Thursday, October 31, 2013

Can you be more exciting than a squirrel?

Over the years, I’ve been told repeatedly that I need to be the “most exciting thing” in my dog’s life. If I can be “exciting,” my dog will ignore everything else and work happily in the face of any distraction. I overheard it again at a recent trial, as someone gave a newbie trainer advice on how to handle her highly distracted dog - “You need to be more exciting than anything else in her world.”

Exciting is probably not a word anyone would use to describe me. I am a relatively quiet kind of person. Even after a couple of cups of coffee and multiple corner pieces of MACH cake with inch-thick frosting I still wouldn’t register very high on the excitement scale. Focused, organized, optimistic, driven? Yes. Exciting? Not so much.

So after being told for the umpteenth time a few years ago that in order to get Phoenix to work with me I needed to be more exciting than a squirrel, I stopped and thought about it. No. No, I don’t.

First of all, I physically cannot be more exciting than a squirrel. Even on my best days I cannot mimic a furry little  three-pound rodent who can do acrobatics through the branches and run up and down tree trunks both forward and backward. Nor can I make those annoyed squirrel noises.

Second, if I am to prove myself more exciting than a squirrel, I will have to compete with said squirrel. I choose not to do that. The squirrel would win and I would look like an idiot. And probably get hurt.

Oh, I’ve tried. I’ve cheered and waved my arms around and made funny noises and offered toys and treats and run around until I was sweating, exhausted and couldn’t breathe. When it was all over, Phoenix just thought I was weird and maybe a little unstable and he still wanted the squirrel.

What I can do, however, is be the most important thing in my dog’s life.

There’s a difference. It’s not a whole lot easier but it is a whole lot more realistic.

As with most things, it’s taken me a while to learn this. Being the most important thing in my dog's life means he is empowered to make a choice between me and the squirrel without me being required to behave in ways that would attract odd stares at best and men with butterfly nets at worst.

I’ve seen a T-shirt with the slogan “I’m not crazy, I’m training my dog.” If you ever train in a public place, you know what I’m talking about. While even “normal” training involves a degree of odd (from a John Q. Public standpoint) behavior, I am not extroverted enough to act like an escaped inmate from the asylum every time my dog faces extreme distractions.

I would prefer my dog be able to make the choice by himself: squirrel or me. Just plain ol’ me. No bells and whistles. What you see is what you get. This is the me you get in training and in the ring.  I’m not going to lure or bribe you, because the minute the lures and bribes disappear and the erratic behavior ends, the squirrel wins. And that makes me tired.

Sounds great on paper. How to make it happen?

Obviously, by consistent training using a sensible and realistic plan of working closer and closer to things your dog may find very appealing (sight, scent and noise distractions - which one does your dog find most enticing?) By managing a long-term training plan, not just by managing the moment. By rewarding engagement and showing your dog what options ARE available if he chooses to engage (chase games, tug, goodies, etc.) and also by helping him learn that the squirrel will never actually be available. (If my dog wants to chase squirrels on his own time, that’s fine. But he doesn’t get to check out of a training session and leave me in the dust to do it. Although I will admit it has happened. Bad trainer. Needed to be more forward thinking and set up for success, not hot squirrel pursuit.)

A simple exercise is to have someone else offer your dog a cookie while you are engaging with him. The helper will never allow the dog to actually get the cookie. What happens if your dog tries to get it? Does he look back to you when the helper closes her hand over the cookie? Yay! Reward! The goal is for your dog to choose YOU over a cookie he will never be allowed to eat. Eventually, the squirrel will become the cookie he is never allowed to eat.

But beyond that, build your importance by helping your dog understand you control access to everything he wants (treats, toys, other dogs, the back yard, the recliner, etc.) AND by using genuine, sincere, honest, heartfelt praise BEFORE shoving food and toys at your dog as a reward. Let your dog know he (and his behavior) is important to you before you deliver the goodies.

Over the years, I have had students whose dogs lived in homes with doggie doors so they could go in and out as they pleased. They were free-fed from bowls that were never empty and they had a huge collection of toys at their disposal to entertain themselves with. They were allowed access to the furniture as they pleased, never waited at doors and charged out of their crates the second they were opened. Then the student wanted to know why her dog wouldn't listen to her.

Why should he? In the grand scheme of life, he probably loves his owner but she’s really not all that important. While it’s possible that she might be able to make herself more exciting than a squirrel at any given moment, when it’s all said and done, he can still let himself in and out of the house, feed himself and entertain himself while enjoying all he comforts of his owner’s home without any interaction with her. Or without any sort of rules governing his "pack."

The “be more exciting than anything else” premise works only as long as you are able to become exponentially more exciting than anything that comes across your dog's path at any and all times for as long as your dog’s career lasts.

Being the most important thing in your dog’s life is a commitment you will have to work at every single day of your journey with your dog.

Enjoy the journey.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Rain, cats and go-outs

Since my plan to win the lottery and build a state-of-the-art training center is not moving along as quickly as I’d hoped, Phoenix and I train outdoors a lot. Since I'm back at work full time and it's late October and gets dark earlier and earlier, we train outside when we get the chance.

Which explains why we were working go-outs last night. In the rain. In 37 degrees. This was clearly not a formal run-through session as Phoenix and I haven’t worked a lot of blank wall go-outs. Although nearly all of the sites we show at have gates along the back of the Utility ring, we are showing at a site in November that presents only a blank wall, not even an electrical outlet to provide a visual mark.

Last night I used food on a semi-hidden (in the grass) target next to the outside back wall of the garage to give Phoenix a reason to run straight at solid cinder blocks. Tonight I will be using a different method to provide better control of A) the reward and B) the kittens. Which are not the same in spite of Phoenix occasionally thinking they should be.

Our training session went like this:

Give kittens a big bowl of food inside the garage so they will leave us alone. They find training very entertaining, especially when it involves food on targets. Phoenix is used to having them appear in the middle of whatever we are doing. Sometimes he can deal with them. Sometimes he can't. I don’t get on his case about it, we just work through it.

Place target on ground and put food on target. Mark Phoenix to target and send, let him get the food, call him back.

Run out and put food on target. Run back. Mark Phoenix to target, which is being approached by a kitten. So much for thinking they would stay in the garage and eat their own supper. What - and miss the floor show?

Shout at kitten. This does no good. Send Phoenix fast.

Too late. Kitten is faster and is eating the food off the target. Phoenix decides it is not possible to do go-outs under these circumstance.

Take Phoenix by collar and run to spot to show him that a 5-pound kitten is not a clear and present danger and that he is still expected to go to his spot. Scoop up kitten from spot so she doesn’t get sat on. Praise Phoenix for overcoming the Threat of Cat. Gently toss kitten out of the way with suggestion she go play somewhere else.

Turn to walk back across yard. Feel sharp pain in my leg. Remove kitten from leg (it’s Siren, the leg climber). Set Phoenix up and mark him to the target, which now contains no food but two kittens. He looks at me like, “Are you serious?” I remind him the kittens are not treats.

Farmer comes in from chores, squints at me through the mist and asks if I don’t have enough sense to come in out of the rain.

I tell him if I had my own building I wouldn’t have to train in the rain. He gives me the “I married a crazy woman look” and goes in the house.

Send Phoenix. Kittens scatter. Sit! He sits. Kitten pounces on his tail. I reward with hazardous duty pay.

Run back across the yard. Set up. Mark Phoenix. There are now three kittens between him and his go-out spot. I send him. Kittens run left. He runs right, in avoidance. Collar hold and run to spot. Show him the cookie he could have had for going straight. Decide it would take too much time to round up kittens and shut them in a crate.

Set Phoenix up. Peel Siren off leg. Stuff her under my arm. (I should have documented the amount of training I’ve done this summer with a cat tucked under my arm. Might qualify for Ripley’s.) Mark. Two remaining kittens are running amuck. Send. Phoenix flies across the yard, ignores kittens and sits fast when I stop him. Praise. Treat. Nose is running. Fingers are numb. There are muddy little cat paw prints on my jeans. End session.

Tonight’s plan: food stuck on the garage wall vs food on a ground target. I would like Phoenix to actually get a reward at the point of success (going clear to the wall) without having it stolen by the kittens first. I have no idea how high the kittens can leap. I expect to find out.

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Part IV: The Rules

 The problem with rules is that when someone tells me “You have to do it this way,” I immediately start thinking of reasons why no, I don’t have to do it that way. This is probably human nature – I’m not that much of a rebel and generally, I’m pretty good about following directions. But rules are often restricting and don’t encourage the experimenting and “what if . . .” thinking that can make training a dog even more fun.

So posting a set of training rules is probably not a good idea for me because A) too many rules equal too much rigidity which leads to cookie cutter training where there are no allowances for individual dogs and B) as soon as I think I’ve established a hard and fast rule, Phoenix immediately presents a reason for an exception.

On the other hand, if there is no structure to guide what you’re doing, it can be entirely too easy to stay in your (or your dog’s) comfort zone, thus missing the chance to work through some problems and improve as a team.

So the rules I’m listing here are the baseline I’ve set up for Phoenix and me. It reflects where we are right now. It could change tomorrow!

Keep in mind my primary goal with this plan is to make a substantial portion of our training look like showing so my dog becomes comfortable being asked for formal work without any tangible rewards over a period of time that would mimic our ring time at a trial, and to teach him that the rewards he values are still very much available.

Having said all that, here are The Rules.

• This approach (using formal run-throughs as part of my training routine) is only for a dog who is truly “ring ready.” It wouldn’t be appropriate for dogs who are still learning individual skills.

• We can still work on specific skills in separate training sessions. In fact, we will NEED to because run-throughs don’t involve active “training.” They are tests. (Major exception – if the wheels totally fall off, STOP and go back to training mode. Don’t practice a bad run through just because it was on your agenda for the day.)

• We can have a real ring set up with gates and stanchions (indoors or out) or an imaginary one where I designate part of the building or back yard as the ring and part as the crating area. I put my crate or chair with all my stuff on it outside the ring. Phoenix and I can do anything outside the ring that we would do a real trial – play, give cookies, do tricks, etc.

• When I’ve warmed up my dog, I give my “it’s time to work now” cue (verbal and/or body language) and we go into the ring. No food or toys on me or near the ring.

• Phoenix is wearing a ring-approved collar. 

• We enter the ring, I take off his leash, set up and we do whatever I’ve chosen as the first exercise. Complete the exercise and release.

• Now I have a choice – we can go on to the next exercise OR return to the ring gate, put the leash back on, leave the ring, go back to the chair/crate and have cookies. Putting the leash back on is in important. I can’t let my dog run out of the ring (real or imaginary) to get his goodies. He wouldn’t do that at a trial, right? We need to go together. Have a cookie, play with a toy, then back into the ring, leash off, set up . . .

And so it goes. My goal is to make it black and white to my dog what is expected of him and what he can expect as a result. There will never be cookies in the ring. There will never be toys in the ring. But there can always be cookies outside the ring and I want him to know they are available and he CAN earn them.  Going into the ring is not the end of all things wonderful.

One thing we're working is the engagement factor before, during and after exercises. He'll drop his head and go into "ho-hum" mode at any given time. I've been doing a hand-in-the-collar hand-touch "correction." Take collar with one hand, ask for a touch with the other hand, touch, touch, verbal praise, leash back on, leave the ring, have a cookie, then back into the ring and start again. This seems to be working for us and gets him in the right frame of mind to stay engaged without being verbally rescued or putting the leash back on and giving a collar pop correction. I know it's working because I'm having to do it less and less. Unfortunately, we have a couple of years of practicing disengagement and the ho-hum attitude to overcome because I allowed it. Bad trainer, bad, bad.

Initially, I started doing run-through training by just going into the ring, setting up and releasing to go back out and get cookies. We’ve built from there. Right now, releases for cookies come either at the conclusion of an exercise OR after we’ve moved to the set-up spot for the next exercise. I want Phoenix to know food is available, food can be earned with sustained effort and food will not be delivered in the ring. That’s very clear to me but it’s a concept that has been difficult for him to grasp. For him, the formality of the ring procedure, combined with the cessation of food delivery, pretty much spelled the end of the world. It looked nothing like our training sessions with all their wonderful informality, working bits and pieces and inclusion of food/toys as part of the training.

If he commits an error during a run-through, I correct it with a minimum of fuss and we move on to whatever comes next. There are no do-overs. We can repeat the exercise later in the session if I want to. Error correction is a gray area. It’s an individual decision on what to fix and what to let go during a run-through. I’m willing to allow minor errors. We can address those in skill-training sessions. A run-through is not about being perfect – it’s about sustained effort with good attitude and earning something he wants.

If you have an exercise that needs serious work or a certain skill that is weak, take it off the table when doing run-throughs and work it separately. Don’t practice doing something badly.

One of the major benefits of doing run-throughs is that it forces me to present the “silent handler” my dog will see in the ring. Left to my own devices, I will happily chatter and cheerlead during training. The handler Phoenix had in training was often a very different person than the handler he had in the ring.

What if the session starts to head south? This happened to us after a week of really great sessions. The farm next to the park where we do a lot of our outdoor training moved a herd of cows into a nearby pasture. Phoenix acted like he had never seen cows before in his life. This, the dog who lives on a cattle farm and sees, smells and hears cows every day. But these were new cows. In a place where there had never been cows before. So fascinating. Who knew?

He could not function for keeping an eye on those cows. After struggling with set-ups and two very distracted exercises I gave up on using the run-through approach for that session. We finished by working on attention skills. Add flexibility to the rule list.

Having written this series of posts, I will be the first to agree that yes, I would rather train bits and pieces of exercises that do a lot of formal work. I would rather teach tricks and games that enhance the exercises than focus on repeating the entire exercise much of the time. I would love to have the kind of dog who needs no cookies or toys to make our obedience work sparkle. But that isn’t working for us right now.

I also realize that the instant I post this, I am going to think up a dozen other points I wanted to make. So there may be more to come on this topic.

The journey continues.

Monday, October 14, 2013

Pictures. Cuz they're fun.

I haven't put up any pictures lately so here ya go. iPhone photography at its finest.

Harvest in Iowa Township.

Seriously, woman, taking care of you is exhausting.
Can't a guy catch a nap?

The site of many, many walks over recent weeks.

This morning we saw squirrels and deer.
Phoenix says he saw other things, too.
I didn't ask.

Not  much fall color here yet but gorgeous weather for walking.

The Adorables at seven months.
If you give a cat a box . . .

From left, Siren, Weezel, Gryphon

Sunday, October 13, 2013

Old School Part III: The why's and wherefore's

While doing formal run-throughs as part of our training may seem un-inspiring, I’m finding it fun because Phoenix and I get to fly through the exercises without anything disrupting the flow of our teamwork AND I get to give my dog the cookies and toys he wants afterward – currently we’re breaking for reward after 2 or 3 formal exercises. 

We’ve only been training like this for a couple of weeks and asking for a complete Utility run before getting a reward would not help build the idea of delayed gratification, which is my secondary goal. (More on “the rules” in the next post.)

This ability to give rewards is an important consideration for this training approach. I would love it if Phoenix found playing obedience with me to be enough of a reward that he didn’t need/want anything else to drive a happy and confident performance, but at this point in our journey, it isn’t. Perhaps it might be in the future. Or it might never be. That’s okay – that’s who he is and that's the dog I'm training.

The dog determines the motivator and right now, Phoenix loves his cookies and balls. (Tugging, too, but until I get healed from recent surgery, being yanked around by the malinut is not an option.)

I very much like the “your dog should find it a privilege to work with you above all else” training approach, but this is not a realistic expectation for Phoenix and me right now. My dog loves me. I love him. We enjoy long hikes in the timber, playing with toys and snuggling while watching TV. He’s a fun, complicated, challenging creature and I am delighted to share my life with him. He may not share my world-view on the importance of 40-point heeling and I’m okay with that, too. It’s my job to make 40-point heeling worth his time, so if he wants cookies and balls, that’s okay.

My primary goal for the run-throughs is to make Phoenix comfortable with the picture he will see in the ring, to blur the line between training and showing. This picture includes exercises that begin and end formally and a quiet handler who is not spontaneously pulling cookies or toys out of her pockets or asking for a spinning release in the middle of an exercise - just engaged, confident work without disappointment (and the resultant wheels falling off) when there are no immediate goodies.

I know there are folks out there shaking their heads and saying, “But all you’re teaching your dog is that he will never get any food in the ring.”

And you would be right. Although there's a little more to it.

Unless the AKC makes a drastic rule change, I will never be allowed to give my dog food in the ring. My previous training with Phoenix, which included food and toys as part of the exercises (delivered directly, placed on a target, chased or leaped for), unintentionally created a sense of expectation that can never be fulfilled in the ring. When food failed to be delivered when we showed, I think he perceived it as being wrong, at best, or as punishment, at worst.

BUT! There are tons of food available outside the ring and if my dog works with me, he can have it. EVERY. SINGLE. TIME.

Next installment: The Rules. Honestly, I only intended this to be a 3-part series. But it got away from me and no one in their right mind would want to read the entire thing all at once. If you haven't read Parts I and II, please do, to get the complete picture of where I'm going with this.

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Kickin' it old school, Part II

Through the years, obedience training has evolved from a fairly straight forward process involving a leash, a collar, physical corrections and verbal praise to an incredibly complex process of motivators, lures, rewards, random reinforcement, negative punishment, clickers, toys, targets, guides, shaping, “offered” behaviors and even gadgets that release goodies at a distance via a hand-held remote.

It’s quite en vogue now to add multiple levels of complexity to obedience skills so the dog may be asked to do half a dozen different behaviors all in the name of performing one exercise. I understand the need to keep the dog’s mind engaged and maintain a sharp competitive edge and think a lot of these "bonus" exercises are a lot of fun but . . .

. . . after looking at Phoenix’s roller-coaster obedience career from lots of different angles, I find myself wondering if I have muddied the waters of his training to the point where he simply does not understand how to perform a string of formal obedience exercises as he is expected to do in the ring because those formal exercises look nothing like our training sessions. When he acts like he’s never been asked to do them before . . . well . . . maybe it’s because he hasn’t.

I think my biggest failure with this wonderful dog is that I have put 98% of our training time into informal work and 2% into structured formal work . . .

. . . because I’ve been told repeatedly that formal training is boring. Demotivating. Dull.  Counter-productive to building a partnership that sparkles with energy. On the surface, perhaps it is. And for a majority of dogs, perhaps it is true. 

But I am not training a majority of dogs – I am training Phoenix. As his trainer, I need to give him what he needs to understand his job and to perform it with confidence. He is clearly not generalizing the bits and pieces he sees in training into the complete picture he is asked to perform in the ring.

I love playing games and working separate skills versus whole exercises in training. It’s a lot of fun and I do believe it’s a great way to keep dogs fresh and challenged. However, the fact remains that my training with Phoenix in the last six years has not produced the level of performance I had hoped for. Some days he’s brilliant. Some days he’s dismal. We’re about halfway to his OTCh. but have absolutely zero consistency in the ring.

With this in mind, I’m trying a new approach to our training. Okay, it’s not new. It’s not some brilliant concept that I just dreamed up. It’s old fashioned and I’m sure a lot of people will wrinkle their nose and think, “Really?”

It’s training like we show so we can show like we train. Kickin’ it old school.

We’re doing formal run-throughs multiple times a week.

But wait, there’s more! Stay tuned for part III.

Monday, October 7, 2013

Kickin' it old school, Part I

Come and take a walk down memory lane with me.

In 1988 I graduated from college, got my first real job, my first apartment and my first sheltie, Jess. I joined my first dog club, the Iowa City Shetland Sheepdog Club, and met a small group of wonderful people who also loved obedience.

We got together one night a week to train at a local community center. It was a one-room schoolhouse that was probably built around 1900 (it still had class photos of all the graduates hanging on the walls), with an attached gymnasium that was probably built around 1950. The Sheltie Club stored their mats in the schoolhouse. Every week, we carried them down a small flight of stairs to the gymnasium, rolled them out, set up jumps and ring gates and trained our dogs. When we were done, we rolled everything back up and carried it all back up the stairs to the storage closet.

Our training consisted of trading run-throughs. Full, formal run-throughs, just like we would do at a trial. We didn’t train with food or toys but we gave our dogs cookies and played with them after their run-throughs. We trained like we showed. We didn't know there was any other way to do it.

I loved those training nights. We quit training there shortly before I got Jamie, in 1999. A new club had formed in the area and they rented the local National Guard Armory. Bigger space. Bigger group. More willing hands to carry and roll mats. No stairs. The community center training nights became a fond memory. Years passed. Some of us trained with the new club at the new site. Others grew disillusioned with obedience and drifted away to other venues. The old community center underwent a huge renovation. I’m pretty sure they don’t let people train dogs in the gym any more.

But I’ve been thinking about it a lot lately. The place. The people. The way we trained. The way our dogs worked in training and the way they worked in the ring.

Jess was the first dog I trained past a CD. He was my first CDX, UD, UDX and U-UD. He was a consistent worker who knew how to do his job. He qualified a lot and placed occasionally. When sheltie Connor followed, I paid attention to all the things I hadn’t cared about with Jess: fronts, finishes, forging, crowding, bumping, reckless dumbbell pickups and killing the gloves.

All the while, I was going to obedience seminars and learning new things – new ways to train, new ideas, new theories.  I have no doubt my dogs benefited from my growth as a trainer. My skills improved, my dogs improved and I was ecstatic to finish my first OTCh. with Connor.

Jamie followed and became my second OTCh. The seminars continued. Ideas and theories changed and the face of obedience reflected training methods that were no longer dominated by force and drilling. Cookies were king and obedience training was full of fresh and exciting new concepts for teaching the same old skills without boring the dog and handler half to death.

I learned about motivators and training in drive. I learned about training games to play with my dog instead of drilling. I Iearned how to break exercises down into their component parts. I learned about clickers, purely positive training, shaping behaviors and teaching body awareness, flexibility and balance. I learned about using targets and how to proof for any possible ring scenario. I learned that “formal” training had become the red-haired stepchild to be locked in the attic and never spoken of.

I taught Phoenix how to walk backward, sit backward and scoot backward in a down. I taught him to chase his tail both to the left and to the right and how to sit up and wave. I taught him how to touch no matter where I held my hand. I taught him to weave between my legs, to chase food and to find heel while I was moving away from him. I incorporated all of these tricks into obedience skills. He loved to tug and I incorporated it into our training routines, too, always having a slobbery tug jammed in the waistband of my pants.

I taught impulse control by working him through food and toys on the ground. I implemented jackpots. I practiced random reinforcement schedules. I was careful to never drill anything. I was careful to only train for short sessions and even started setting a timer to make sure I didn’t over-do it.

Training with Phoenix involved all kinds of fun and goodies. I was careful to avoid anything that looked formal or risked the specter of boredom. The days of the community center run-throughs seemed dull by comparison.

Then, as Phoenix’s obedience career progressed, I realized my dog who was awesome at bouncing, tugging and weaving through my legs was not prepared to deal with seven or eight minutes of quiet, formal, sustained work in the ring.

Stay tuned for Part II.

Thursday, October 3, 2013

Too many questions

Subtitled: Things that make you go "hmmm". . .

I have spent entirely too much time in doctors’ offices in the last six months. Doctors, nurses and lab techs all love to ask questions. Sometimes I wonder what they do with the vast amount of answers they collect on each visit because at the next visit, they ask the very same questions all over again. (Disclaimer: my medical care providers have been awesome through my recent experience. This post is written totally tongue-in-cheek. If you work in the health care field, please do not be offended. You're doing a fabulous job. You are appreciated. I love you.)

On April 19, I affirmed I am not allergic to latex. On June 12, I re-affirmed I am not allergic to latex. I continued to be questioned about potential latex allergies on Aug. 30, Sept. 4 and Sept. 18. (All by the same doctor’s office.) I’m not sure how quickly one can develop an allergy but apparently it can happen over night. By the time I had my recent surgery, I was surprised they didn’t wake me up half way through and ask if I was allergic to latex.

The question that always makes me want to laugh out loud, although that would be totally politically incorrect because it is a very sad reflection on our society, is, “Do you feel safe in your home?” I live with a malinois. What do you think? (Granted, the implied answer runs the spectrum from “absolutely, totally safe” to “in danger of bodily harm most waking hours.”)

I have gone to the same gynecologist since I moved to this area 25 years ago. I go for an annual appointment every spring. Every year they ask me how old I am. Umm . . . one year older than the last time I was here? Can’t you look at my file and figure it out for yourself or is this some kind of mental acuity test to see if I've gone round the bend?

Sometimes the questions have legitimate merit but seem to invite untruthful answers. Example: do you use illegal drugs? Um, no . . . but what happens if I say yes?

When I was discharged from the hospital, I had four pages of instructions regarding medications, do’s, don’ts and what to expect as I healed. Carefully typed between the prescriptions I was to have filled and phone numbers to call if I had any questions was the sentence, “Bring these papers to your next doctor’s appointment.”

I could not figure out why in the world I would need to bring my discharge instructions to my follow-up appointment but I stuffed them in my bag and took them along. (I already live with a malinois, no sense tempting fate.) No one asked to see them and no information contained on those pages was requested. It was almost as good as puppy Phoenix’s “required” $50 health certificate to fly from Oregon to Iowa that not a soul at the airport showed the slightest interest in inspecting.

I am happily celebrating The End of the question that has come at every gyn visit since the beginning of time: when was the first day of your last period? As a rule, I have no idea. This always resulted in me staring blankly at the nurse until she sighed and handed me a calendar, at which point I would pick an often random day that seemed likely. On any given day I have a lot of things on my mind. What to have for supper. How to improve Phoenix’s UKC glove exercise. Why OnStar keeps sending me messages about low tire pressure when my tires are just fine. But I have never spent a lot of time thinking about the first day of my last period. And now I never have to. Ever. Again.