Tuesday, July 30, 2013

No bull

The Farmer called me yesterday afternoon just as I got home from work.

“Put on your old shoes and meet me at the south end of the barn,” he said. “Bring a pitchfork.” Click.

I love you too, honey.

I changed shoes, walked out to the barn, grabbed the pitchfork leaning by the north door, climbed over the fence and threaded my way through the steer yard to the south side.

The farmer was standing on one side of a very battered collection of gates, looking annoyed.

Our black Angus bull was standing on the other side of the gates, looking annoyed.

The gates looked beaten to hell. They were wired across the opening in a haphazard mishmash of bent steel.

“Stand here and keep him from coming through the gates while I get the trailer. He’s already tried to come through twice,” the Farmer said. “I’m out of gates to hold him.”

He indicated I should use the pitchfork to whack the gates as a deterrent. I was only to whack the bull as a last resort. Personally, I thought if it came to that, I was going to be using the pitchfork to pole vault onto the top of the nearby feed shed. I've never felt a career calling to become a matador.

The bull was in such a bad mood because his ladies were gone. The Farmer sold the cows earlier this week. The bull did not approve but no one had asked him. He indicated his displeasure by refusing to stay in the pasture. There are a limited number of times you can re-capture an AWOL bull before it becomes tiresome.

The Farmer put him in the barn. He did not want to stay in the barn either. Banging on the gate had proven marginally effective at getting out. Putting his head and neck under the gate and tearing it loose had proven substantially more effective. The Farmer wired on another gate. Lather, rinse, repeat.

By the time I appeared on the scene, the bull had been using his 2,000 pound stature to renovate the inside of the barn as well as the gates. The Farmer decided to put him on the stock trailer in sort of an agrarian time out. At least once he was in the trailer he couldn’t tear anything up.

But the Farmer couldn’t leave him unsupervised long enough to get the trailer backed up to the north end of the barn. That’s where I came in.

I lifted the pitchfork in what I hoped was an authoritative pose. The Farmer took off at a run for the pickup. The bull eyed me with contempt.

This was going no where good.

The bull snorted. I narrowed my eyes and hoisted the pitchfork. Seriously, how threatening did I look - a scrawny (by comparison) human, wearing muck boots and brandishing a stick.

The bull sized up the gates. He lowered his head and snorted again.

Where the hell was the Farmer? The machine shed isn’t that far from the barn. Didn’t he know his lovely bride’s agenda for the evening did not include playing chicken with an ill-tempered animal big enough to have his own zip code?

The Farmer opened the north barn door and backed up the trailer. The bull didn’t notice. He was contemplating his escape route. I was standing in it.

He began a very business-like approach toward what was left of the gates. I brought the pitchfork down on the top bar with enough force you could have heard it in Conroy. Then I whacked it a couple of more times, just for good measure and shouted at the top of my lungs. I’m sure what actually came out of my mouth was more of a strangled chirp but it sounded like a very professional cattle wrangling “Haaaaaaaa!” to me. 

The bull stopped, clearly taken aback. The gates had never resisted before. He sized them up again and angled in for a second approach.

By now I’d gotten the hang of this. I am woman. Hear me roar.

The bull backed off and retreated to the far end of the barn, where the Farmer persuaded him onto the trailer.

Trailer door slammed and latched. Pitchfork at parade rest. Breathing resumed. Heart rate dropping to something my cardiologist would approve of. It’s all good.

You can’t scare me. I live with a malinois.

Monday, July 29, 2013

Epiphany #4793

Okay, this is nothing new. I just had to get a grip on it.

Ever notice how problem solving is like peeling an onion? There's just one stinkin' layer after another to figure out.

I’ve heard people discuss training problems versus showing problems but never really understood the difference. I always figured if your dog was REALLY trained and reasonably proofed, he would work at a show just like he worked in training. Right?

Duh. My first two OTChs. pretty much ruined me. They had a few show ring glitches here and there but looking back, their careers were absurdly free of any problems with long-term hair-pulling-out potential.

So, how do you know if it’s a training problem or a showing problem? Essentially if the dog works fine in training, it's not a training problem.

Example: Phoenix’s here-today-gone-tomorrow drop signal in the Utility ring. Unless he is ridiculously distracted (kitten launching at his tail) he nails his drop signal consistently in training and at distances much further than the required 30 feet. In the ring, he drops maybe 25 to 50 percent of the time.

It’s not a training problem. He’s shown me time after time that he understands the signal. He will drop in a ridiculous number of places around the farm, at parks, on nature trails, at random in the kitchen, etc.

It’s a showing problem. He does not want to lie down in the ring with a judge standing behind him and frequently chooses not to even though he “knows better.”

The reason for this is twofold.

First, for all his bravado and bluster, Phoenix has some confidence issues. He has personal demons and a ridiculous amount of emotional baggage, some of which I have unwittingly created and some of which he packed himself. This means NO WAY is he lying down when there’s a stranger standing behind him, holding a clipboard and waving their arms around. This registers as Threat Level Red. You can argue about dominant dogs and submissive dogs until you’re blue in the face but the bottom line is that Phoenix is not comfortable moving from a standing position where he could quickly run if needed, thus removing himself from Stranger Danger, to voluntarily put himself in a submissive position (down) with that stranger nearby.

If released from the “stay” command, he would happily go greet the judge. He’s a very social creature. But being under command creates conflict - he can’t engage with the judge because he has work to do and that puts a lot of pressure on his little brain. Plus the judge is usually an unknown quantity - maybe they ARE dangerous. It’s not in Phoenix’s nature to turn his back on people he doesn’t know.

The second reason it’s a ring issue - I know he manages to disengage from me quickly (again, due to pressure from the judge) after I give the “stay” hand signal and walk away. By the time I reach the opposite end of the ring, 30 feet away, he has mentally trotted off to his happy place and I can tell by the blank stare on his face and his ears at half mast that I could stand there and wave my signal arm until it fell off and there would be no response.

It has taken me a long time to figure this out. Bad handler. Slow handler. My ego is reluctant to say stupid handler but that might be appropriate. Phoenix would probably agree, with love in his eyes while he pins his ears back, shows me his incisors and gives me a big wet kiss. Yeah, he shows teeth before he kisses. Sweet boy.

This summer’s trials have been an odd combination of drop/no drop in Utility. It seems to depend on when the signal exercise takes place in the order of exercises, who the judge is and where he/she stands in relation to where Phoenix stands and how I’ve warmed him up before we go into the ring.

While some trainers would argue the value of “setting him up” (to fail) in training so I could go in and make a correction (gee, let’s add some MORE stress to this issue), I am working to keep him mentally engaged and on task as I walk away. This boils down to releasing him to a toy as I walk away or breaking into a run and letting him chase me (and catch me) or breaking into a run and not releasing him, then turning and asking for a drop. All build his focus on ME and hopefully will relieve his concerns about the judge. He can’t be worried about one thing and intensely anticipating another at the same time, can he?

It’s working. Slowly. Everything with this dog comes slowly. It’s taken me a while to figure that out, too. Good thing Phoenix is a patient dog.

Geez, did I type that out loud?

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

All bark, no bite

A strong storm system blew through last night. Actually it kind of blew over us. Or just blew up. National Weather Service had it pegged for 70 mph winds, quarter-sized hail and heavy rain. Which I'm sure it produced. Somewhere.

We just got clouds.

Phoenix and I were finishing our walk when the leading edge of the system approached. It had one heck of a shelf cloud going on - more visual impact than anything else, but we hustled on our last lap around the hay field.

Monday, July 22, 2013

The Adorables ride again

I really do have more to do with my time than taking pictures of kittens and dogs. I may have mentioned that before. And I'm still not doing it.

Here is the bed my friend Carol made for Phoenix. 
He keeps his kittens in it.

Feel the love.

Japanese beetles are the least of my garden problems this summer. 
I don't think I can spray for this.


It's genetically impossible to get upset with something this cute.
And he knows it.

Prelude to cat herding.

My flower gardens look slightly squashed this summer.
I have no idea why.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

A malinois and three kittens walk into a bar

This is long and I apologize but several of you have asked how I “de-toxed” Phoenix to the kittens. This is what worked for us.

Phoenix has the highest prey drive of any dog I’ve ever owned. He’s been this way from the beginning although I didn’t recognize it for what it was until he started jumping the fence at 4 months old to chase our feral farm cats. He was coordinated enough to jump and fast enough to chase but he never caught a cat.

Although the cats always escaped, he later caught and killed rabbits and ground squirrels. He grabbed birds out of mid-air if they swooped within his range. He endlessly pursued squirrels but never got one. He has chased raccoons and made one attempt at chasing a skunk. I managed to thwart both of the latter two varmint-chasing episodes before they got out of hand. If it was small, furred or feathered and scurried, scuttled or slunk, he wanted it.

While I could easily tap into this drive in obedience training, it didn’t turn off when I stopped playing tug or chase games with him. It’s one of those slightly un-nerving qualities that makes Phoenix who he is. I accept it and I respect it, even though it drives me up a wall sometimes. I don’t know if I could have managed it or channeled it better if I’d recognized it earlier but that’s water under the bridge.

The bottom line is, Phoenix is always hunting.

So when I decided to bring some kittens into our farm this spring, I knew I had to do everything I could to ensure their safety around him.

Our farm cat population had dwindled to non-existence over the last several years. I hadn’t mourned their passing. They were feral. I put food and water out for them and that was the extent of our interaction. They were not spayed or neutered or vaccinated. When a feline distemper outbreak swept through the neighborhood, that was pretty much the end of them.

I had one tame cat, a spayed, vaccinated gray tiger stripe cat who hung out in the machine shed and really didn’t do much except eat and purr and get petted. Phoenix pestered her endlessly and she tolerates him with more grace than I would. She is my “antique cat” and the reason she gets along with Phoenix is because she never does anything fast, so she never triggers prey drive.

The years passed. I missed having cats around the place. We had a ridiculous number of mice in our basement over the winter and the Farmer was enthusiastically optimistic that having some outdoor cats would help remedy the situation. That and having a large section of the basement foundation fixed but that’s a story for another time.

The day I brought the kittens home, I put them in a big dog crate in the barn where they were going to live. I brought Phoenix out to see them. To say he went bat shit crazy would not be too far from the truth.

OMGOMGfurrylittlesqueakinganimalsinabox! Letthemout! Letthemoutnow! IWANTTHEM!

The kittens were (and still are) essentially oblivious to his over-threshold behaviors. They sat calmly in their crate, looking adorable and sticking their little paws out to pat the dogs on their noses.

Phoenix immediately tried to bite them.

We spent most of the first week with the kittens safely in the crate, Phoenix on a leash nearby and me sitting on an upturned bucket feeding him voluminous quantities of everything we had in the refrigerator for just being calm and not diving at the crate with his teeth snapping.

Yeah. It was like that.

Phoenix is nobody’s fool. When it became obvious he would not be allowed to “hunt” the kittens, he was willing to trade lunging at the crate for sitting quietly and getting fed bits of chicken, pork chop, tortellini and heaven knows what else. We started at a distance, gradually moving closer and closer to the crate, until he could walk up to the crate without being a crazed idiot.

It was during this initial “Look at the kittens calmly and get food” stage that he backed off on the hunting behavior and simple curiosity took over. Of course, this curiosity often triggered more hunting behavior but ya gotta start somewhere.

Until then, cats had been a mystery to him. They were the forbidden fruit. They ran. He chased. They got away. He got frustrated.

Now he had three cats at his complete disposal. He could watch them. He could sniff them. He could, to an extent, touch them through the wires of the crate. He could get his fill without them disappearing up a tree or into a hay loft where he couldn’t go.

This lasted about a week. I took Phoenix with me every time I went to the barn, two or three times a day, always armed with a ton of food. Phoenix was always on leash. If he escalated to “hunt mode” when we entered the barn, we turned around and went out again. The only way he got to see the kittens was if he was calm.

The kittens were living in their crate most of the time, since they were small and relatively stupid about things. I wanted them to imprint on the barn as home before turning them loose. By the end of the first week, Phoenix could handle the kittens rushing the crate door when they saw us without it triggering a tooth-snapping lunge in return. The immediate novelty had worn off but they were still highly desirable.

The next step was kittens loose in the x-pen, with Phoenix on the outside of the x-pen. This worked great until the first kitten discovered he could fit between the x-pen wires and made a great escape, right across Phoenix’ paws. (I swore they were too big to scoot through the openings but guess not.) The element of surprise was in the kitten’s favor. I got a leash on Phoenix and we basically reverted to square one. Kittens in a crate had become ho-hum. Kittens on the hoof, so to speak, were extremely “huntable.”

Loaded with more food, we spent the next few weeks allowing the kittens to run amuck while Phoenix was leashed or in the x-pen, being fed for just being calm amidst their antics. Fortunately, he also has a high food drive and was willing to ignore the kittens for sake of meatballs, summer sausage, mashed potatoes and hamburgers. My refrigerator had never been so clean.

The kittens themselves played an important part in ensuring their safety around the dogs. They are not afraid of the dogs so beyond being small and furry, they did not exhibit a lot of furtive, slinky, prey-animal behaviors. In fact, when let out of their crate in the morning, the first thing they do was rush the x-pen to greet the dogs. Jamie is delighted by this - he loves kittens. With Phoenix firmly leashed, I tossed handfuls of food behind him to keep him from escalating on the kittens patting his nose and rubbing against the wires.

By the end of the third week, we had progressed to him to doing sits and downs in the barn with the kittens running around. This called two skill sets into play: 1) must not hunt/chase/eat the kittens and 2) must hold the stay without wiggling, shifting or crawling in kitten pursuit. By now, there was nothing left in our refrigerator except a jar of mayonnaise and some shriveled up carrots.

Once Phoenix mastered the dual pressure of stays/don’t eat the cats, I started turning him loose, dragging a leash for easy capture, to interact with the kittens. We did this for very short increments of time, building on success and always ending before things got out of hand.

By now he could go out to the barn off leash and approach the kittens, either loose or in their crate, with relative calm. Since the kittens ran TOWARD him instead of AWAY from him, I think that squashed some of his prey drive. What do you when you really want to chase something and it runs AT you?

The test of his understanding of acceptable behavior came one evening when we went out to the barn and the kittens, after nearly a month, had decided to venture beyond the barn doors. They were pouncing around in the grass in front of the barn, an environment where Phoenix had never encountered them. He immediately targeted on movement and went racing toward them in full “target lock” mode. I yelled, he skidded to a stop and gave them a “Oh. It’s just you guys” look.

That’s kind of where we are today. In spite of his tremendous progress, I don’t trust him loose around them yet without supervision. The kittens are expanding their territory and showing up unannounced in odd places. Phoenix is becoming accustomed to finding cats on the patio table or under the broad jump and no longer flies into hot pursuit. Siren, Gryphon and Weezel are proving to be helpful training buddies and after some initial bobbles, Phoenix is showing tremendous concentration at ignoring them and staying engaged with me.

Who’d have thunk it?

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Gopher walk

Of all the things I do with my dogs, one of my most favorite activities is going for a walk with them. The very act of saying "gopher walk?" sends both Phoenix and Jamie into paroxysms of delight, even though Jamie can't walk with us again until the cooler days of autumn arrive. It's hard to be a big old dog with a heavy coat when the heat index is 102.

"Gopher walk" is a contraction of "go for a walk" and a perfect example of the kind of silliness that my life tends to descend into on a regular basis. It's similar to Jeff Foxworthy's "djeet yet?" (Did you eat yet?) and "Squeet" (Let's go eat.)

Gopher walks provide lots of time to generate all sorts of random thoughts. Thought I’d share a few.

• The worst thing about living on top of a hill is that no matter where you walk, it’s always up hill on the way home.

• Phoenix and I spend a ridiculous amount of time working on fronts. Sometimes he remembers how to do them, sometimes he doesn’t. We’ll have to work for his entire show ring career to maintain that skill. But it took him exactly one evening to learn where the dead skunk is in a 13-acre hay field and he never fails to go find it every time we walk out there.

• The whir of a pheasant bursting out of the fence row is good for the soul and bad for the heart at the same time. On the bright side, I’ve seen more pheasants this year than in the last five years combined. They're beautiful birds and I hope they're making a comeback.

• Picking up a cool looking rock to carry home always seems like a good idea at the time. The coolness of the rock diminishes proportionately to its size and how far I have to carry it.

• It’s fun to watch my dogs just being dogs. Running. Romping. Sniffing. Finding things in the tall grass. Getting really excited about things they find in the tall grass.

• Hey! Stop trying to dig something out of its burrow!

• Is there any way I can get back to the house without walking up hill?

• I wonder how much vapor drift that crop-dusting plane has? Cuz I don’t want to get dusted for soybean leaf beetles.

• Could I incorporate a dead skunk into front training?

• If those red-winged blackbirds get any closer, one of them is gonna land on my head. (If you’re not familiar with red-winged blackbirds, they are incredibly territorial and not afraid to tell you off if  you get too close to what they perceive as THEIR territory. Which is apparently most of the state.)

• I just swallowed a bug.

• Wonder what lives in that big hole in the bank?

• Wonder if it minds having a dog’s nose poking into its living room?

• What a gorgeous sunset.

• That cloud looks like the Loch Ness monster.

• Holy crap! You just flushed a great horned owl out of that tall grass!

• We need to work go-outs to a blank wall. The overhead door on the machine shed will do nicely.

• We’re really far from the house and it’s a really hot evening. Maybe I should call the Farmer to come get us.

• Maybe not.

• Phoenix, what are you eating?

• What should we have for supper tomorrow night?

• I am so lucky to live in such a wonderful place and be able to go on long, slow rambles with my dog on a hot summer evening.

• I need to start Christmas shopping.

• Where, exactly, is that dead skunk?

• I wonder how many calories this walk is burning. Maybe I could have had a bigger bowl of ice cream.

• Do I have an 8 a.m. doctor’s appointment and a 4 p.m. vet appointment on Friday or is it the other way around?

• I have to find out who’s judging at the Labor Day cluster and decide which days to enter.

• Seriously, is there any way I can get back to the house without walking up hill?

Thursday, July 4, 2013

Happy Independence Day!

Wishing everyone a fun and safe Fourth of July! This is Phoenix's holiday, as he was the red, white and blue puppy in the Wild litter.

Phoenix and I started the day with a great training session with a friend. It's been unseasonably cool for July - not complaining! Home for lunch and some household chores, then off to shoot pics for work and taking in a local parade with the Farmer and his mom, then out for supper. Hopefully home in time to enjoy a long walk before dark.

Of all the days of the year, this is possibly the one when I am happiest we live in the middle of nowhere. No insane neighbors shooting off firecrackers day and night. Although Jamie is so deaf he can't hear anything now and Phoenix doesn't give a rip, so I feel very blessed about that, too.

There are three towns within 10 miles who will have fireworks displays tonight and if they shoot them high enough, we can see them from our place. That will be the extent of our fireworks watching.

Enjoy the day!

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

The Adorables: Month 2

The kittens have been here for a month now. As long as they stay in the barn, a great deal of their novelty has worn off, as far as Phoenix is concerned. However, they are getting bolder and are starting to show up in new places, which means we go back to square one a lot.


Fortunately, all these OMG moments are followed immediately by, "Oh. It's just you guys. Never mind." Life at our house is never dull. 

Let me pat your face. You need a good face patting.

I'm adorable. I have my claws in my brother's butt.

Never try to break up a cat fight with another cat.

Here, let me boost you up that tree.

Siren doing what she does best. Being adorable. Until she bites you.

Weezel eating a tree. Yummy.