Thursday, May 30, 2013

Bed fellows, strange and otherwise

Some background: both Belgians sleep loose in the house at night. They each have a bed in our bedroom. Phoenix’s bed is not to be messed with, as demonstrated in “That’s My Spot” (Jan. 18, 2013).

Last fall when Jamie had the first of two vestibular episodes, I started crating him at night. It was for his own safety as well as the Farmer’s and my sanity. Left to his own devices, Jamie would lurch around the house in the dark, crashing into various pieces of furniture and making annoyed noises that they had gotten in his way.

I started him out in a metal crate in our bedroom but his nocturnal perambulations, although restricted, continued, and he happily crashed around in the crate until exhausted, he finally tipped over and went to sleep. Do you have any idea how much noise a 55-pound dog can make crashing around in a metal crate? Then I tried putting him in an x-pen, thinking that would give him more room in which to be comfortable and hopefully result in less crashing.

Wrong. It gave him more room to work up momentum to crash off the sides of the pen.

Finally we reached a communal state of peace involving a soft-side crate. And there he slept for the next seven months.

Which brought us to May.

Do you know what happens in May? The nights start getting markedly shorter. The sun starts coming up markedly earlier. The only one interested in this phenomenon is Jamie. Earlier sunrise means one can eat one’s breakfast earlier. Jamie was happy to remind me of this. He started reminding me at about 4:30, just on the off-chance I would like to do something about it. Since he was crated, he squeaked and snorted and grumbled. Loudly. And continually.

Jamie has always been incorrigible when it comes to the concept of “Shut. Up. We. Are. Not. Getting. Up.” Now that he can’t hear anything, he’s even incorrigibler. (Yes. That’s a word. I printed it, didn’t I?)

So I decided rather than fighting a losing battle, Jamie could go sleep in the living room at night. Then he could get up when he damn well pleased. He was well past the bouncing-off-the-furniture stage of the vestibular issue by now and had recovered almost 100 percent.

I baby-gated him in the living room. The next morning, as the dawn started to lighten the eastern horizon, Jamie began squeaking. Happily. Loudly. Extra loudly since his intended audience was sleeping two rooms away. Phoenix joined the act as a go-between, racing from the living room through the dining room, into the bedroom and back like some kind of deranged messenger with a one-word message: BREAKFAST!

Jamie takes his meals seriously. Age 13 years and 10 months, I guess he’s entitled.

So I went back to letting Jamie sleep loose anywhere in the house he wanted to sleep - no crates, no x-pens, no baby gates.

The first night, I woke up in the middle of the night with Phoenix wedged firmly between me and the Farmer. (For those of you with smaller dogs, this is like sleeping with a big, warm, immobile sandbag.)


I looked over the edge of the bed.

Apparently where Jamie wanted to sleep was in Phoenix’s bed.

So with another gigantic leap of Malin-logic, Phoenix had shifted himself into our bed. I mean really. If the Big Red Dog took his bed, where else was the poor Skinny Li’l Dog going to sleep?


I rooted Phoenix off our bed, rousted Jamie out of Phoenix’s bed, told Phoenix to go lie down on his bed (he did), told Jamie to go lie down on his bed (he did) and crawled back into my dog-free bed. And we all lived happily ever after.

Until the Farmer got into the field for the spring planting season.

If you live in the Midwest, you’ll know corn and soybean planting season enjoyed a window of about 72 hours this spring. I’m not kidding. Drenching rain and cold temps kept the Farmer out of the field and when he finally planted the first kernels of corn in mid-May, it was about three weeks past the date he would have normally finished putting this year’s crop in the ground.

He and his brother planted over 1,000 acres of corn and soybeans in six days. To say they were running day and night was not an exaggeration. Most nights when I went to bed, Phoenix curled up next to me in the Farmer’s spot and went to sleep, allegedly to voluntarily exit the spot when its rightful owner came in hours later.

Only it didn’t always work that way. Most of the time I woke up when the Farmer was struggling to evict Phoenix, who was squinting his eyes and thumping his tail and growling happily and absolutely refusing to move. The Farmer has never mastered the act of chucking Phoenix off the bed when it becomes apparent he has no intention of relinquishing his spot without encouragement.

Sometimes, I woke up hours later to find the Farmer sleeping precariously on the edge of the bed with Phoenix wedged happily in between us, looking like the cat who ate the canary.

One morning, I woke to find Phoenix sprawled contentedly next to me and no Farmer in sight. He was in the living room, sleeping on the couch.

“I came in late didn’t want to wake you,” he explained.

Um. Yeah. More like you couldn’t wake me and you couldn’t get Phoenix off the bed. But I didn’t say it. After being married for 22 years, I have learned when to keep my mouth shut.

Sunday, May 26, 2013

Iowa Renaissance Festival 2013

Ah, a fun day at the faire . . . in the pouring rain. Not many great photo ops this year, everyone was bundled under cloaks and huddling in tents. Seriously, I need to get a cloak. It would have been the ultimate accessory for my stylin' faire costume of Gortex hiking boots, rain pants and rain coat. You laugh. But I was dry. If you started doing agility in the era of outdoor trials - you learn how to dress for warm and dry on a cold and wet day.

The performers had a good time despite the weather.

Some were clearly having more of a good time than others.

Where else can you watch someone put a kilt on a dog? 
The dog apparently liked it. He was already wearing a coat.

Of course there were knights with swords.

And jousting. 
Would you believe it stopped raining during the jousting? 
It did. For about 20 minutes.
Which had to be a record cuz it rained the other 23 hours and 40 minutes of today.

Sir Joseph was defeated by the dastardly Sir Daniel. Again. 
But Sir Daniel's horse was prettier so he got my vote.

A shot of the mud-choked swampland that was the parking lot would have been appropriate in closing. But I didn't take one as I left. Because it was pouring rain. Again. And I was a little concerned about getting to high ground, but it turned out to be no problem. And the pouring rain washed all the mud off R2 on the way home so it didn't look like we'd been 4-wheelin'.

Already looking forward to next year's faire. I have 364 days to find a cloak.

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Play time? Or not.

This is a hard  post to write because while I know the right answer for me, I also know it’s not the right answer for everyone.

Some friends and I were visiting recently about letting our dogs play with other dogs (dogs outside of our home “packs”). I know many people will meet to train together, then turn their dogs loose to play afterward.

The result, somewhat predictably, is that many of these dogs come to obedience class and view the other canine students as potential playmates, increasing by tenfold the amount of effort their owners must expend to keep them focused and engaged, not zipping off to visit the other dogs.

Since my own dogs have never been much for the canine social scene, this has largely been a non-issue for me. There were a few occasions when a small group of friends and I would let our dogs all run and play together but in reality those instances were few and far between and the last time it happened was literally years ago.

My shelties weren’t fond of associating with the unwashed masses, as they viewed other dogs. Jamie’s idea of “play” was stealing whatever toy was the focus of the amusement and going off to tear it up. Since he was bigger than everyone else, he got the ball or bumper with little effort and then the game was over.

And Phoenix? Phoenix has never been “dog park” material. Turning him loose to “play” with other dogs would not end well. He generally prefers that "strange" dogs keep their distance and mind their manners. From time to time, I allow him to sniff noses and “make nice” with dogs he expresses a friendly interest in and ones I trust not to spontaneously combust in his face. He wags his tail and occasionally play bows and that’s as far as it goes. It’s sort of a “Hey, dude, how are ya?” “Good, you?” “Awesome.” “ ‘kay, see ya later.”

Knowing Phoenix does not care to interact with other dogs in general and knowing that in order for us to succeed as a team in my chosen sport (obedience), he needs to look to me as the source of good times, not other dogs, it doesn’t bother me much that he rarely gets to socialize with others of his own species. Of course, he gets to play with Jamie. I’ve always let my own dogs play together. We have routine sessions of “pack play,” which vary in structure and content as puppies are added and as geriatric dogs age.

But I totally understand the desire to let one’s dog play with other dogs. They're so dang fun to watch! It’s fun to study their body language. It’s amazing to watch the subtle split-second messages that change the tone of a game only the dogs know the rules to.

At the same time, letting your dog play with other dogs, especially in a training venue, sends a loud and clear message - go have fun without me. You don’t need me to have a great time. Just forget I’m here. I could never be that much fun so I won't even try.

Okay. On one hand, how long is this session going to last? Maybe 20 minutes? What’s 20 minutes out of a week? Especially if you add up all the time during the day you spend walking your dog, training him, grooming him, feeding him, cuddling while watching TV and just interacting around your house? What’s it going to hurt to let him play with another dog for 20 minutes a week?

My head says, “Really? C’mon. How can you expect your dog to value the time he spends with you if you constantly allow him to have a BETTER time with someone/something who is not you?” I would like the presence of ring gates, of matting, jumps and the whole “atmosphere” of obedience sites to flip a switch in my dog’s brain that says, “This is where I work/play with Mom and ignore everything else cuz she has the coolest plan for fun and I want to be with HER.”

My heart says, “For doG’s sake, quit being such an obedience Nazi and let the dog go play with another dog if he wants to. A few minutes won’t hurt anything, will it?"

The bottom line on this is: it’s a personal choice. I know that the competitive goals I’ve set for my dog and I demand a level of relationship that goes beyond average Joe Public pet owner, as well as many other trainers who are pursuing different journeys. There are certain skill sets we must achieve and if I constantly let him replace me with another dog as the source of fun and mental effort, we will not master them.

You're the only one who can decide what is right for your team.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Dust, tarnish and trophies

"So I’ll cherish the old rugged cross, til my trophies at last I lay down . . . ”

When I sang this hymn as a youth in the Wapello United Methodist Church, I was pretty sure the song writer was not talking about the shiny trophies awarded for achievement in the dog show ring.
My life was awash in trophies at that time. It was the early 1980s and I was showing my first Tervuren, Gypsy, in 4-H shows (there were a lot of 4-H shows, back in the day) and at American Kennel Club shows. I won a lot, which meant I brought home a lot of trophies. Even when I didn’t win, clubs frequently gave trophies for second, third and fourth placements in a class. It was a trophy mad world and I was in the center of it.

Thirty years later, I would be quite happy to lay those trophies down but I can’t find anyone who wants them.

They lived at my parents’ house until my mother had enough and sent them to my house. They sat, packed in dusty cardboard boxes in the dark recess of an upstairs bedroom closet, for at least 10 years. Then I began the Great House Purge of 2013.

It was time to fish or cut bait when it came to those trophies. Asking them the Magic Question did not yield a positive answer. No, if we were moving they would not be worth packing up, hauling to a new house, unpacking and finding a place for.

I unwrapped every single trophy and arranged them all on the floor of an empty room. There they sat in their tarnished, scuffed, chipped, dusty glory, representing the early years of my dog training and showing career, from the mid 1970s to the late 1980s.

Fortunately,  two things happened to stop the influx of trophies: 1) I went to college and did not show dogs for four years and 2) when I did return to showing dogs in the late 1980s, giving actual metal and faux marble trophies was no longer en vogue on the show scene. Prizes had changed to semi-useful items, like candle sticks or paperweights and sometimes even actual cash awards. (And blankets, coats, napkin rings and decorated bricks. This is an entire post in itself.)

Studying the vast array of victory figures lofting laurel wreaths, I wondered why I’d been so adamant my mother not take the whole works to the landfill in the first place. She had suggested that. I had responded with anguish. Now the trophies were in my house, not hers. My anguish was rapidly returning.

Here was the problem. The trophies represented a lot of good times. Achievement. Friends. Discovery. Growth. But they were dangerously close to becoming sacred icons of clutter - those worn out old things you can’t or won’t dispose of because they once played a huge part in your life, therefore you’ll spend the rest of your years with them attached to you like a millstone around your neck. They needed to go but the idea of pitching them in the Dumpster didn't feel right.

 Someone suggested I donate them to the local county fair. The engraved plates could easily be removed and new ones put in their place, saving the price of buying entirely new trophies. On the surface that sounded like an excellent idea. Except for the fact that today’s youth livestock exhibitors do not want a tarnished award left over from someone else’s glory days 30 years ago. The trophies lining the livestock awards tables at the Iowa County Fair each year are of uniform sparkling style and color.

Next, I called a trophy shop in Iowa City, the same one, in fact, where many of the trophies littering my floor had originated three decades ago.

“Do you have a trophy recycling program?” I asked.

“No,” the proprietor answered, “not unless you count making  a trip to the landfill.”

Apparently he routinely comes to work in the morning to find large boxes of abandoned trophies sitting on his doorstep, left there by people who were hoping they could enjoy a happy reincarnation.

Try a charity, my friends suggested. I called the Iowa Special Olympics office. “Thank you for thinking of us, but all our trophies have to be registered with Special Olympics,” they said. I have no idea what that means. I think it was a nice way of saying, “Abso-freaking-lutely no way.”

I tried several other local charities, all with the same result. In the meantime, I opened a box full of beautiful walnut plaques with the 4-H emblem attached. They were all from 1982, either from the Louisa County Fair or my 4-H club’s training show. Apparently 1982 was a banner year for me. I couldn’t throw these in the trash. These actually were recyclable.

I put them back in the box and delivered them to the gal who has instructed the Iowa County 4-H dog project for a number of years.

“Here,” I said. “Merry Christmas.” I was not sure how this was going to be received but she seemed genuinely pleased and said she could give them as special awards to the kids who attended this year’s project training classes, separate from any county fair prizes.

It was a small victory for me - one without a victory figure.

And now I'm working up the fortitude to chuck the rest of them in the trash.

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

The faces of fun

Wow. Two posts in one week. It's a post-Beltane miracle. Or maybe I just really need a break from house cleaning.

Today's post is from the “Things it took me a while to learn” file. This seems to be one of my bigger files.


What a simple concept.

It brings to mind images of happy smiles and laughter.  Doing something you find rewarding. Hanging out with friends in the park on a summer afternoon. Being with someone whose presence you enjoy tremendously. Those are all fun.

What about fun in obedience training? What does fun look like there?

John Q. Public recognizes the classic “happy dog” indicators: wagging tail, relaxed body, “smiling” facial expression. There are plenty of dogs who display that in their obedience work and it’s genuine. The dog is having fun.

Early in my training career, I made the mistake of thinking my dog had to present all the classic “happy dog” indicators all the time during training and showing. I thought if he wasn’t wagging his tail and dancing around, I had somehow failed as a trainer. While I understood the value of “attitude” in training, I completely neglected to recognize that not all dogs will present “fun” in the same way.

The result of this was that my desire to make sure my dog was always “having fun” often got in the way of helping my dog learn whatever it was I wanted to teach him.

It has taken me several years and several dogs to learn this. When my dog’s tail lowered or his ears went back, I used to immediately switch into “happy-happy” mode, determined my dog should constantly be the happiest one in the room. This usually meant producing toys or treats, which immediately derailed whatever skill we were working on. Since they were handed over basically for free, to “make him have fun,” Dog Brain immediately disconnected from learning mode into treat-eating or ball-chasing mode.

Once I learned to recognize that a lowered, non-wagging tail could be a sign of intense focus OR a symptom of anxiety, it became much easier to know when to keep moving forward in training vs. stopping for a break to relieve unintentional training stress.

While the concept of “having fun” in training IS vitally important, I’m less concerned with how the “fun” looks than I am with what other messages my dog is sending and the overall tone of what we’re doing together. Sometimes we need to stop and re-set our mutual attitude. Other times we can push ahead through a degree of pressure and move closer to my end goal, knowing my dog is a willing, curious, engaged participant.

I’ve been blessed with dogs who thought whatever we were doing at the moment was absolutely the most fun anyone could have. I am currently blessed with a dog who does not believe obedience is automatically the pinnacle of tail-wagging delight.

I can tell when Phoenix is “in the moment” and I can recognize his “having fun/not having fun” indicators. Seeing the sparkle in his eye before I send him for a scent article (his all-time favorite exercise), there is no doubt in my mind that even though he looks intensely serious, he is absolutely having fun and I can throw challenges at him. Other times, his seriousness means the "not fun" sign is on and it's time to address whatever problem is interfering - boredom, confusion, worry, etc.

Training, playing and living with this creature has been a journey that almost immediately drove off the carefully scripted map I had in my mind. He continues to teach me and to stretch my abilities as a trainer to limits I’d never imagined.

Monday, May 6, 2013

It's the Big One

I feel like I’m neglecting you, dear readers. Forgive me, but I’ve spent the last week going batshit crazy cleaning house and getting ready for a garage sale.

That’s not an exaggeration. Just ask the Farmer. He’s afraid I’m going to slap a price tag on him and put him on the sale pile. Ask Phoenix, who has been helping me in his very special malinois way. Ask Jamie, who is highly annoyed he can no longer make it up the stairs to the second floor rooms to supervise the proceedings.

It all started when I ran across this on the web. Actually it started before that, but this kicked it into high gear.

“When there is visual chaos, as opposed to clear flat spaces in our home, it creates tension that keeps us from truly relaxing . . .  Clutter robs us of peace, tranquility, time and enjoyment, and instead gives us stress.”

It’s true. Clutter causes stress. I had to de-clutter. The more I de-cluttered, the better I felt. I’ve discovered a new hobby - throwing stuff out. I’ve spent the better part of a week throwing stuff out and I wonder why I didn’t do this before. The weather has been so rotten (icy rain and — gasp — snow) that working indoors has been quite appealing.

I’ve started the Great House Purge of 2013. There have been previous house purges but this is The Big One. My goal isn’t to have a house that looks like a Better Homes and Gardens layout. I just want it to be tidy and relatively clean and I want to be able to find stuff when I need it. Most of all, I want to not feel claustrophobic because I’m surrounded by a bunch of stuff that’s just taking up air space for no good reason. I’d rather have the closet space. Floor space. Counter space. Open space.

It’s been 25 years since I graduated from college. Two and a half decades of accumulating stuff, 22 years in one house. The rooms the Farmer and I live in and use daily aren’t bad. I’ve kept ahead of the clutter there, out of necessity. It’s the second floor of our two-story farm house that’s reaching critical mass. That’s were old toasters go to die. And jeans I will never wear again because the five pounds I needed to lose has turned into 10 and ya know what, sister? It ain’t happenin’. And odd bits of detritus from two decades of marriage that simply defied being re-homed or just plain thrown out when they should have been.

So I’m cleaning house. Room by room. Drawer by drawer. Closet by closet. The previous house purges I’ve done were mere warm ups compared to this one. I got rid of a lot of stuff during those previous purges, but it was always easy to be indecisive about something and just put the box back into the closet because it was easier than actually opening it and dealing with what was inside. I wasn’t ready to part with high school trinkets or 4-H scrapbooks yet.

This time, it’s different. I’m a ruthless, brutal, clutter-whacking fiend. I have a box of Hefty trash bags and I know how to use them. I’m hauling enough stuff to this garage sale to start my own second-hand shop.

If I start feeling bogged down, I ask myself the Magic Question: “If we moved, would this be worth packing up, hauling to a new house, unpacking and finding a spot for?”

We’re not moving, but the Magic Question is very helpful when it comes to making decisions about what stays and what goes. There is some stuff that promises sentimental attachment on the surface but when faced with the prospect of requiring more energy to maintain it, the sentimental glow fades quickly.

It’s easy to be brutal when you’re lazy.

I’ve started on the second floor rooms first because: A) they’re more work than the first floor rooms (they’re where all the “let’s keep that, we might need it some day” stuff lives and B) I’d like to get them done before summer, when it gets hot and the central air doesn’t quite make it all the way up there. I’ve been pushing hard to get ready for this garage sale but I know the Great House Purge of 2013 will last long into the summer.

Last summer I helped my aunt clean out her house and move. It was stressful. There were so many things she did not want to say good-bye to. I understood. They were reminders of her childhood, of days when she and loved ones were young and strong and life was a happy frolic. There was no pain or illness or the looming threat of nursing home care. They were reminders of dreams, some gloriously realized, some not. Throwing them away, either in a burn pile or on an estate auction, meant those days and those dreams were gone forever.

Over the weekend, I sat on a bedroom floor in our house with Phoenix’s head in my lap and paged through scrapbooks filled with dusty newspaper clippings and truly awful photos of 4-H club activities. I’m pretty sure I’m the only person in the world who cared what the Wapello Busy Bees were doing to prepare for the county fair in the summer of 1981. I laughed. I reminisced. I threw it out.

I kept some things - my grandmother’s engagement ring, the tassels from my high school and college graduation caps, my bouquet from our wedding, Jess and Connor’s scent articles - things that are worth packing up and moving. Someday.

In the meantime, I’ve called the local theatre company about donating stuff for props or costumes. I’m selling some of the “What was I thinking?” antiques I’ve bought over the years. I’ve got my eye on a few things that need to go to the local furniture refinishing shop for a makeover. I’ve tried finding a place to recycle the eight (count ‘em, eight) jam-packed boxes of 4-H dog show trophies my mom so cleverly insisted I take out of HER house.

My garage sale pile has reached gargantuan proportions. I’ve made numerous trips to drop things off at Goodwill. I need to make an appointment with a coin dealer to have my grandmother’s eclectic collection of coins appraised and, hopefully, sold. I need to take my old Nikon and accompanying lenses to a camera shop to see what kind of deal they will make me. As usual, there’s a tote filling up for my obedience club’s garage sale next year, and I’ve been tossing garbage bags full of things I’ll never miss into the Dumpster at the office with deranged glee.

Who knew cleaning house could be so much work?

It feels wonderful.