Monday, February 25, 2013

Reasons why you should buy a new training bag

As if you really NEED a reason. But here are some, just in case you need to justify your actions to a puzzled spouse/partner/friend who looks at you and says, “Another bag?”

1) Your old bag is too small.

2) Your old bag is too big.

3) Your friend got a new one and now you have bag envy.

4) A new bag will make your dog heel better (run agility better, track better, etc.)

5) Your old bag has bad feng shui.

6) Your old bag smells funny.

7) Your old bag has more miles on it than your last two cars.

8) You need a bag with more pockets. Yes. Pockets are the answer to everything.

9) Your old bag has mysterious stains.

10) Your old bag has mysterious gnaw marks and may be missing parts.

11) It was on sale.

12) They were going to quit making that style.

13) Your dog wanted one.

14) It looked really cool on the catalog model.

15) Your spouse/partner just bought something ridiculously expensive and you know you can buy something new for yourself without getting the hairy eyeball. (This actually explains the tractors to dog crates ratio at our house.)

16) It was blue. (Seriously. I probably need an intervention but I’ve been known to buy things just because they are blue and that bag was no exception.)

Friday, February 22, 2013

A good old fashioned snow day

We got about 6" of snow last night. Very glad we didn't get the 12" that some parts of the Midwest saw. Still, it was enough to keep me home from today's agility trial. Bummer. We'll go tomorrow. A snow day is always fun - I baked, cleaned house, read, groomed the dogs and played in the snow. They played in the snow. I got a wet butt from sitting in the snow with my camera. Is that overshare? Sorry.

Dashing through the snow.

"If I poke you with my nose, will you let me have the toy?"
"No, I will poke you back."

"I won. As it should be."

And to close, a typical example of my photography skills.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

What's old is new

Remember the antique ice box my aunt gave me last summer when I helped her clean out her house? It had spent the last 40 years sitting in the back of a dirt-floored garden shed. They used it to store motor oil and the oil/gasoline mix for the lawn mower and garden tiller. A groundhog dug a hole under it at one point. The varmint knocked off the very bottom board, which would have hidden the tray that caught the melting ice as it drained out.

The furniture refinisher called last week and it's done! They delivered it yesterday. Note the "groundhog board" has been replaced.

So far I've been too fascinated by just looking at it to actually put anything in it. While I would love to put it in our kitchen, it's too big (or the kitchen is too small), so it's in our bedroom and will probably serve as a multi purpose catch-all in this new incarnation.

The dogs had to inspect it. When I opened the small door on the lower left, Phoenix crawled in as far as he could go. He was probably looking for the groundhog.

Monday, February 18, 2013

Train the dog you have

I’ve quit counting how many times I’ve started this post and never finished it. My thoughts go winging off in so many different directions that it’s easy to lose track of the points I intended to make. Please bear with me while I get this random collection of loosely related thoughts out of my head.

Have you ever been advised to imitate someone else in terms of training your dog? In other words, has a well-meaning instructor/friend/observer/passerby suggested you “be more like” someone else because their dog is so fantastic – just do what they do and certainly all your troubles will disappear?

I’ve encountered this occasionally over the years and it always feels a bit awkward. While there’s nothing wrong with admiring someone else’s training style or the relationship they share with their dog, it may do very little to help you with your own dog.

My biggest problem is that the “be more like So and So” approach ignores the individuality of your dog and the value of the relationship you’re building.

There are a number of trainers I sincerely admire and while I may draw ideas and inspiration from them, they are not me and their dogs are not my dog. Simply trying to plug in their methods and expecting them to work is not very realistic.

One lesson I learned early as a trainer was never to compare myself to another trainer or more importantly, to never compare my dog to other dogs. Everyone’s journey is different. Although some days it may seem like mimicking others is the easiest route to achievement, that can only make things harder in the long run because instead if focusing on who your dog is and what he needs from you, you’re just following a formula that worked for someone else.

Which  brings me to the title of today’s post: “Train the dog  you have.” Don't train your current dog like he's your retired dog who was brilliant. Don't train him like the dog you WISH he was. Don't train him like he's the dog you believe he can become in the future. Train him like dog he is NOW. Evaluate his strengths and weaknesses and tailor your training accordingly.

It’s easy to become enchanted with a training approach that is completely wrong for your dog but “everyone else is doing it” so you jump on the bandwagon, too. Been there! Often, the hardest thing about training your dog is learning the best way to train your dog.

Unless you’re one of the truly blessed trainers who gets everything right the first time, training throughout a dog’s career is often a matter of trial and error. That’s not what anybody wants to hear but it’s often the reality of pursuing any level of achievement. I think the best trainers (winning ribbons does not necessarily equal being a good trainer) are those who aren’t afraid to experiment and try new things to help their dogs learn. If they feel a conventional, traditional or currently popular method isn’t giving them what they want, they modify it or seek another method all together. Perhaps the popular method will be right for your dog in six months. Maybe it will never be right.

In spite of what people may swear, there is no single “right” way to train a dog. If Trainer A gets lovely results with one method and Trainer B gets lovely results with a different method and both methods are fair and humane and taught with compassion, is one method “better” than the other? Of course not.

The error isn’t in trying a training method that produced wonderful results for someone else. The error is in not valuing in your dog’s individuality as well as the value of the relationship and journey you share together. Train the dog you have.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Happy Valentine's Day, from the Malinois

I love you, that’s why I stare at you in the dark in the morning until you get up. People who don’t have dogs who love them have to rely on alarm clocks. What if the power goes out?

I love you, that’s why I grab your shoes and race around the house with them, ricocheting off the walls, while you’re getting dressed to take me out. People who don’t have dogs who love them wake up much slower. They might miss something important at the start of their day.

I love you, that’s why I peak around the edge of the spare bedroom door with a pair of your underwear in my mouth while you’re walking on the treadmill. People who don’t have dogs who love them have to exercise a lot harder to get that little added cardio burst.

I love you, that’s why I drool on your lap while you eat breakfast. People who don’t have dogs who love them don’t appreciate their food nearly as much.

I love you, that’s why I always help you go to the bathroom. People who don’t have dogs who love them could get very lonely in their bathrooms.

I love you, that’s why I attack your bath towel when you get out of the shower. People who don’t have dogs who love them have much slower reflexes.  

I love you, that’s why I get between your knees and lick your face and steal your socks while you’re getting ready to leave for work. People who don’t have dogs who love them get to work on time, creating unrealistic expectations from their employers.

I love you, that’s why I slide into the kitchen rug when you come home from work and jam it up under the door so the door only opens about 6 inches. People who don’t have dogs to love them aren’t nearly as good at spontaneous problem solving.

I love you, that’s why I scare the holy freaking crap (your words, not mine) out of you by growling and barking and diving under the grain truck in the machine shed while you’re feeding the cat in the dark. People who don’t have dogs who love them never get to experience the spontaneous adrenaline rush that comes from thinking the boogie man might be right behind them. It was a frog. Sorry.

I love you, that’s why I bring you stuff from the laundry hamper while you’re washing the supper dishes. People who don’t have dogs who love them get way too serious about daily chores.

I love you, that’s why I chase the cat. People who don’t have dogs who love them are unaware of the world threat posed by cats.

I love you, that’s why I ate the bag of tortilla chips you left on the end table in the living room. People who don’t have dogs who love them eat too many chips. I ate the chip clip, too, just to be safe.

I love you, that’s why I shed fur all over the place. People who don’t have dogs who love them start to think a clean house means they're special or something.

I love you, that’s why I spend at least an hour every night following you around the house with a ball. People who don’t have dogs who love them can forget how important it is to play every day.

I love you, that’s why I occasionally goose you in places that make you jump and swear. Yep, your reflexes are still good.

I love you. Just because you're my person. Taking care of you is the most important thing I do all day.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

"God Made a Farmer"

The “On the Eighth Day God Made a Farmer” commercial during the Super Bowl got me thinking. Thanks for everyone who has expressed appreciation for the men and women who feed this nation and the world!

If your only connection to food means buying straight from the grocery store shelves and eating it, it’s easy to lose touch with where those packages of hamburger, cartons of eggs, gallons of milk and loaves of bread actually started and how that raw material was planted, raised, fed, watered, harvested and marketed before it got anywhere near your table.

It’s disappointing to realize that many people truly do NOT know where their food comes from. When my mom was teaching kindergarten (not that many years ago), she taught a unit on farming each year and showed the kids a picture of a cow being milked by a milking machine. She asked the class to tell her what was going on in the picture. Without fail, each year several children said “They’re putting milk in the cow.” Granted, this was at a rather “inner city” school . . . but still . .  it was in Iowa and the town wasn’t THAT big that kids would be isolated from agriculture and food sources. Yet, they were.

For a nation that was founded on agriculture, we’re coming dangerously close to losing touch with our agrarian roots. My friends all know the Farmer and they know why he rarely comes to dog shows with me. Yet acquaintances ask where he is and my answer is always the same, “He’s busy.” “Can’t he take a day off?” they ask. Sure. Maybe. If he can arrange with his brother to feed 400 head of beef cattle twice a day, monitor the cow/calf herds on two separate farms and tend to whatever degree of calving, crop planting, spraying, harvesting, hay making, manure hauling and field work is required by the season. Not to mention maintaining the buildings, machinery and fences, keeping the well pumping, forming a marketing plan, dealing with the banker, vet, seed, chemical and implement salesmen, keeping up with technology and staying ahead of all the government regulations.

You don't have to be crazy to farm but it helps. Wait, maybe it's you don't have to be crazy to marry a farmer but it helps . . .

I did a little research. The following info is from the Des Moines Register, the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship, the Iowa Farm Bureau, the United States Department of Agriculture and the National Corn Growers Association.

When Abraham Lincoln created the U.S. Department of Agriculture in 1862, about 90 out of every 100 Americans were farmers. Today, that number has shrunk to just 2 out of every 100 Americans.

The average American farmer feeds about 155 people worldwide. In 1960 that number was 25.6.

Only 20 percent of Iowa’s 90,000 farmers raise livestock today. (Yay, us!)

Iowa ranks first in the nation in corn and soybean production.

Hamburger from a single steer will make about 720 quarter-pound hamburgers.

The average size of an Iowa farm is around 333 acres (as of 2011).

One acre is about the size of a football field without its end zones.

Farmland values range from the low $1,000s per acre up to $10,000 per acre, depending on soil quality and arability (i.e, "farmability")

A bushel of corn can sweeten 400 cans of soda, make 38 boxes of corn flakes or produce more than 2.5 gallons of ethanol.

Iowa has at least 11,000 different soils that make up some of the richest, most productive land in the world. ( I think at least 10,000 of these have made their way into my house on paws and boots.)

Iowa’s agricultural products from all sources were worth $20.5 billion in 2007.

90 percent of all Iowa crop land is farmed using some form of conservation practice.

Conservation methods have reduced wind and water erosion on American crop land by more than a third even in the last 20 years even as yields have more than quadrupled.

Each year, Iowa farmers produce approximately  8.2 million turkeys; 148,000 pounds of cheese; 3.8 million head of cattle; 1,230 million pounds of wool; 2.1 billion bushels of corn, 13.8 billion eggs, 4.12 billion pounds of milk; 17.3 million hogs; 235,000 sheet and 525 million bushels of soybeans.

No wonder you rarely see the Farmer at dog shows with me. He’s making sure you have enough to eat.

Wednesday, February 6, 2013


I came home one day last week to find a newborn calf in our basement. This is not a completely unheard of situation, although one we haven’t had for a couple of years.  In addition to buying calves to “finish” (400 to 500 pounders who are raised up to a weight of about 1,200 pounds before going to market), the Farmer also has a cow/calf herd. The cows are bred to calve in March or April, when the weather is a little more welcoming.

This calf had the cosmic misfortune to be born to a feedlot heifer late in the afternoon on a day when the temps were on a downward spiral that was headed to double digits below zero over night. Although he was in the shelter of the barn, it was only about 5 degrees above zero when he hit the ground, literally - they don’t call it “dropping” a calf for nothing.

To make matters worse, his mama was  . . . um . . . what you might call a teenage mother. Or an unfit mother. She should not have been in the family way but these things happen. She had zero interest in her offspring. Most mammal mothers will do at least a cursory cleaning of their babies once they pop out of the womb. Cows lick their calves dry, which helpfully keeps them from freezing to death.

This particular heifer, however, was in complete denial about even having a calf, which meant he laid there in a big wet pile until the Farmer decided to intervene. He carried the calf out of the barn, across the yard, through the gate, down the outside basement stairs and into the basement, where he put him in an ex-pen. The calf weighed about 100 pounds at birth.

If the little rascal had been a typical frisky calf, the ex-pen would not have been up to the task of containing him, but being half frozen tends to take the zip out of even the hardiest of souls.

The Farmer toweled him off. I toweled him off. When the calf was dry, the Farmer thawed a bottle of colostrum (first milk) out of the freezer and got him to nurse a little. The calf was happy to suck on the Farmer’s fingers but not so enthusiastic about the rubber nipple on the bottle. Calves are also born with teeth. The Farmer suggested I let the calf suck on MY finger to trigger a better nursing response. I had experienced those teeth before and said he was doing a fine job. A nursing calf does a combination of sucking and grinding. I don’t know how the cows stand it.

The dogs, oddly enough, were oblivious. Doing stairs is now past Jamie’s realm of ability. If he’d been able to, though, I have no doubt he would have been in the basement with us, licking and poking and mothering that calf. Jamie has always had a mother hen streak.

Phoenix was aware there was SOMETHING in the basement and while he really wanted to go see what it was all about, the basement stairs remain the Direct Access To Hell and he will have nothing to do with them. From his viewpoint, I can understand. They are old wooden stairs, they are open on both sides and the back and they go to a landing, turn and go downward again. They are dark. They are scary.

When Phoenix was a puppy, he deviled Jamie so thoroughly, Jamie’s only escape was to go to the basement. I figured eventually Phoenix would just follow him down the stairs and until that happened, at least the basement was the Big Red Dog’s sole malinois-free environment.

But Phoenix never, ever went down those stairs and to date, my best efforts with clicker, treats and endless patience has yielded no further progress beyond one or two steps downwarn. I’ve made it very clear to the Farmer that if severe weather ever necessitates decamping to the basement, it is his job to carry Phoenix and I will guide Jamie down. This got me the eye roll. But if he can carry a 100 pound calf down the stairs I think a 53 pound dog should be a piece of cake.

So the calf stayed in the basement over night without any Belgian assistance whatsoever. At 5 the next morning, I woke, not by Jamie’s impatient “It’s time to get up now!” squeaking or Phoenix’s silent but tangible stare, but by a calf bellowing for his mama.

I rolled over and poked the Farmer. “Your kid wants breakfast,” I said.

When I got home from work that day, wee Angus has rejoined his mama in the barn. Dry now, with a belly full of milk, a passable mastery of the art of walking and a mama who was finally showing some interest in her baby, it was decided the calf could stay in the barn.

Sorry, no photos. If he’d stayed in longer than 12 hours, I might have attempted it. So close your eyes and imagine a picture of a black calf in a shadowy corner of a dark basement. There you have it.

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Food, glorious food!

A lot has been said about using high value food (garlic chicken, steak, fish fudge) versus low value food (Charlee Bears, Cheerios, kibble) in training. Many trainers firmly believe changing up to higher value treats is the key when resolving a sticky training issue.

I’m not saying it is. I’m not saying it isn’t.

After training  UDs, UDXs and OTChs. on four different dogs, I’m saying I don’t think it matters.

But maybe it’s just my dogs.

If you truly believe using treats of varying “value” makes a difference in your dog’s ability to learn and work, then it does. I'm not saying you're wrong. Every dog is an individual and there are few hard and fast universal truths that govern dog training.

My dogs have all been goats. They’ll eat anything that doesn’t eat them first and they’ll eat it with enthusiasm and want more. I used to spend a lot of time agonizing over what treats to train with because back then I believed that my dog would be “better” if I used the “best” treats. Then I wised up. It. Did. Not. Matter.

My first dogs were shelties and no offense to the sheltie folks out there (they know what’s coming) but shelties will eat anything that fits in their mouth and if it doesn’t fit, they’ll make it fit. I’m sure there are exceptions to the rule but Jess and Connor loved their cookies, no matter what form they took. Food induced paroxysms of joy, whether it was a piece of kibble or leftover roast.

The Belgians weren’t any different. I always joked that Jamie was (is) such a food hog because he was raised by shelties.

Phoenix loves food - his food, my food, the cat’s food, things that were never really intended to be food. He will eat anything, anytime. I think the only thing that registers in his brain is “I’M GETTING FOOD!” I really do not think he cares WHAT he’s getting, just that he’s getting SOMETHING.

I get largely the same level of enthusiasm when rewarding him with Charlee Bears as I do with bits of leftover pork chop. I suspect the food is only in his mouth long enough to register the fact that it was there. He does not savor his treats or reflect with gracious appreciation about the scent, flavor, texture, moisture content or chew-ability. It’s gulp and go and gimme more!

If your dog has a genuinely low food drive, maybe it would pay to up the ante and not mess around with treats that don’t have much scent or taste appeal. But if your dog is off the scale about food anyway, the way food is delivered is more important than the actual food itself. I could rev Phoenix into a frenzy while playing games with salad croutons while some trainers would not be able to keep their dogs engaged if they were handing out hamburgers. Okay, that's an exaggeration but . . .

. . . this brings me to Point B - is the dog working because of the food or is he working because he enjoys playing the game with you? I've fallen into the trap of letting the food do all the work. It creates a lovely illusion of focus and engagement . . . until it isn't there anymore. I also learned firsthand that using wonderfully delicious homemade liver brownies and salmon cookies in training puts so much emphasis on the food that their absence in the ring is magnified.

Having said all that, I don’t use much food in training any more. Some, sure, but not a lot. I use whatever I have available and like to use stuff that won’t make a horrible mess in my pocket or stink to high heaven.

Food is a powerful tool and it will always be in my toolbox. With the next puppy, there will be tons of cookies in his initial training. There will also be lots of toy play and personal play as well. I’ve learned the hard way that relying on any single “motivator” to do all the work is a big mistake.

I'll explain about the calf in the basement soon. I promise. 

Monday, February 4, 2013

Taking the lazy way out

Today I am going to do something I rarely do on this blog - borrow from another blog. I prefer to use original material here, to write about personal experiences and thoughts, not just copy and paste things from Facebook or other internet sources.

But today is different. Many of you may have already seen this. If you haven't, I think it's worth your time. Please read the whole thing. It's not a slam against any training method.

It encourages individualism in training and it encourages trainers to learn what their dog actually needs, not just to follow a cookie cutter approach or, as the author calls it, "cult like" adoration of a particular method to the exclusion of realizing that method may not be ideal for every dog in every situation.

It's something I might have written if I'd not been so dang busy shoveling snow, thawing frozen pipes, ice skating to fun matches, peeling Phoenix off the ceiling and dealing with an unhappy 100-pound Angus calf in the basement.

Soon, we will return to our regularly scheduled blog of insightful, thought provoking, cleverly crafted original material. Or at least original material.