Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Kitten progress report

After almost a month, Phoenix and the kittens have reached the "let's turn them loose together and see what happens" stage. (I'll do a post soon detailing the steps it took to get to this point.)

What happens is the kittens go about their business (they're very busy) and Phoenix trots around after them, nosing, sniffing, poking and occasionally getting in trouble because he tries to chase. The kittens are oblivious.

I wanted to shoot pics outdoors last night but it had rained all day and no way was I turning this bunch loose in the mud.

The elusive Mr. Weezel, revealed.
They're standing on top of the weed mower.
Just because they can.

Siren: pre-pounce sequence initiated.

Of all 3 kittens, Weezel deliberately seeks out Phoenix to play with him. If Phoenix ignores him (yeah, right), Weezel will run across his path or go find him and get his attention. You can just see the outline of Nix' ear between the tires and the head gate. Weezel spent a great deal of time teasing him to come closer. Even the Skinny Little Dog couldn't fit through that gap.

This pretty much says it all. Phoenix has had his nose swatted by Siren a lot. She's very gentle about it, more patting than swatting. Siren is very tactile, she uses her front paws more than the other two kittens. She is a very touchy-feely cat. She swats my face, too, when I hold her.

Yeah, Phoenix still wants to chase them and I'm sure he would if I weren't there to referee. But I've achieved the first goal - for him to be loose around the kittens with supervision and be NICE.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

The best training method

As I’ve watched training methods evolve through the years, one thing has become crystal clear: it’s often not a question of “CAN you train your dog using X method?” It’s “Can YOU train your dog using X method?”

I’ve seen people become devotees of whichever training guru is hot on the scene at the time, yet simple mimicking of their methods does not replicate the guru's results and they continue to struggle. Other people, however, easily assimilate and implement those new methods and as a result, they soar with their dogs.

It’s normal to go to a seminar and come home bursting with ideas that you are sure will make your dog the next NOC. Been there, done that! I’ve gone to a LOT of seminars over the years and while some were decidedly better than others, I’ve brought home one or two new ideas for my toolbox from every single one.

The bottom line is there is no magic training method that creates brilliance in all dogs and the most popular trainer’s method will do you and your dog little good if you cannot master the basic principles.

All trainers are not created equal. Age, physical ability, level of experience, resources (including but not limited to time and money), goals/desires and innate talent are what make each trainer just a little different from the next trainer. All dogs are not created equal either, but that’s a post in itself.

As an instructor, I’ve worked with a lot of different people. Young people. Not so young people. People with physical limitations. People with differing reaction times. People who always argued. People who always agreed. People who needed to be spoon-fed every single step of the way and people whose thought processes were so dizzyingly ahead of mine I felt like I should be paying them for the lesson. People who made their dog’s training a priority. People who viewed the journey with eagerness and humor and others who viewed it with impatience and great expectations.

All had differing abilities to listen, interpret and implement my instructions. None of my training methods are unique. They’re a hodgepodge of ideas that have been collected over many years and from many different dogs and instructors. Bottom line - they’re what works for me. I’m comfortable with them. I can physically implement them. I know why I'm doing what I'm doing. When Phoenix crashed into my life, I had no idea he was going to challenge so many of them or that he was going to force me out of my comfort zone and make me re-think The Rules and Learn New Stuff.

During that process I learned just because a method seems shiny and sparkling and perfect does not mean it is the right approach for me. Over the last several years I’ve bought into a couple of methodologies that simply did not fit - it was like trying to jam my size 8 feet into an adorable pair of boots that were only available in size 6. I wanted so badly for a couple of methods to “fit” but they just did not.

As I’ve worked to tailor our training to build the “want to” while firmly requiring the “have to,” I’ve discovered my dog responds wonderfully when my head is clear and I’m using methods I’m comfortable with (old or new) and can use with good timing and understanding. Team Phoenix spent some time wandering around in the mists of “I’m trying to make this method work but don’t really understand what I’m doing” and it only created confusion and stress for both of us. If there was uncertainty on my part, it reflected in my dog. This worked at counter-purposes. How was I supposed to make this method create brilliance when I could not skillfully use it?

So how do you decide what’s right for you and your dog?

Listen to different ideas. Keep an open mind. Ask questions. Try to understand not only the finished product but all the subtle nuances that are part of achieving that final product. Play the devil's advocate. Challenge. Is your instructor addressing you and your dog as individuals or just parroting back popular buzz words that sound impressive on the surface but do little to address your training concerns?

Think for  yourself.

Try out ideas that really appeal to you. See how they work. See how they feel. Give them a legitimate chance. Make sure your execution is correct before you declare “This isn’t working!” If something feels wrong, don’t do it. Don’t fall in love with theory that doesn’t work for you just because everyone else is doing it.

Ask for help when you need it but never lose sight of whose dog you’re training - YOURS! Experiment. Be patient. Think long term.

This is training in its purest form - communicating with another species and getting the result you desire without being frantic or desperate, while inspiring trust, confidence and enthusiasm in your dog. There is no single method that will work for every dog and handler. One is not better than another. The best method is the one that works for your team.

Friday, June 14, 2013

Launching adorable in 3 . . . 2 . . . 1 . . .

I really do have more to do than sit in the barn and take kitten pictures. 
I just can't think of what it might be at the moment.

Prelude to a pounce.

Okay, front feet on a rock. Can I teach her fronts and glove turns now?

This is why I can never have nice leashes. If Phoenix isn't chewing them up, the cats are.

If you'd told me 3 weeks ago that Phoenix could interact relatively politely with a kitten . . .

. . . without endangering said kitten's life . . .

. . . I wouldn't have believed it. Way to make a liar out of me, Skinny Little Dog.
Today's episode of The Adorables brought to you by Siren, Grypon and Phoenix. Weezel was too busy climbing my pants leg to be photographed. And Jamie had other things to do.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Time management

First, answers to gardening questions: yes, those mini roses are crazy hardy here in east central Iowa. Winter temps here can and do drop to -20. Oddly enough, last summer we had an onslaught of Japanese beetles and they only munched on my pink mini roses, not the coral colored one. Never saw a beetle on it all summer. Sprayed the hell out of the pink ones and kept ahead of the worst damage. No, I don’t have the specific name for the blue iris, sorry - they are just a bearded variety that caught my eye in a catalog a few years ago.

Okay, dog obedience.

Someone asked me recently if my decision to drop out of the agility scene to focus on Phoenix’s obedience work was working.

Honest answer: I don’t know. Our last obedience trial was in mid-May. Our next trial is in a week and a half and I really don’t expect to see super results this fast. We’re doing Utility only, no Open stays for us for awhile.

But I can tell you I feel a whole lot better about our training and time management. Really, really a whole lot better. Not only did I put agility on the back burner, I’m taking a break from teaching as well and not teaching any obedience classes for my club or privately until fall. (I am sort of in charge of a very loosely organized weeknight training group, kind of a selfish excuse to encourage other people to come train with me at a local park. So far, the weather seems to be winning but we’ve had a good time when we manage to get there.)

There are seven days in a week.

Mondays I usually work late, getting the newspapers out, so training on Monday night is a crap shoot at best. I always want to train but I don’t always get home from work early enough to realistically have any sort of decent training time  and sometimes I’m just not in a good place mentally after the day’s deadline insanity.

Until this spring, I always had an agility class to go to each week. There went the 2nd night of the week.

And I was always teaching an obedience class as well. There’s the 3rd night of the week away from home, even though I could train my own dog before teaching the class if I scurried home from work and got on the road fast enough.

If I was trialing on the weekend (and I usually was, either obedience or agility), that took care of Saturday and Sunday (days 4 and 5). I know you can train at a trial or at the hotel or wherever but you don't always have the room or the equipment to work the things you want to. If I had to drive a distance to the trial, there went Friday night (day 6).

Do the math. Many weeks that left me with ONE NIGHT with no other obligations when I could train my dog when and where I wanted.

Granted, the agility class night did provide training opps but we all know class time is mostly for the handler, not the dog. You’re supposed to learn from your instructor, then go home and teach your dog. Which is really hard to do if you’re never home.

So I reluctantly dropped agility and guiltily quit teaching and I’ll tell you what - it’s fabulous!!!

I’m not frantically splitting our limited at-home training time between two venues. I’m not desperately throwing all my time and effort at whatever venue I’m entered in for the coming weekend.

Not trialing in agility has freed up a staggering number of weekends. I can spend the time hooking up with obedience-only friends to train or making use of training sites that are vacant because everyone else is at the agility trial.

I feel like our training is calmer, more clearly directed at specific goals. Knowing I have most weeknights and many weekends at my disposal, to use as I want to, has taken a lot of pressure off me, and consequently off Phoenix.

I’m looking up obedience trial dates that I’d previously abandoned to do agility. There are a surprising number of new trials that have been added in our area over the last couple of years. I was always peripherally aware of them but opted to go the agility route instead. Now I’m looking forward to trying out some new trial sites and dates.

Will this guarantee instant success? Probably not. But it has freed my mind from the clutter of too many obligations. I used to thrive on the gone-every-weekend-and-most-nights-a-week lifestyle. I guess back then I had dogs who excelled in spite of my haphazard training style.

Working Phoenix will never be a casually, laid-back experience. Right now, asking for 110 percent from him means I have to give it, too. He is a demanding and draining dog and I don’t think anything I do with him will ever qualify as “easy.” But I’m looking forward to a summer of one easy choice - training obedience.

Monday, June 10, 2013

Garden tour

Life is good here in this part of Ireland. Um. Iowa. We've had so much rain, fog, drizzle, clouds and cool temps that some days I feel like we're sharing an alternate universe with the UK or possibly the Pacific northwest.

But my flowers love it. I've had to water exactly ONCE since setting out this year's annuals, and that includes containers. Yep. Once. In five weeks. Mother Nature is working overtime to provide moisture. The Farmer wishes she would take a break so he can make hay.

Before the heat and bugs of summer set it, here's an early June garden tour. Things are green and happy.

Iris and peonies (blooming late) 
and miniature rose (blooming early)

Miniature rose.
I absolutely LOVE this plant.
I've tried to kill it so many times
and it grows and blooms in defiance
of my not always green thumb abilities.

Bearded iris with petals wet from rain.
And to think last year we were in an extreme drought.
Well, summer isn't over yet.
For that matter, I'm not sure it's even started.

I'm trying them as a container grown annual this year.
They are not hardy in this part of the Midwest.
They have such dazzling blends of color.

Indian Summer coleus,
from clippings I took last fall and wintered over,
possibly my favorite coleus ever.
On the far right is Dipped In Wine coleus, 
possibly my favorite plant name ever.

Friday, June 7, 2013

A dose of stinkin' cute

Here are some pics of Phoenix's kittens. Minus Phoenix. Who was having a small meltdown in the x-pen while I took these. He wanted to be out with HIS kitties. His behavior around them has improved greatly since they arrived a week ago. Not to the point of let's-turn-them-all-loose-together-and-see-what-happens but better.

(Scourge of farm rodents everywhere. Maybe.
In six months. Does he look like a scourge?)

Weezel and Gryphon
(Fear the claw!)

(She is the naughty one. 
Ask Phoenix. Nothin' but trouble.)

(And Weezel, who apparently has 
a thing about turning his face to the camera.)


I am seriously not a cat person. Seriously. I am a dog person through and through. But oh dear. It's really hard to get much done these days besides sitting in the barn, playing with kittens.

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Kitten detox

I wanted to post more pictures of Phoenix and his kittens but their relationship has reached the stage where he is allowed to interact with them without any barrier between them and that means I am full-time Polite Dog Behavior Enforcer instead of Adorable Kitten and Dog Photographer. I’ve never had to work through anything like this before. None of my previous dogs exhibited the degree of cat obsession that Phoenix has.

The kittens have lived with us for 5 days. They are getting progressively sillier (think wild kitten acrobatics and well intentioned but badly executed ninja moves.) Phoenix is getting progressively calmer around them. That’s not to say he’s calm. He’s just calm-er.

The message I’m trying to instill is simple: be gentle, don’t chase, pounce, snap or muzzle punch and you can continue to have access to the kittens. Be an asshole and they go away. (Technically, he goes away. Be nice or we leave.)

It’s working. Slowly. For him, kittens are forbidden fruit. He wants them desperately. Wants to sniff them, to see what they ARE, what they DO. To play with them? Maybe. But not in a happy Walt Disney inter-species frolic sort of way. Malinois play often is only enjoyable for the malinois. I’ll be happy just to establish an acceptable level of tolerance (i.e., don’t eat the cat).

Each morning after the dogs have their breakfast, we go out to the barn. Phoenix runs ahead and bounces at the door until I open it. Then he runs in and greets the kittens in their big crate. (They’re crated at night until they get bigger.) The kittens are delighted to see him. They stand on their hind legs and poke their little paws through the crate to pat his nose while he sniffs. This is all very sweet but I didn’t start allowing Phoenix to run ahead of me until they’d been here about 3 days because until that point, Phoenix was pretty sure any kitty parts extending beyond the crate should be chomped.

Both dogs go into an x-pen and the kittens are turned loose to run amuck. (They wrote the book on running amuck. Seriously. It’s on Amazon.) The first place they run to is the x-pen to see the dogs. I realize these kittens were raised with two dogs but I still find it kind of incredible that they have deliberate greeting rituals with another species who could be predators. Jamie is laid back and gentle. Phoenix is . . . more gentle than he was the first night they arrived. They all touch noses through the wires and then the kittens race off to be berserk.

Initially I started this process with the kittens IN the x-pen and the dogs OUT of the x-pen. I really thought the x-pen wires were small enough the kittens could not escape but they quickly disproved that theory. (Animals continually make liars out of me. Welcome to my life.)

The dogs stay in the x-pen while I clean the kittens’ crate. Phoenix can’t have access to the kittens unless I can watch him 100 percent of the time. Once the litter box is cleaned and I’ve refilled water and food bowls, Phoenix gets to come out of the x-pen, on a leash, and I sit on an upturned bucket and we practice acceptable behavior around kittens.

The kittens have no clue what’s going on. They continue their madcap racing around, their paths often taking them right across Phoenix’s feet or under this belly. One might argue for exposure from a distance at first but this proved to be impossible, since the kittens gravitate toward us, no matter where we go in the barn. During the initial 48 hours, I sat on the bucket and held one kitten at a time, with Phoenix in the x-pen nearby, until he could behave himself in their presence without going over threshold.

Lunging, snapping, biting and flat out chasing are not permitted. Phoenix tried them all the first couple of days. The kittens have grown bolder and now their crazed leaps often land them between Phoenix’s feet or right under his nose. He’s allowed to sniff and nudge them around with his nose. I learned how fast this can escalate to muzzle punches (Run damnit, so I can chase you!) and it took about 4 days before he could just sniff and then be called away before it escalated to anything more or even backed off voluntarily. (He was always on leash and my reflexes have become amazing sharp when I’m watching his body language like a hawk - no kittens were harmed! Probably scared once or twice but they still remain infatuated with the dogs in general. Go figure.)

The amount of treats Phoenix has eaten in the last 5 days during the kitten conditioning is staggering. My refrigerator has never been so clean. Seriously. Leftover chicken breast, pork patties, steak, salmon and a veritable smorgasbord of commercial treats.

The long term goal is to have him understand that these kittens are NOT prey animals and eventually, for him to be relaxed enough around them that he can be trusted not to chase. Although the kittens are allegedly “barn cats” I’m sure they’ll end up around the house and in the dogs’ yard from time to time.

As always with this wonderful crazy dog, there is a vast learning curve.

In the meantime, the Farmer has informed me we should sell the house because I am never home and when I am home, I’m out in the barn with the dogs and the cats. Apparently that is a problem?

Sunday, June 2, 2013

Phoenix gets a kitty

Until Friday, we had no farm cats. We have Winnie, my antique cat who lives in the garage. But no barn kitties. Zero. Zippo. Nada. Very sad. The only ones who were happy about this were the mice. Who spent the winter throwing loud parties in our basement.

So this spring I decided we would get some kittens. They had to be kittens because they needed to be raised with the dogs. I was afraid adult cats would have already formed opinions about the dogs and that would probably not end well.

I wasn't totally sure kittens would end well either. Phoenix has the highest prey drive of any dog I've ever shared my life with. If it runs, scurries, squeaks, hops, flaps or darts, he's after it. There are days I wonder if he's part terrier. He hunts. He catches.

We only had a few farm cats around when Phoenix came to live with me. He was a little too interested in them for his own good. He chased but never caught. As their numbers dwindled through natural attrition, it became a non-issue.

I knew going into this that we (Phoenix and I) would have to do some major cat desensitization.

These pics are taken earlier this afternoon. The kittens have been here 48 hours, hanging out in a big crate and x-pen in our hoop building. Things are going well. There have been some  . . . um . . . teachable moments. Phoenix is becoming convinced kittens hold the magic key to vast quantities of chicken, Carnivore Cookies and whatever leftover meat is available in the fridge. Look at the kittens, eat the food. Sniff the kittens politely, eat the food. It's all good.

This was today's initial encounter. A little more tension on his part than I would like. Posture is stiff, ears stiff, mouth tight, eyes hard. The kittens are oblivious, which is actually a good thing, because they're not freaking out.

This was a few minutes later. Better. Body posture a little more relaxed, mouth is softer and you can't see it but his tail was wagging. This was followed by a brief episode of herding cats around the x-pen which was apparently enjoyed by all parties involved.

Score! A play bow! Did I mention these kittens are not afraid of dogs? They were raised with a neurotic toy fox terrier and a big, sweet lab. Their confidence around the dogs is helpful. They're not exhibiting fearful kitten behaviors, like hissing, spitting and running, which would seriously push Phoenix's buttons.

Jamie is fine with kittens. He thinks they're kind of boring.

Cat spaz.

A kitten and a malinois walk into a loading chute . . .

There are 3 kittens total: Siren, Gryphon and Weasel. Weasel did not take part in today's photo shoot. He looks like his bro and sis but has red points instead of gray.