated the contact (force or bribery). We would go to the building, snap on a leash, go out on the floor and he would sniff, pull, turn his back to me, watch other dogs, etc.

Ack. No wonder our obedience work was such a mess. What I had mis-interpreted as stress in the ring was a casual indifference for an activity he did not find terribly rewarding unless I was offering cookies and toys. I had to do all the work. He loved me but that did not automatically translate to a love of heeling and fetching.

Slowly, this is changing. I am learning more about play. Through play, I naturally become more interesting to my dog. I have stopped doing all the work for him. I am learning to be patient (always thought I was a patient person before - not so much). I am learning to let him make decisions. I am learning to let him drive the bus.

Now I snap on a leash and go out on the floor and he’s giving me eye contact, bouncing, pushing to work, pushing to play with me. He’s bright and engaged and working. What a bossy, annoying, wonderful dog! He occasionally drives the bus right over a cliff but I will never fault anything that is done with enthusiasm. So much better than our previous sulky, “I’ll do it if I have to” attitude.

We’re not perfect. We still have weak spots. Some days our engagement is shaky at best. But my approach to training is no longer about dominating another species and making it submit to my wants and wishes. I’m learning to work with my dog, not just inflict my will on him and make him do things with no regard to how he feels about it.

Perhaps the biggest gift Phoenix has given me is the ability to question the status quo. But that’s another post.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Evolution, Part 2

The cookie revolution hit my training world in the late 1990s, about 20 years after I started in obedience training in the local 4-H program. By then, I was out of college and showing my shelties, Jess and Connor.

Terri Arnold was the first seminar presenter I saw who used food. Terri’s methods tempered prong collars with cookies, a concept my brain struggled with. Why bother with the cookies if you were going to pop the dog on a prong collar anyway?

I understood (or thought I did) the concept of teach the behavior, then after a reasonable amount of time, during which I was  to assume the dog had “learned,” I was to correct for failure to comply. As trainers, we were still strictly encouraged to never let the dog “get away” with anything. I guess the dogs were going to take over the world if they “got away” with something.

I went to seminars, trained and showed my dogs, had success and failure and finished my first OTCh. I watched multiple trainers use the same methods, all with varying results. I started teaching classes and had the eye-opening experience that I could tell students exactly how to do something and they’d come up with at least 5 different variations on theme, none of which were what I’d told them to do.

The purely positive movement arrived in this area some time during Jamie’s career, in the early 2000s. It was all about the cookie. I went to a Patti Ruzzo seminar. Patti was all cookie, all the time. I liked the concept but how could this work? What were you supposed to do if the dog did something wrong? What if he didn’t give a hoot about getting the cookie? I felt like I was missing something but I learned to cram hot dogs and string cheese in my mouth like a crazed chipmunk and how to spit food for my dogs to catch.

Clickers came on the scene about then, too. At first, I wasn’t impressed. I saw a bunch of cookie-waving, clicker-clicking trainers who started in beginners classes and several years later, were still in beginner classes with dogs who showed no concept of having been trained to do anything but eat cookies.

Cookies were used as bribes to get and maintain the dog’s attention. In fact, we taught the dog to LOOK AT THE COOKIE. Talk about taking the handler out of the equation! With the cookies, the dogs were attentive and accurate workers. Without the cookies to maintain an illusion of engagement, the dogs wandered off with little interest in interacting with their owners, let alone the ability to perform formal exercises under any sort of ring pressure.

BUT . .  I also saw some trainers building fast, happy retrieves under distractions without ear pinches and teaching pretty heeling without repeated collar pops. Did they correct? Yes - but the corrections had changed. This was a huge epiphany. You COULD train without force and it DID work, but only if the trainer had a clear understanding of what they were doing and was in it for the long run - “positive” training was not a quick-fix that could be applied by throwing cookies at a problem. There were no magic cookies.

Corrections themselves were no longer the emotional, negatively charged power trips that forced the trainer to physically and mentally dominate the dog in order to make him obey. The trainer no longer approached training with the attitude of “gotta show the dog who’s boss.”  They weren’t called “corrections” any more, either, because of all the poisonous baggage attached to the word. I don’t know what they’re called now but the “C” word still raises all sorts of alarms and red flags.

Tomorrow: engagement, play and letting Phoenix drive the bus.

Monday, January 14, 2013

Evolution, Part 1

I’ve been writing this for a long time. The problem with blogging is once you’ve posted it, it’s out there forever, for the entire universe to read, and I want to make sure my thoughts are presented as clearly as possible. The purpose of this series of posts is to review my journey as a trainer. I’m sure some of  you will remember and relate. For others who have come to the sport only recently, this first post will be a foreign concept. Either way, it’s been enlightening to look back and trace my journey through a sport that changed tremendously. Everyone's journey is different. These are my impressions.

I started training dogs as a kid in the local 4-H program in the 1970s. In the following 40 years, the evolution of training dogs for competitive obedience has been staggering. While it’s probably safe to say most trainers have abandoned jerk and yank methods, new training concepts are not always embraced enthusiastically. There is always a great deal of nay-saying when new ideas come on the scene. Some people welcome new methodologies with open arms while others reject them, almost on the principal of disliking anything new.

Back in the day, my instructors were 4-H leaders. I think they might have had a couple of CDs and maybe a CDX between them. We were taught to use physical force to make our dogs obey because that’s how you taught dogs who was in charge. Dogs had to obey every time we told them to do something. If they didn’t, we were taught to correct them with no regard to why they were being “disobedient.” We were taught to never let a dog “get away” with being disobedient. I suspect this worked for me because the first dog I trained was the geriatric family beagle. Even as a 9 year old kid, I could control her physically. If I’d had a young, large or rambunctious dog, things might have gone differently.

Corrections were part of training. They were implemented early and often, usually before the dog realistically had any idea what we wanted him to do and therefore how to avoid the correction. It didn’t matter - we were taught to show the dog who was boss. Dogs were never encouraged to think for themselves, only obey their handler. No one gave their dogs treats. No one played with their dogs. “Heeling training” might be 20 minutes of marching around the building, doing jerk and release corrections with dogs on chokers.

If I had to pick one word to describe obedience training back then, it would be "confrontational."

This was my introduction to obedience and it stuck for about 20 years. I really do understand why so many people fled from the obedience scene to what they perceived as the greener hills of agility when that option became available.

Well, I lived through that. Tomorrow: the cookie revolution

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Year of the cat

This is Winnie The Cat.

Not Winnie, the cat.

Winnie The Cat.

By my best calculations, she is 17 years old. I realize this is an absolutely absurd age for an outdoor farm cat but she was born several years after I got Connor, and I got him in 1994. So you do the math. Even if I'm off by a couple of years, she's still an antique.

She is the only cat at our place now.

Several years ago, I did The Great Farm Cat Purge. Many of our less-than-healthy farm cats made a one-way trip to the vet. Natural attrition (disease, the road, coyotes and raccoons)  reduced the remaining numbers.

This spring I want to introduce some new cats to our farm. A farm needs cats. Healthy, strong, spayed/neutered vaccinated cats. Cats who can catch mice and keep them out of my house. The Farmer is all about getting a couple of cats. He is NOT all about mice in the house.

Phoenix wants a cat.

Actually, he and Winnie The Cat get along fairly well. She doesn't move very fast. Some days, I don't think she moves at all. She hangs out in the garage. I occasionally see her sauntering around the farm as if she has no where to go and all day to get there. She lazes in spots of sunshine and greets me with happy (demanding) yowls every afternoon when I get home from work. She eats her kitty crunchies and sleeps in her Rubbermaid tote lined with old crate fuzzies and insulated with old rugs.

She's pretty agile though. She leaps around in the garage like she's half her age. Phoenix follows her around, pokes her with his nose and occasionally squashes her with a paw. She's tolerant. Or maybe she's oblivious. She seems to like him. He is fascinated by her, in that slightly creepy Malinois way that is borderline obsession.

So getting a couple of kittens is on my agenda this spring. I'm under no delusions that Phoenix will be as graciously patient with leaping, twirling, spinning, racing, hissing, spitting, swatting kittens. Not sure Winnie The Cat will be either.

But she has three names. The kittens will have one name each. So they should realize they are inferior.

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Forget formal

Got an interesting e-mail from a friend and student recently. She asked about the best way to “transition to formal training without (insert dog’s name here) hating it.”

The underlying assumption is that once you quit playing around with food and toys in training and start to seriously prepare for the ring, the dog will naturally hate obedience in the absence of his goodies.

It happens. We’ve all seen it. Watch any beginner-level obedience class and the dogs are usually pretty happy. There are cookies. There are toys. There’s no pressure. Everyone is having fun.

Then trainers decide it’s time to get ready to show and they “get formal.” The cookies and toys disappear. What have you got left?


What a complicated word.

It’s not just loving your dog and your dog loving you back, although that is part of it. But it goes deeper. It’s about really enjoying working together. It’s about finding one another rewarding. It’s about trust and respect and patience. It’s accepting there will be good days and not so good days when it comes to achieving the things you want.

You’re never done building and maintaining a strong relationship with your dog but it’s more valuable than any magic treat or favorite toy and absolutely worth every second you put into it.

Having said all that, one of the (many) huge lessons Phoenix has taught me is that “formal” is overrated.

I used to train by taking my dog to a park or building, setting up gates, jumps, etc. and then running my dog through each Open and Utility exercise. Everything was just like they would see and do it in the ring, right down to the fronts and finishes. We did this over and over and over.

Oddly enough, this method worked great for my first sheltie, Jess, because he truly LOVED (yes, in all caps) obedience. It also worked with sheltie Connor because he was a Type A workaholic personality. It worked to a degree with Jamie, because he is the Most Patient Dog In The World and he just did whatever I wanted him to do.

It did not work with Phoenix. Phoenix did not truly love obedience and he is not a patient dog.

That was when I learned that “formal” training is overrated.

Our training now is a mix of doodling, problem solving, drive building and play with an occasional formal element thrown in. This is how we "get ready for the ring."

Granted, this is with a dog who has his UD and understands the exercises. If he showed any confusion about a skill, then we’d go back to the foundation and focus on clearing up the problem. But since he is allegedly “trained,” our training time is not spent marching formally from one exercise to the next.

It’s about having fun together. Training has to be fun on a level far beyond cookies to expect any lasting ring carryover. We’ve learned to play. I’ve learned the difference between him eating a cookie and totally turning on for a game of chase or tug.

When preparing for the ring, I think it’s important for the dog to see the whole exercise assembled occasionally, so yes, by all means, do a formal recall once in a while. Do a stretch of formal heeling. Then do a half-dozen informal recalls using restraint or heel with hand touches, spinning and chasing. Do whatever makes it fun for BOTH of  you.

This takes a little more effort on the trainer’s part because you won’t be relying on external motivators to build your dog up. But you’ll be building something even more important - your dog’s attitude about doing obedience with you and loving it.

Thursday, January 3, 2013

Dog boots

I’m generally not one for having dogs wear clothing, probably because I’ve always had coated breeds who handled cold weather just fine. While I understood the need to put coats on Italian greyhounds and dobermans in the winter, I never saw the need for my own dogs to have a wardrobe beyond their everyday collars and their show collars.

Connor changed that. The winter of 2000-2001 was absolutely horrible. Not only did we get a lot of snow, we got a lot of cold, with air temps below zero for days on end and wicked bitter windchills. Connor did not want to go outside. After just a few minutes of running around to potty, his feet hurt. He did that pathetic “cold foot dance,” lifting first one paw then another. Several times I had to rescue him because he simply froze in one spot, unable (or unwilling) to walk back to the house.

So I got him a pair of dog boots.

You have to understand something about Connor. He loved to dress up. Seriously. He enjoyed wearing things. Anything. During his career, he wore all manner of bandannas, hats, a kilt and bonnet, a tuxedo and sunglasses into the obedience ring while doing the team class. Some dogs tolerated being dressed up. Connor genuinely liked it. He preened. He flounced. He never, ever tried to take anything off.

So I figured the boots would solve the cold foot problem. After some initial stiff legged marching and spastic paw flicking, they did.

When the temps dropped below zero for the rest of his life, I put Connor’s boots on him before he went outdoors. He trotted around happily and no longer suffered from the dreaded "cold foot." Once in a while one would fall off and have to be retrieved from a snow drift but they served admirably for the next 10 years. I still have them.

Flash forward to New Year’s Eve, 2012. I let the dogs out after supper. I let the dogs back in and watched in horror as they went frisking around the kitchen, leaving a trail of bloody paw prints in their wake.

There are several universal rules governing bleeding paws.

1) You will never get the baby gate shut before all dogs frisk their way off the kitchen vinyl onto the carpet in the next room.

2) Your spouse will unwittingly decide to call the dogs - from the other end of the house.

3) All dogs will become suddenly and mysteriously deaf to your commands to sit.

4) Should you grab a dog, it will not be the one who is bleeding.

5) The bleeding dog will be oblivious and could not care less.

By the time I got the Belgians corralled in the kitchen and inspected their paws, the floor looked like the Great Homestead New Year’s Eve Massacre had taken place. I won’t say there was blood spatter on the walls but it was close.

Phoenix had cut a pad on the jagged ice in the back yard. Not a big deal but definitely a bloody one. For the next few days, every time he went outside I vet-wrapped his paw so he didn’t tear it up any more. He was not a big fan of this. He hobbled around, carrying his bright blue paw up in the air. When he got outside, he forgot he was grievously injured and went running around like an idiot, which probably explains how he got hurt in the first place.

I finally decided to save on my vet wrap budget and just order a pair of boots for protecting any injured paws in the future.

Did you know there are entire websites devoted to dog boots? Amazing. I don’t remember there being that many sites when I got Connor’s boots but that was 15 years ago. Apparently dog fashion has taken off since then.

The boots have been ordered. When they get here, I’ll have both dogs practice wearing them, so when the next paw injury happens, the trauma won’t be increased by having a foreign object attached to their foot.  I suspect Phoenix will be fine with it but Jamie is as much against wearing “things” as Connor was for it.

That’s okay. Jamie is also sensible enough not to go ripping around on the ice and getting hurt in the first place.

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Off to a good start

Yeah, I know, everyone is sick to death of cookies and we're all on diets now. Right?

Forget the post-holiday diet freak out. This recipe was one of my 2012 discoveries and I feel compelled to share because there's a lot of winter left and that means a lot of cookie baking opps. It wouldn't be right to keep this to myself.

These taste like little chocolate cakes. Adding cake frosting or even a powdered sugar glaze would be a religious experience. Actually, eating them hot out of the oven with a glass of cold milk was nirvana.

If you use the ice cream scoop, the recipe only makes about 12-14 cookies, total. So recipe doubling is definitely advised.

2/3 C. butter, softened
1 C. sugar
1 egg
1 1/2 tsp. vanilla
1 1/2 C. flour
1/2 C. cocoa
1/2 tsp. baking soda
1/4 tsp. salt
1/3 C. buttermilk or sour milk*

Heat oven to 350 degrees. Lightly grease cookie sheets or line with parchment paper.

Beat butter and sugar in large bowl until well blended. Add egg and vanilla; beat until fluffy. Stir together flour, cocoa, baking soda and salt; add alternately with buttermilk to butter mixture. Using 1/4  cup (#20) ice cream scoop or 1/4 cup measuring cup, drop dough about 2 inches apart onto prepared cookie sheet. (The dough is VERY sticky.)

Bake 13 to 15 minutes or until cookie springs back when touched lightly in center. Cool slightly; remove from cookie sheet to wire rack. Cool completely. Makes about 1 dozen cookies.

* To make sour milk, use 1 tsp. white vinegar plus milk to equal 1/3 cup.