Saturday, November 23, 2013

The other '99

Jamie was born in 1999, one of a special group of puppies of different breeds born that year who came to be known among my friends as "The '99s."

The '99s got OTChs, MACHs, CHs, group placings, tracking titles, went to the National Obedience Invitational, agility nationals and brightened people's days as therapy dogs. Many of them have crossed the Bridge, many of them are still with us, a little deaf, a little creaky, but still enjoying life.

But wait. There is another '99.

Winnie The Cat was born in April 1999, one of a litter born to Critter, who was given to the Farmer and I as a wedding present. She is 14 years and 7 months old (3 months older than Jamie) and has lived an absurdly blessed life for an outdoor farm cat.

She comes onto the back porch from time to time, to hang out on the old couch and eat from bowl that she doesn't have to share. 

I am trying to update my rogue's gallery of cat pictures. The Adorables are easy to photograph, providing I can get them to leave me alone long enough to do it. Newcomers Bonus and Wild are a little more difficult, given that they are not convinced Phoenix is not going to eat them. Phoenix has discovered that having this many cats on the place means there is much more cat food available and his focus seems to have switched from pursuing unauthorized cats to stealing their food.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

It's loose!

If you have sensed a disturbance in the Force, Phoenix has been granted loose-in-the-house-during-the-day-when-no-one-is-home privileges. He will turn 7 next month.

These privileges have been a long time coming. For most of his life, I doubted this day would ever come. My previous dogs all had free run of the house by the time they were 3. There was occasionally some minor collateral damage as they adjusted to unsupervised freedom but it was no big deal.

I knew from day one things were going to be different with Phoenix. He was a . . . busy . . . puppy.

Busy. Yes. That sounds nicer than feral cat on crack.

Before Phoenix, I scoffed at people who told tales about their dogs tearing up things in the house or stealing things off the counters. That would never happen in my house, I thought smugly. Everyone knew you had to keep an eye on young dogs to teach them house manners and prevent them from committing transgressions.

In Phoenix’s case, you had to keep both eyes, both hands, a collar and a six foot leash on him. And never turn your back on him. And never assume anything was “safe.” And still his list of transgressions continued to grow.

People who owned his littermates posted on the email group about how well-mannered their puppies were. They had full house privileges at 6 months of age. They were unsupervised during the day and slept on the bed at night. I shuddered in horror at the thought. If Phoenix was loose at night, I was pretty sure there would be no sleeping for any of us.

His reign of domestic terrorism continued. Even with humans around to keep an eye on him, his level of criminal activity escalated as he grew bigger, faster and  . . . busier.

I remember chastising the Farmer once for letting 3-year-old Phoenix steal laundry out of the hamper and run amuck with it through the house.

“You were supposed to be WATCHING him,” I said.

“I was watching him,” the Farmer replied. “I watched him run into the bathroom and grab your bra out of the clothes hamper. He’s really fast.”

Phoenix didn’t care if he was being watched or not. He delighted in committing crimes right under my nose. He didn’t care what he took, the reward was simply in the possession: socks, books, magazines, cooking utensils, tubes of hand lotion, entire boxes of kleenex, the TV remote, shoes, training gear, CDs, pens, pot holders, house plants. Anything he could grab off any surface was fair game.

I quit counting how many tubes of lip balm were sacrificed to his eternal thieving quest. Once I pried my little point and shoot digital camera out of his mouth. (It had been allegedly “safe” in the middle of the kitchen table.) Another time, it was the 14K gold chain and pendant I’d bought to commemorate the American Belgian Tervuren Club national where Jamie went High In Trial.

Then there was the honey incident. The Farmer didn’t get Phoenix’s crate door latched after taking him out to potty and he spend the afternoon in a merry romp through the house, culminating with the theft of a plastic squeeze bottle of honey off the kitchen table. I came home that day to find honey liberally applied to the floor in every single first floor room.

There was no way I was ever leaving this dog loose in my house unsupervised.



When I left the house, Phoenix went in his crate. I could rest assured the house would still be standing when I got home and that I would not need to buy more lip balm.

Years passed. Phoenix’s thievery continued but now he stole things and brought them to me to exchange for a cookie.

“If you wouldn’t feed him for bringing you stuff, he wouldn’t keep doing it,” the Farmer said.

“If I wouldn’t feed him for bringing me stuff, he would take it where I couldn’t see him and chew it up,” I said.

I started to give Phoenix tiny tastes of freedom while I ran outside to help the Farmer with one chore or another. He worked up to being loose for a couple of hours while we went out to dinner. I tentatively started letting him stay loose with full run of the house when I had to be gone in the evening for work, cautioning the Farmer to, “Please watch Phoenix while I’m gone.”

“What am I supposed to watch him do?” the Farmer asked.

A couple of years ago, Phoenix graduated to sleeping loose at night. Once it was established that the bed was for the humans and the thick fleece pad on the floor was for him, it was all good. Granted, Phoenix tends to do a fair amount of nocturnal hunting and I’m still trying to convince him that barking at the top of his lungs and throwing himself at a window because there’s a bunny on the lawn at 3 a.m. is not acceptable behavior.

During the short daytime intervals when Phoenix was loose in the house, a pattern evolved. To his credit, by now he was no longer stealing things and munching them up. He just stole them and re-purposed them. I usually found any purloined objects scattered in front of the living room picture window.

“He starts as soon as you turn at the end of the lane,” the Farmer told me. “He goes and gets stuff and piles it in front of the window. Then he sits on it and waits for you to come back.”

Well. That seemed relatively harmless and oddly sweet. 

As this continued, a new pattern formed. When I came home, I would greet Phoenix in the kitchen and ask, “What did you take?” Phoenix would race off into the living room and return with a shoe or slipper or random piece of my laundry. I collect the item and ask if there was anything else. There usually was. He would bring me everything, I’d put it away and life was good. But I still didn’t trust him for longer than an hour or two, with or without the Farmer’s questionable supervisory skills.

When I was home on leave after surgery in September, Phoenix was with me 24/7. For 4 weeks, he never saw the inside of a crate in the house. When I returned to work, I only went back for half-days at first, and decided Phoenix could be loose in the house for the 4 hours I would be gone each morning. He proved trustworthy, still collecting one or two shoes for his stash in front of the living room window.

When I returned to work full time, I put him in his crate before leaving that first day. He looked at me like. “Seriously? I took care of you for a month and this is what I get?” I relented. What the hell.

He’s been loose during the day since then, carefully gathering shoes and bringing them to me when I come home from work. 

Wednesday, November 13, 2013


For Team Phoenix, the 2013 obedience trial year is over. We’ve shown the last two weekends in a row, with mixed but optimistic results and are ending the year on a high note of achievement and discovery.

2013 was not a year of dazzling glory for us. It was more like a roller coaster ride of random delight and head-banging frustration. If I had to pick a single word to describe this year, it would be renaissance. The classic definition of renaissance is a revival or rebirth, characterized by learning.

This year I learned that a lot of popular training methods, although sparkly and inviting on the surface, just didn’t work for me. I learned that some methods worked wonderfully even though they were deceptively plain, without much whiz-bang surface appeal. I learned to sift through the mind-numbing amount of information available to trainers and to find peace in knowing I’ve chosen methods that are right for me and my dog. I learned about fixing problems with our foundation work and continue to be amazed both at what my previous dogs learned in spite of me and at Phoenix’s ability to learn foundation elements I had overlooked and to incorporate them into current behaviors.

This was the year I stopped running agility for several reasons, the main one being to concentrate on our obedience training. When we quit running agility in the spring, I was under no illusions that we would magically start earning 200s. Our obedience issues were grounded in a lot of mis-communication and unrealistic expectations on both my part and Phoenix’s. Our road to confident, happy, trusting teamwork has taken us over some rocky ground. We still stumble and take unplanned detours but I’m feeling better about the journey than ever before.

In obedience training as in life, very few problems have a quick fix. Truly fixing something takes time. I learned that many of our problems were based in a lack of some basic fundamentals - things I thought I’d taught but which Phoenix apparently had not learned. I learned more about understanding drive and how it can be a double-edged sword. I learned the dog determines the motivator.

I learned about the importance of making our training look like showing, of finding a balance between working on individual skills and building mental stamina to perform formal exercises in the ring. I learned (again!) the value of my wonderful friends and mentors in this sport who continue to give endlessly of their time to help me brainstorm and problem solve and keep saying, “He can do it, I know he can, he’s going to be awesome.”

This year we earned 2 U-UD legs. We added an AKC Utility win to our hard-fought collection, bringing us about half way to completing his OTCh. UDX legs remain a hit and miss proposition because I pulled Phoenix out of Open B for about six months to work on out-of-sight stay issues. Happy to report we were 2-for-2 on his debut return in the Open ring last weekend. Is the problem fixed forever? Probably not. Will it require constant maintenance for as long as I continue to show him? Probably so. But dang, it was a rush to come back with the other handlers and see my dog sitting confidently in the line up, not being held by the steward.

Phoenix is not an easy dog to train. If I ask him for 110%, he demands I give it in return. He is brilliant, independent, pushy, headstrong, sweet and funny all at once. He gives nothing for free. He is renaissance all wrapped up in fur.