Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Vintage Shelties

I've been cleaning house to prep for a company garage sale in a couple of weeks. In the process of emptying a closet, I found some fun pics from the Sheltie years.

This is my first Sheltie, Jess, April 1989.

Here's Connor and me, his first CD leg, April 1996. 
Tied for HIT, lost the run-off. Do we look devastated?
It's a wonder my feet were even on the ground - 
I'd never been in a HIT run-off before.

Tammy E., I still have the kilts and bonnets you made for my lads!
(Halloween, mid 1990s)

Okay, I'm namin' names!
Team, 2nd place, DMOTC, September 1995
Eric Hendrickson and Sebastian
Michele Hartzler and Oscar
Melinda Wichmann and Jess
Tammy Etscheidt and Molly

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

A question of style

I was chatting with a friend at an obedience trial and the topic turned to style. Not style as in any sort of fashion sense (good thing, because we know the fashion police would love to carry some of us away and I’d probably be the first one to go) but style as in how a dog works in the ring.

Some dogs are enthusiastic in their work. Some are brisk and efficient. Some are mechanical. Some plod through the exercises while others work like they are about to spontaneously combust.

And some dogs work like “bug-eyed lunatics.” My friend’s words, not mine.

“I do NOT,” she emphasized, “want my dog to work like a bug-eyed lunatic.”

This made me think. What qualities do I value in ring presentation? What is my ideal picture? Is it a realistic picture for the dog I have? Is it smarter to focus on training my dog to fit my ideal picture or to let my dog’s natural tendencies shine and play to those strengths instead?

My first sheltie, Jess, was crazy. Plain and simple. He bounced and spun with no encouragement from me, pounced in the article pile, barked on go-outs and never stopped wagging his tail. He was who he was and it never occurred to me to make him otherwise. (It's simple to have this easy-come, easy-go attitude when you are not concerned with scores.)

Second sheltie, Connor, was the consummate obedience trial dog. I am convinced he was put on this earth  to do obedience. I could have taken off his leash at the ring gate and he would have put himself through the exercises. He loved the ring spotlight.

Terv Jamie was an efficiency expert. His work was smooth and graceful. He performed with joy. He was a gentleman.

Then came Phoenix. He was my first dog who did not naturally enjoy obedience, mostly due to reasons of my own creation. He was my first dog I felt I needed to “change.” I tried changing him to fit a current popular training style. It didn’t work. He taught me to “train the dog you have” and we’re enjoying each other much more now. 

So what’s the picture I want in the ring?

• Calm. I want my dog to be calm because I do not want to spend our time in the ring constantly keeping him in check. Calm does not mean lethargic. Calm means clear-headed, not frantic.

• Thinking. I want my dog to be able to think through any problems presented by a distracting trial environment so he can perform correctly.

• Engaged. I want my dog to remain engaged with me throughout our run. We used to call this “focus.” I like “engaged” better. It makes it sound like the dog and handler are enjoying their time with one another vs. merely having one party focus exclusively on the other party.

That’s it. Pretty simple. A clear-headed, thinking, engaged dog. When I get that in the ring, I’m on top of the world. Doesn’t mean we’re going to win. Doesn’t mean we’re even going to qualify. But it does mean we’re working together, as a team. That’s why I do obedience.

I deliberately left off a fourth aspect of ring presentation: having fun. Yes, it's important but "fun" is such an ethereal quality to pin down it deserves its own post.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

April showers

I like listening to rain falling on a tent when I’m cuddled up with my dogs, snug and warm and dry inside the tent, with no particular reason to get up any time soon.

I like listening to rain falling against the house windows before dawn, knowing I can roll over and burrow back into the blankets and not have to get up yet.

I like watching the rain falling in silver veils across the fields, blurring the outline of the stone church in the distance, while I sit in  my recliner with a mug of cocoa, Phoenix and my laptop.

But for the love of God, it has rained over 8 inches in the last 9 days at our house. We’ve just experienced nearly 24 straight hours of thunderstorms. (Thank goodness Jamie has lost his hearing entirely because he was happily oblivious amidst the thunder and lightning for the first time in his life.) With all due respect to the devastating drought we experienced last summer and fall, this can stop any time now!

Two people didn’t come to work today because their basements were flooding. One person didn’t come to work because water was dripping through her kitchen ceiling. One person didn’t come to work because flash flooding had closed her road and she couldn’t get to the highway.

The rain is welcome. Don’t get me wrong. I just hope we’re not receiving the entire summer’s allotment in the space of a few weeks. The weather dude on TV this morning said we’re very close to having received triple April’s normal rainfall total and the month is barely half over. The town where I teach classes got 8 inches of rainfall IN ONE DAY.

At class last night, a friend commented, “Remember the drought we had last summer?”

Oddly enough, when our country roads are a quagmire, ditches are full, creeks are running out of their banks, the river is slowly climbing the levee, my kitchen floor is a study in muddy pawprints and the laundry room is piled with wet clothes, no, I don’t remember it at all.

I am really having a hard time relating to last summer when there were huge cracks in the ground (you could see them because the grass was all dead and brown), had a rainfall deficit of nearly 12 inches and our rural water service kept sending out letters requesting customers use water conservation practices because wells were failing.

Mother Nature is at her whack-a-doodle best this spring. Rain remains in the forecast for 3 out of the next 5 days. Snow is in the forecast for one of the days when it’s not raining. I’m starting to feel like we skipped spring and summer and went directly to late November. The Farmer is gnashing his teeth because spring fieldwork is at a standstill.

Our grass is a lovely green, but without warmth it’s not growing. Which is a good thing because it never quits raining long enough to mow it.


Thanks, everyone, for your condolences and expressions of sympathy and understanding at the Farmer’s dad’s death.

The Farmer-In-Law was definitely not a dog person and like several of you mentioned, some people just never “get it” when it comes to interacting with dogs. That’s just who he was. It makes me appreciate the deepness of my relationships with my dogs and the beauty of having them in my life even more.

One of my favorite memories of him was the day he pulled up in front of our house and got out of the pickup. He was eating a sandwich, held in his left hand. Jamie immediately ran over to see if he would share (as if). The Farmer-In-Law raised his sandwich-holding arm high up, Jamie leaped into the air, executed a mid-air pivot I would have LOVED to get in the ring, dropped down into heel position and accompanied the Farmer-In-Law toward the machine shed, heeling perfectly and with total engagement, until I managed to quit laughing long enough to call him back to me. The Farmer-In-Law never had a clue that my dog was WORKING for him.

Silly man. Beautiful dog. Wonderful life.

Monday, April 15, 2013

Loss and reflection

The Farmer’s father died last week. The funeral is behind us, the last of the leftovers have been eaten, casserole dishes and cake plates washed and returned to neighbors. It’s an awkward time, when we all try to act like nothing happened, like there has been no devastating loss, like life is "back to normal."

Only it isn’t. It has changed and change is often painful.

The Farmer-In-Law had cancer. In many ways, his death was a blessing. He fought the disease for years but there was not going to be a cure with a happy ever after ending. His family (his wife of 55 years, the Farmer, another son and two daughters) were steadfastly by his side until the end. When it became clear the chemo treatments weren’t doing anything but making him sicker and weaker and even more unhappy, he spent his last few days in hospice care and slipped quietly from this world.

While the Farmer-In-Law and I were not BFFs, I feel the pain of his loss reflected in the Farmer and his family. They lost their dad, their husband, their lifetime business partner and mentor.

The Farmer-In-Law and I did not see eye to eye on a lot of  things. He was delighted to find his third-generation farm kid son was going to marry a third-generation farm kid girl. That delight soured shortly after our wedding, when it became apparent I had no intention of following the “get married, get pregnant, stay at home, raise babies, go to church and wait on your man” tradition. We existed in a perpetual state of agreeing to disagree.

And he didn’t like my dogs.


I can tolerate a lot of things but if you don’t like my dogs, we’re probably not going to have a warm and fuzzy relationship. Not only did he not like my dogs, the Farmer-In-Law was a poster child for everything you can do wrong around dogs. A lifetime cattleman, he had NO dog sense whatsoever. I was always amazed that someone who worked around capricious 1,300 pound steers and unpredictable mama cows for his entire life could be so clueless about how to act around dogs.

This was a problem since the Farmer, his brother and the Farmer-In-Law worked our family farm together. The Farmer-In-Law was around our place a lot.

He was okay with my shelties. Sort of. In a stubborn “if I ignore them they’ll go away” sort of approach. It worked. The shelties ignored him right back as only shelties can.

Then I got Jamie. As far as the Farmer-In-Law was concerned, Jamie was going to bite him, it was just a matter of time. Jamie looked like a German Shepherd. Everyone knows German Shepherds are mean and they bite. Therefore, Jamie was mean and would bite. It was an unfortunate truth that a nearby neighbor DID have a German Shepherd (poorly socialized, with major fear issues) and it DID bite the Farmer-In-Law. More than once. So Jamie suffered by guilt by association.

When Phoenix came along, he looked even MORE like a German Shepherd, therefore chances were even higher that Phoenix would bite him.

I tried.

Honestly to God, I tried.

The Farmer-In-Law resisted every effort I made to show him how friendly my dogs are. I really think Phoenix’s feelings were hurt when his waggy-tail, squinty-eye approaches were rebuffed, often with angry yelling and waving arms and stomping feet. That will turn away cattle. It does not turn away malinois. I tried telling the Farmer-In-Law he WAS going to get bit if he came onto our property and acted aggressively toward the dogs. I tried telling him the dogs saw that as threatening behavior, that if he stood still and talked to them quietly, they would be his friend.

“Those dogs bite,” was all he had to say.

There was no changing his damn fool stubborn mindset. I learned to pick my battles and when to walk away. If he was around the place, I simply kept the dogs away from him. Jamie will be 14 this summer. Phoenix is 6. Neither of them ever bit the Farmer-In-Law, in spite of being given many chances over the years. Ironically, the Farmer’s mom LIKES my dogs. She tells me they are beautiful and “awfully big” and “kind of wild.” But she pets them and laughs at them and is appropriately amazed by the things they can do.

Life goes on. Spring planting season is just around the corner. I know the Farmer will miss his dad desperately as he heads to the field. Even after retiring (euphemism for “still works 12 hours a day but now gets a Social Security check, too) the Farmer-In-Law was an active part of our farm. Over the last few years, as the cancer started to take its toll, I’ve inherited some of his jobs. THAT is a column in itself.

Friday, April 12, 2013

Welcome to my OCD world

My previous dogs spoiled me. Once they learned the obedience exercises, they retained them, seemingly with little regard to how often we worked them. In training, we worked the exercises we both enjoyed, gave the rest a passing acknowledgment, went in the ring and had fun. The neglected exercises were rarely a problem. Jess, Connor and Jamie just DID them and did them well.

Spoiled. Stinking. Rotten.

Then came Phoenix. 

Payback’s a . . . well, you get the picture.

If Phoenix doesn’t get equal time on ALL the exercises on a regular basis, he handily forgets how to do them in the ring.

Okay, that’s an exaggeration. I know he hasn’t forgotten how to do them. But the weak parts get weaker and things get ugly fast. Absence does not make the broad jump grow fonder. Or something like that.

The problem, as usual, is me. There are some exercises I love to train (heeling, scent articles, directed jumping) and some exercises that bore me to tears (moving stand, drop on recall). So guess which exercises I teach and then cheerfully neglect as much as possible?

Finally I sat down and made the following list:

1) every exercise in Open and Utility

2) our weak spots on each exercise

3) ideas to address those weak spots in training

 Example: Drop on recall; slow response to drop command and slow return after drop;  work drops out of motion, cookie toss game, work recalls out of a drop.

I printed out my list, wrote the week’s dates on top and stuck it on the refrigerator. Each time Phoenix and I went to train, I picked 2 or 3 exercises and that’s what we worked. At the end of the session, I put a hash mark beside the exercises we had worked. At the end of the week (or two weeks or whatever) I could see what was getting more than its share of attention and what was getting neglected.

Yeah, my OCD is showing. But having it in front of me in black and white keeps me from conveniently ignoring some exercises and going overboard on others. 

It’s old school, using pen on paper. There’s probably a computer program or app out there to track the very same thing but I want that list right in front me, staring at me while I wash dishes and get snacks.

Bring on the broad jump.

Monday, April 8, 2013

The 99s ride again

Over the weekend, Jamie and his aunt Breezie took time out of their tremendously busy social calendars to pose for some pics. Both were born in 1999 and will be 14 years old this summer.

It was a pretty hysterical photo shoot. Breezie wanted nothing to do with the whole idea. No ears. No expression. At one point, she put her head down on the ground and possibly went to sleep. It was a clear paw flip. She's like that. Don't annoy the queen.

Jamie loves having his picture taken. He's all about ears. Until he's all about the cookies and then he's done holding still. 'Stay' has ceased to have meaning in his world.

I'm not sure who actually took these pics because at one point Breezie's mom handed her ginormous humongazoid camera over to me to shoot while she did cartwheels and headstands to make Breeze put her ears up. A friend was helping too, with a barrage of tennis balls and flying flippies. Apparently it worked.

Love my sweet old red gray dog. Thanks, Sheryl, for the pics. A moment in time on an April afternoon.

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Decisions during the journey

“The Road Not Taken,” by Robert Frost
Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;

Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim
Because it was grassy and wanted wear,
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,

And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I marked the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way
I doubted if I should ever come back.

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I,
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

Back in 2004, Jamie and I were training hard for his OTCh. and his TDX. We had an Open B win and about 20 points. We were getting into TDX tests with a lot of “close but no cigar” results. I was burning the candle at both ends, trying to train for obedience, train for the X tests, train for agility, take agility classes, trial or test (obedience, agility, tracking) on the weekends and teach obedience classes to help pay for it all. We were doing a lot and getting nowhere with any of it.

I finally decided I wanted the OTCh. more than the TDX. I put tracking aside and focused on obedience. I wasn’t taking agility very seriously, which probably showed in the ring but I didn’t really care.

Within a year of that decision, Jamie finished his OTCh. We stayed competitive for a couple of more years and I retired him from obedience in 2007. We continued to show in preferred agility for a few more years. He had a lovely career and I felt good about the things we did together. He was a fun dog to show - sweet, calm, confident and always a steady worker.

We never went back to tracking. I regret that now, Jamie was a natural at it and truly lit up when we went out in the field. But by then Phoenix arrived and once again, time was at a premium.  Which dog got how much time and attention for what discipline?

Flash forward to 2013: Phoenix and I have been struggling in both obedience and agility. In obedience, he trains wonderfully and shows with a ho-hum attitude that’s not a lot of fun to take in the ring. Our agility work is all over the place, probably due to my ho-hum attitude about agility training. You know something needs to change when in the middle of an agility class you find yourself thinking, “What a lovely night - I wish I was in the park, working obedience.”

Yeah. Really. Not kidding. No reflection on instructors or classmates. It’s just how I felt.

So I’ve decided to take a year off from agility. No training. No classes. No trials. When I finally decided this, my first thought was “I’ll miss my agility friends!” That probably tells me something. It wasn’t “I’ll miss the sport.” I’ve watched as agility has evolved from casual weekend fun to something that virtually requires the mind set of an Olympic athlete-in-training in order to have even the slightest chance at success. (Funny, I’m totally okay with that approach when it comes to obedience.)

Another area of concern is the growing number of agility injuries I’m seeing. It seems like every time I turn around, another friend’s dog is on the DL. These are dogs who are well-conditioned and well-trained, not flabby weekend warriors. Sprains, strains and soft tissue injuries call for weeks of crate rest. ACL tears call for surgery followed by months of rehab and thousands of dollars in vet bills. Scares the hell out of me.

I’m probably in the minority but I don’t find agility as much fun as it used to be. This is ironic since Phoenix is the most athletically gifted dog I’ve ever run. He’s the poster dog for agility. I’m afraid he’s also the poster dog for an agility injury because he has a high pain threshold (remember malinois vs rotary hoe?), very little body sensitivity (CRASH! Hey, who put a stinkin’ fence there?) and very little regard for personal safety (GIT DOWN from those hay bales, your tail is brushing the barn rafters!)

My main conundrum, however, is this: I keep wondering if offering my dog two sports to play - obedience AND agility - makes one (you guess which one) pale by comparison. Sitting him on the start line of an agility course is a virtual guarantee he’s going to have a blast for the next 25 seconds, with or without my involvement. (I would like to think I am directing the fun but honestly, that’s about a 50/50 proposition.) By contrast, obedience must seem dull as mud. How can I expect my dog to value the teamwork of an activity (obedience) that is not intrinsically self-rewarding while I continue to give him a free pass to party on the agility course with minimal input from me?

Some dogs do both and do a lovely job. Some trainers excel at pursuing the fine points of both disciplines. Right now, that is not Team Phoenix.

So, Phoenix and I are going to focus totally on obedience for awhile. I guess I’ve always been focused on obedience, even while completing his MX and MXJ to the nth degree, but agility has evolved to the point where it demands a great deal of training time and commitment if you realistically want to succeed at the higher levels. Nothing wrong with that, it’s simply time and commitment I’d rather spend elsewhere right now.

Will we go back to agility? I hope so. When we’re ready. But right now it’s not fair to either me or my dog to ask him to perform in a sport I am not committed to 100 percent and when there are other things I value more.

Agility peeps - I will still come to some trials to watch you run. Especially if there is going to be cake!

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I,
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

Monday, April 1, 2013

Take this, Better Homes and Gardens

Here are the before (brown) and after (blue) pics of my kitchen project. Seeing them posted, I had a sudden attack of painter's remorse and wished I'd kept my cappuccino-colored kitchen. Then I got over it. The before pics photographed MUCH lighter than it actually was. The room seems larger now that it's a lighter color.

I figure it's good for another 6 years. I should probably start picking out paint for the next time already.