Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Gear bag review, Part II

For the second in my series on gear bags, I’ll be reviewing the women’s oil cloth business tote from Duluth Trading Company (www.duluthtrading.com). This is currently my go-to gear bag, although I’ve had to modify it slightly with a pair of scissors. More on that later.

First I have to say I am a little over-the-top crazy about Duluth Trading Company. I buy a lot of clothes there. Seriously. A lot. Their stuff wears like iron. And its made to fit real women who get up in the morning and get shit done, not anorexic models with zero body fat. And they’re fast with no-hassle returns, which is important when you do something stupid and forget what size you wear.

This picture is supposed to be bigger. But it's not. So get a magnifying glass. Or go to the website.
Okay, bag basics: at 15” wide by 6” deep and 13” high, you cannot put the kitchen sink in it. But you CAN put your 13” laptop in a padded compartment. Or you can take scissors and cut out the padded compartment, which gives you more lovely room in the bag’s main compartment. Because if I want to take my laptop with me, it has its own bag. (Really? What a surprise.)

It’s available in three colors: dark brown, navy and burgundy. All would do an excellent job of hiding dog dirt. I have the dark brown one because a few years ago I became obsessed with owning things that are dirt colored. I have been known to buy things simply because they ARE dirt colored. I did not buy Phoenix because he is dirt colored. That was just a happy coincidence. And I'm generally defining "dirt colored dogs" as any dog who doesn't have white fur. Especially white foot fur.

This bag has a nice wide pocket with a magnetic flap that runs across the lower front. Inside that, there are more little pockets and plenty of space for things to roll around loose. Also on the front, there is a deep zippered pocket. These pockets all have ample room to actually put stuff in them, unlike some bags where the pockets are sewn so tightly there is no wiggle room.

My dirt-colored dog inspecting my dirt-colored bag.
 The main compartment is a good size for a malinois-sized dumbbell, leashes, treats, small bowl and ball. There are several smaller pockets inside the main compartment that are handy for stashing “tangly” stuff like slip collars, pinch collars, thin leads and anything else that tends to grab hold of everything it touches and wrap it up in a big fat snarly knot. There is a zippered pocket on the back, which can be unzipped top and bottom to serve as a “luggage handle sleeve.”

The inside of this bag is a nice light color. Not white. That would be stupid. Just a nice off-white cream beige neutral tan (get the picture?) so you can actually SEE what’s inside it. I have a big gripe with manufacturers who make a great bag, then line it with a black fabric that sucks all the light out of the immediate vicinity so I’m left fumbling inside what has become a portable black hole for a dark leash or some other bit of black minutiae.

Things I love the most about this bag: color, pocket configuration and light colored interior lining.

Things I love the least: the shorty pockets on each end. They’re not really tall enough to securely hold a water bottle or long tug. In fact, I wouldn’t put anything in them that I didn’t want to risk falling out during the general mayhem of being tossed into a vehicle and drug out again.

Items placed in shorty pockets are not as safe as you think they are.
Pros: The color and the fabric. The company claims oil cloth is water repellent but can’t say I’ve ever deliberately tested it. Love that the bag has an over-the-shoulder strap that is actually long enough to go over my shoulder or be worn cross body even when I’m wearing a heavy coat, plus two shorter handles for grab-and-go carrying. Nice moderate size. Makes me think about what I really need to take with me and not haul around a lot of surplus stuff.

Cons: The fabric is a little floppy (I braced the bottom of the main compartment with a piece of corrugated cardboard) and the outside zip pocket on the back isn’t big enough to hold a regular sized notebook or file folder. Little short pockets on each end aren't good for much besides holding poop bags. Which is actually a useful occupation.

Friday, January 24, 2014

The Bag Lady speaks

Anyone who has known me longer than five minutes knows I am a bag lady. I know I am not alone. Many of my dog training sisters share my condition. It's not fatal but it is chronic.

I am on the eternal quest for the perfect training gear bag. In a world filled with the strife of lousy glove turns, defiantly crooked finishes and stealth possums (topic for another day), having a nice bag to store and transport training gear seems like such a simple thing.

But it isn’t.

Believe me. I know these things. My friends know these things. They look at me with narrowed eyes and say suspiciously, “Is that another new bag?”

Um, yes. Yes, it is. Oh look - a unicorn!

On the surface, obedience training is very straight forward. All you need is a dog, a collar and a leash. And a toy. And some treats. And a dumbbell, gloves, scent articles, targets, dowels, long-lines, another dumbbell cuz you lost the first one, another set of scent articles, buckle collar, slip collar, pinch collar, tab, water bowl, potty bags, a brush, a towel, foot spray, bug spray, sun screen, a little fan, pens, pencils, a metronome, more gloves because your dog ate the first set, Benadryl, Advil, Rescue Remedy, tissues, band-aids, nail clippers, lip balm, knee brace, ankle brace, training journal and tranquilizers.

Well. Anyway. It makes life a lot easier if you can have all your training stuff in one place, so you’re not constantly having to stop a training session to go back to the house or the car to rummage around to find whatever it is you need. And there’s only so much you can jam in your pockets. I trend toward the minimalist side when it comes to training. I don’t need, want or use a lot of gadgets. I think more than half the stuff in my gear bag is for ME, not my dog.

Still, the search for a good gear bag is not to be undertaken lightly. Some people are happy to throw their gear in a plastic bag from the grocery store. Others of us are more . . . discriminating.

Looking back at the number of gear bags I’ve had in past years, I realized I am over-qualified to do a product review series. This is all LL Bean’s fault. When I was showing my shelties, I bought a gear bag from LL Bean. It was nearly perfect in size and pocket configuration. I hauled that bag all over six states for 10 years. It went to training classes. It went to obedience trials. It went to agility trials. It went camping. It saw Jess’s U-UD and Connor’s OTCh. Before the Belgians appeared on it the scene, it wore out. And LL Bean didn’t make that style any more. So I started shopping for a new bag. And I never quit.

Every year my club holds a garage sale at our spring obedience trials. Club members can sell gently used training items and a portion of the proceeds go to the club. Every year, I purge my collection of gear bags and sell the ones that aren’t making the cut. This allows me to keep shopping.

My friends give me a hard time about the frequency with which I change bags. But I notice they’re the first ones in line when I put stuff out on the garage tables in the spring. I call them my enablers.

For the purposes of these reviews, I’m going to stick with bags that are still commercially available from major manufacturers. And of course I’d love to hear from readers about your favorite bags.

My inaugural review is going to be of the Deluxe Gear Bag from Doggone Good (www.doggonegood.com). This is often considered the Cadillac of gear bags and with good reason. It’s durable and beautifully made, with all sorts of interior and exterior pockets. I’m not going to parrot back the info from the website, you can go read it yourself.

The Deluxe Gear Bag from Doggonegood.com
The thing is big. It measures 21 inches long by 14 inches wide and 12.5 inches high. That’s nearly two feet long and more than one foot wide. This bag walks a fine line between being a gear bag and being luggage. In fact, the website points out that it makes a great airline carry on.

The exterior fabric is heavy cordura and it is available in black, red, blue and purple, with a new rose pink currently available in limited numbers. I have a black one. Can’t go wrong with basic black. Team Phoenix colors are black and blue. Yes. For a reason. But I admit to going a little gaga over the new rose pink when I saw it but refrained from rushing out to order another one.

Phoenix demonstrates some of the finer qualities of this bag.

This bag is wonderful in that it truly offers a place for everything. There are zippered pockets, elasticized pockets, mesh pockets, credit card slot pockets, Velro pockets and an insulated pocket. If you are un-organized with this bag, there is something wrong with you. You can conceivably carry everything in this bag that you would ever need to train your dog. If you have a small dog, you could carry him in there, too.

The very features that make it such an awesome bag create their own set of problems. I tend to expand to fill available space. This means if you give me a bag that is two feet long by one foot wide, I’m going to find things to put in all of that space. The result is a bag that holds everything but the kitchen sink and weighs approximately 37 pounds when fully loaded. This is not a problem if you are built like an Amazon or do competitive weight-lifting. I am not. Fully loaded with everything I deem “necessary,” this bag will send me to the chiropractor in short order.

In addition to carrying all your junk, it also stands up to dogs who have obsessive "four feet in a box" behaviors.
It’s a wonderful bag but 75 percent of the time, it’s just too much. This year I’m considering using it as a suitcase for overnight road trips. I wish they would make a downsized “junior” version.

The thing I love the most about it: the big mesh pocket on one end to stuff stinky slobbery dog toys into.

The thing I disliked the most about it: the insulated “cooler” pocket on the front. If you carry dog treats or people food that truly needs to be kept cold, you’ll want to add cold packs and that adds even more to the overall weight of the bag. Groaning and clutching your back when you lift a bag off the floor may be an indication you’re taking too much stuff.

Does this bag make my butt look big?
Pros: gorgeous colors; sturdy, quality construction that is built to last; holds its shape when open (doesn’t collapse into a puddle of limp fabric); light-colored interior so things don’t disappear “into the dark”; price is very realistic for what you get; many storage and organizing options.

Cons: bulky, encourages over-loading, too easy to end up carrying the kitchen sink. If you’re a “gotta have all my gear all the time” trainer and don’t mind schlepping all your stuff around like a pack mule, this would be the bag for you.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Herding cats

This is Siren. She doesn't have anything to do with today's post but I wanted to include a picture of a cat and sure as $#@! wasn't going to get one of Wild. Although Siren looks rather wild here, with her glowing red demon cat eyes. She's really very sweet. Really.

 Friday, I picked Wild up at the vet, where she had been spayed.

“She did okay,” my vet said. “We didn’t handle her much.”

Really? And why not, prey tell?

Wild came home on a day that was icy, damp, foggy, wet, cold and just generally miserable. I decided she could spend the weekend in the basement and have a few days to heal in a warm, dry, clean environment before returning to her wild ways outdoors.

I had a Belgian-sized crate set up in the basement. Inside it was an enclosed, cat-sized cardboard box lined with towels and with an opening cut in one side. There was a litter box. There were food and water pans. Bonus had enjoyed his stay in this snug little feline hospital wing a few days before. In fact, he enjoyed it so much I had a little trouble getting him out of it. When I opened the door to collect him to go outdoors, he blinked his gorgeous green eyes and looked at me like, “Run along, silly, delusional human. I’ll be just fine here until spring.”

I’d carefully cleaned everything to be ready for the next patient. Only problem was, I had no idea how I was going to get Wild in there. Reaching into the carrier and scooping her up was out of the question. The original plan to scoop her up and put her IN the carrier hadn’t exactly worked. I didn’t expect it to go any better in reverse. We’re only 2 weeks into the new year and I didn’t want to explore the parameters of  my health insurance plan yet. A sensible reader suggested putting the entire carrier into the dog crate and leaving the carrier door open so she could come out when she felt like it. That would have worked if the carrier would have fit into the crate. It didn’t. Letting her run loose in the basement was out of the question. At least at that point.

I thought about just turning her loose in the barn where she could make a snug nest in the straw. Then I remembered how I felt after coming home from the hospital last September. A little coddling was definitely in order. It would make her love me, right?

In the end, I opened the dog crate door, jammed the cat carrier into the opening, blocked any remaining space with my leg and opened the carrier door. Nothing happened. I tipped the carrier up. Nothing happened. I shook it a little. Wild came flying out like she’d been shot from a rocket launcher. She vanished into the cardboard box while I chucked the carrier out of the way and slammed the crate door. I can be super coordinated and lightning fast when the alternative is having a feral animal loose in the house.

Poor little cat. She really is wild. Until 48 hours ago, she’d been living the wild life and having a nice breakfast when an alien attempted to abduct her, causing her to use her 486 spinning claws of death while simultaneously changing from a solid to a liquid state. Then she’d suffered the humiliation of being caught in the live trap and hauled unceremoniously to the vet, where they did unmentionable things to her and stuffed her into the carrier she’d gone to such effort to avoid in the first place. (No word on if she used her spinning claws of death at the vet.) Upon coming home, she’d been put in a detention block on the Death Star. And it smelled like dogs.

I did not see her for the next 36 hours. When I changed her litter box or filled food and water bowls,  I only saw the tip of her tail sticking out of the box. Or maybe a whisker. I did not see the entire cat.

Until 4 a.m. Sunday. Wild was in the basement near the furnace room, which just happens to be right under our bedroom.

Wild: Meow.

Humans: Snore.

Wild: Meow, meow.

Humans. Snore.

Phoenix: Kitty?

Wild: Meow, meow, meow.

Phoenix: Kitty!

Wild: Meow, meow, MEOW!

Phoenix, nose pokes me: Wake up. Kitty in basement!

Me: Uhgmpf??


Phoenix: Get the kitty!

Farmer: What does your dog want?

Me: Who knows.

Phoenix, dancing around the bedroom: Kittykittykitty! Get the kittykittykitty!


Farmer: What does your cat want?

(Funny, how ownership of troublesome animals transfers to me between 9 p.m. and 6 a.m.)

Me: Be quiet. Maybe she’ll go back to sleep.

Wild: YOWL!

Farmer: How’s that workin’ for ya?



Farmer: I think your cat wants out.

Me: Fine. Go let her out.

Farmer: Snore.

Phoenix: Up! Up! Get up! Get the kitty! I help!


Me:  Oh $#@!

So I got out of bed and tromped down to the basement. I shut Phoenix in the kitchen first. I’ve experienced enough of his well-intentioned help to know that where  malinois are involved, reality often falls short of intention.

Like lots of pet owners, I can let dogs out to potty in the middle of the night, call them back to the house, wipe off paws as needed and tumble back into bed without truly waking up. It couldn’t be any different, letting one small cat out of the basement, could it?

That was the plan.

Because my plans always work out so well.

 We have two sets of stairs to the basement: one that opens into the kitchen and one that opens to the outside of the house. I had a flash of cognitive brilliance and opened the door to the outside first. Then I looked at the big crate. I  looked at the small carrier. Even my sleep-fogged mind knew I’d never get Wild back in there to carry her out of the basement. And I only had on pajamas and slippers. I wasn’t getting anywhere near the whirling claws of death without full body armor.

Maybe I could pull the box she was hiding in out of the crate and carry it outdoors. She hadn’t come out of it when I was around her for the last day and a half. What were the odds she’d change her mind now? I knelt down. I reached for the box. A streak of yellow fur shot out of the box at light speed, zoomed underneath my outstretched arms and vanished into the shadows behind the furnace.

Another fine plan gone to hell in less than three seconds.

I’ve helped the Farmer move cattle. Generally, you walk slowly behind them, not putting too much pressure on them, and they’ll amble along in the correct direction. Until they get to wherever you want them and then they do as they please, which usually translates to stampeding through the vegetable garden. Then you run around and swear and start all over. Herding cats is quite similar.

I flushed Wild out from behind the furnace and she bolted into the laundry room. The outside stairs are in the laundry room. Good. There are a lot of other things in the laundry room, too. Bad.

I heard clattering. Wild was on top of the water heater. I had to admire her agility. She was pretty much right at eye level. I backed up and admired from a distance.

This is where things got sticky. In order to get her to move, I had to put more pressure on her. She was running out of places to run. I did not want her running over me. The basement door stood open, letting a lovely January breeze flow into the house and through my PJs. I was abandoning all hope of doing this without actually waking up.

I moved around behind the water heater, ready to retreat at the sight of flying ninja claws of death coming my direction. Wild leaped off the water heater and careened along a shelf of miscellaneous gardening supplies, sending pots, gloves, trowels and sprinkler heads cascading to the ground. The poet who wrote the line about fog creeping in on tiny cat's feet must have never actually seen a cat.

I did my best to head her off before she ran up the wrong set of stairs and smacked into a dead-end at the basement door into the kitchen. I’m pretty sure Phoenix was on the other side concentrating all his brain waves on beaming a cat right through that door. She circled the washer and dryer and vanished into the shadows by the water softener. Damn. I didn’t realize we had so many shadowy places where a cat could hide.

At this point, I seriously considered leaving the semi-freezing basement and crawling back into my nice warm bed. Maybe she could just live down there for the rest of her life. I’d put out food and water and change the litter box and we’d both pretend the other wasn’t there.

A yellow streak of fur blasted past me, crashed into a stack of buckets, ricocheted off a laundry basket, careened off the side of a free-standing cupboard and bolted up the outside stairs. I got to the top of the stairs in time to see her disappearing across the lawn into the darkness.

I shut the door and went back to bed. By the time I got warm enough to fall asleep, it was time to get up.

Game, set, match: Wild.

Thursday, January 9, 2014

Cat wrangling, Part II

My descent into crazy cat lady-ness continues, and I’ve drug the Farmer along with me.

If you tuned in for yesterday’s episode, you’re familiar with my epic fail in the attempt to capture Wild and take her to the vet to be spayed. Instead, I took the big gray tomcat, Bonus, who fortunately for me (and unfortunately for him) was totally fine with being picked up and put in a dog crate.

I spent yesterday afternoon contemplating how, exactly, I was going to catch Wild, since I’d pretty much established myself as Public Enemy Number One in her eyes. My failed “scoop up the cat quick and put her in a crate before she knows what’s happening” attempt had probably dissolved six months of trying to earn her trust. As far as she was concerned, I was extremely unstable.

The feline biological clock was ticking. Cat “breeding season” in these parts begins in February, with the first spring litters on the ground in March, give or take a little due to the weather - warm weather creates lusty cats. I didn’t have another six months to coax Wild into even the slightest pseudo friendship so I could attempt another capture. Even with Bonus out of the picture as a kitty baby daddy, I was sure our township was not lacking in other wandering tomcats looking for a good time.

The Farmer has  a live trap that he uses for capturing critters who end up in the wrong place on our farm - mostly raccoons. They are quickly dispatched with the .22 because doing catch-and-release with raccoons in the country is laughable (from the raccoon’s point of view). For every raccoon you relocate, there are three more willing to move into the barn, machine shed or silo. Don’t laugh. The Farmer has flipped the gears to fill the feeder wagon with silage and had raccoons come flying out of the silage chute. A raccoon fell out of the rafters in the machine shed and broke the outside window off my van. We wage a constant battle with raccoons. Disney-esque raccoons are cute little masked bandits. Iowa raccoons tear things up, crap everywhere (seriously, everywhere) and carry diseases.

Occasionally, we catch a skunk in the trap. No. Wait. I am not using the royal “we” this time. The Farmer occasionally catches a skunk. I had nothing to do with it.

No one in their right mind would deliberately trap a skunk. We’ve had several accidental skunk-trappings over the years (and one that was on purpose when a skunk decided to make a den near the house this summer). Accidental or deliberate, it raises an entirely new problem - get close enough to open the trap door and set the skunk free and risk getting sprayed by a frightened skunk or shoot the skunk in the trap and be guaranteed of an explosion of stink. It never ends well for any of the parties involved.

I decided the live trap was probably the best chance of catching Wild. Of course, we have five other cats and I figured Murphy’s Law being what it is, I would repeatedly catch Winnie, Bonus, Siren, Weezel and Gryphon while Wild sat on a hay bale and licked her paws and laughed.

I texted the Farmer with my request: please put live trap in garage.

I had formulated another careful plan that involved putting the trap near where I usually feed the cats, putting food in the trap and letting Wild go in and out without the trap being set, then after a couple of days of becoming accustomed to it, actually setting it. Even a set and baited trap is no guarantee of catching the critter that springs it. Raccoons have proven this ad nauseum. With a little luck, I might be able to catch and deliver her to the vet in a couple of weeks.

The Farmer replied to my text with his usual speed. That is to say, he didn’t reply. I figured he was at another farm or too busy to concern himself with cats.

Four hours later, I got a text back: Caught your cat.

I considered this for a minute. Not only had he put the trap in the garage, he’d baited it, set it and managed to catch Wild? In a matter of hours? Incredible.

Then I called him to confirm exactly which cat he’d caught. With my luck, we’d had one of our not uncommon failures in communication and he thought I wanted to catch one of the other cats. Which could be accomplished by walking out the back door and tripping over them.

But yes, he had caught Wild. I confirmed this by asking a series of very specific questions, just to make sure. Was it the yellow cat? It’s the yellow cat, right? That yellow one?

These were all affirmative. What did I want him to do with her?

Could he take her over to the vet clinic?

Negatory, too busy to mess with cats today. Should he let her go?

I may have had a brief moment of screeching incoherence: HOLYCRAPHELLNODON’TLETHERGOI’LLNEVERCATCHHERAGAIN!”

And so it was decided he would leave the live trap, containing Wild, in the garage. I would call the vet to confirm they could fit her into their schedule to be spayed the next day. Then I would come home, pick her up and deliver her to the vet.

He did and I did and they could so I did.

I got home, popped the hatch on R2, chucked out my lawn chair, Phoenix’s tent crate, a couple of crate pads, a blanket, two sets of scent articles and the water jug I forgot to take back in the house after going to train last week, and set Wild in the back. If I thought she was angry this morning, it was only a shadow of her mood now. For exactly half a second I considered trying to transfer her to a dog crate, then came to my senses. I may be crazy but I’m not stupid. I’d warned the vet’s office about the temperament of this creature - angry, wild, scared demon spawn. They assured me they could handle it. I have great faith in them.

We were about halfway to the clinic when I noticed the interior of my van was starting to smell like a previous resident of the trap. The scent of eau de skunk gained strength as we drove. I may have been the only person in Iowa driving with her windows down on a balmy January day when the mercury had risen to a whole 8 degrees. Please refer to the crazy/not stupid comment above.

I had to take Bonus home from the vet’s in order to free up cage space. Apparently there were no vacancies at the veterinary motel. Bonus was retrieved and put in the small Vari-Kennel I’d brought him to the office in. He looked stoned. Good  kitty. It would be a peaceable trip home. I thanked the staff and apologized again for bringing them a wild cat in a stinky cage. In the grand scheme of things, this is probably not the worse thing they’ve ever had to deal with.

I took off for home in the skunk-stink-mobile, with Bonus ensconced in the back. We hadn’t been on the road for long when I caught a whiff of some new odor rising above the residual skunk stink. Tomcat urine. I drove faster.

When I got home, I carried Bonus down to the basement. He’d earned a night in the house, albeit in a crate. I wasn’t optimistic about his discretion in using a litter box if left to his own devices. Turned out he was just fine and the critter who had the biggest problem was Phoenix, who went back to his OCD “There is a cat in the basement and I must stare at the door because maybe I can make the cat teleport into the kitchen” behavior.

Today is day five of the cat saga. It started on Sunday, when I brought the Adorables inside because of excruciating and dangerous windchills. Tomorrow, I will pick Wild up from the vet. She will stay in the basement over the weekend, to give her a few days in a clean and warm environment to heal. I have no clue how I’ll get her from the small carrier into a bigger crate. Hopefully we’ll have a special bonding moment. Hopefully it won’t resemble the special bonding moment that started all of this.

In the  meantime, I still have the windows cracked on R2 and Febreeze is on my shopping list.

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Cat wrangling 101

In my defense, I had a plan. It was a good plan. It was a well thought out plan. I had rehearsed the plan in my mind. I had set up every aspect of this plan to ensure success. I was confident that it would be executed smoothly and without undue angst to any of the parties involved.

It didn’t work.

Not only didn’t it work, it failed on a level of spectacularity that defies words. I am happy about two things. Number one, I did not get hurt. Number two, there were no witnesses. This was the sort of thing that makes the Farmer shake his head and walk away, then later, give me The Look when I try to talk about it.

Anyone who has tried to put a cat somewhere the cat does not want to go will understand.

The plan was to scoop up Wild this morning, stick her in a crate and take her to the vet to be spayed. Next week I would repeat the plan and take Bonus, the big gray tomcat, to the vet to be neutered. That would ensure the cat population on our farm was safely removed from the reproducing gene pool.

I think things started to go wrong about six months ago when I named her Wild.

Wild is essentially wild. She is a little yellow tiger striped cat with big yellow eyes and bobcat tufts of fur on the tips of her ears. She was born on our farm last spring and gradually moved from the outbuildings into the garage/machine shed where I feed the rest of the cats.

Wild and I had advanced our relationship to the point where I could pet her, providing she was distracted with a bowl of food and providing I didn’t get too familiar. Petting was restricted to happy cat butt scratches and fondling of her neck and ears. It was all good. There was no holding, cuddling or other manipulation of said cat. We existed in a contented plane of existence where we both knew our roles.

Then I decided she needed to be spayed. This is a non-negotiable issue. I don’t want multiple litters of feral kittens every year. I formed a simple plan. I’d pet her while she was eating, then quick as a flash I’d scoop her up, toss her in the little Vari-Kennel I use for transporting cats to and from the vet and we’d head on down the road. No prob. What could go wrong?

It wasn't my first day at the rodeo. I was prepared. I had the crate sitting nearby, door open. (This was extremely optimistic because as it turned out, it really didn’t matter if the door was open, closed or missing.) I was wearing heavy gloves and my Nanook of the North parka, A) because it was -4 degrees and B) to ensure protection of vital organs. Looking back, I think if I’d been wearing my Carhartt coveralls and the Farmer’s welding gauntlets and helmet things might have gone a little better. Chain mail would have been my second choice.

I called the cats. I poured their food in the pan. I waited until Wild was settling into her meal. I stroked her back. She arched up under my hand. I scratched her ears. She leaned companionably into my fingers. I gripped the scruff of her neck, scooped my other hand under her tummy and lifted, confident I could transport a smallish cat the distance of perhaps two feet without anything going wrong.

Wild begged to differ.

Did you know cats are capable of turning from solid to liquid? I think I should be awarded a Nobel Prize for my work in the field of this new  scientific principle.

The first hint that I was in trouble was the subtle shifting under my hands when Wild changed from a five-pound relatively domesticated farm cat to five-pounds of hissing, yowling, fur-covered demon spawn. How many toes does a normal cat have? Four on each paw? And one claw per toe? That adds up to 487 razor sharp claws slicing and digging at any available surface. There were claws embedded in the leg of my jeans and the arm of my coat. There were claws whizzing through the air near my face. I realized that my scruff-and-scoop plan might have been a tad optimistic. I realized the only part of this situation that I actually controlled was the two square inches of fur I was gripping  on the back of her neck. I realized this was not going to end well.

Wild transformed into her liquified cat state and in doing so, grew at least two more legs and 63 more claws. She found more places to embed the claws that weren’t spinning like ninja blades of death past my head. The volume of angry demon spawn squalling issuing forth from this small creature was startling. I don’t know if bodily fluids were leaking out of her but it was a distinct possibility they were going to leak out of me. I was afraid of what would happen if I turned her loose. I was afraid of what would happen if I didn’t.

In the end, Wild resolved the issue by slithering out of what I had thought was a death grip on her scruff. She bolted into the depths of the machine shed. Her yowls and my swearing echoed in the silence. A few tufts of fur drifted down on the cold morning air.

Bonus, the big gray tomcat, looked at me. I looked at him. I picked him up. I put him in the crate. I shut the door.

After all, I had an appointment at the vet’s office to get a cat altered. Darned if I wasn’t going to produce a cat.

Sunday, January 5, 2014

Now is the winter of our discontent

Prologue:  Last week I called the vet to make an appointment for Wild, the half-grown yellow kitten who makes up 1/6th of our farm’s feline population.

“She needs to be spayed,” I said. “Or possibly he needs to be neutered. I really don’t know. I’ll let you decide.”

Fortunately, my vet understands these things. It’s really hard to tell the sex of a cat by looking at its face. Said cat is not tame enough for further inspection.

“But,” I continued, “I’m not sure I’ll be able to catch her/him, so if I can’t, I’ll bring Bonus instead, he needs to be neutered.”


“Yeah, Bonus. A cat I didn’t need or want. He just showed up. Like a bonus. Bonus Cat.”

“Okay . . . are you sure he needs neutered?”

“Yeah. So can you just schedule me to bring in a cat of one sex or the other and you can proceed accordingly?”

My vet’s office is great. That’s why I always pay my bills on time. I never know what I might need them to do for me next.

Present day: This morning I scooped up the Adorables – Gryphon, Siren and Weezel – and moved them into the basement. We’re heading into a mini ice age here in Iowa with air temps forecast lower than -20 tonight and wind chill values of -30 to -40. The high temp tomorrow will be -15. This is wrong on so many different levels I don’t know where to start.

The Farmer assured me the Adorables would be fine in the garage, out of the elements and snug in their insulated cat box but since this is their first winter, I decided they could stay in the basement for a few days.

The kittens, now 10 months old, are swaddled in thick fur coats and look like denizens of some Arctic planet. If George Lucas had put cats on Hoth in “Return of the Jedi,” they would look like the Adorables. However, I am not convinced that they are all that bright when it comes to winter survival skills. Bringing them into the basement for a few days brought me peace of mind about their well-being. At least, it was supposed to.

Nothing these kittens do is very peace-inducing. They are constantly in some degree of trouble. I had to rescue the Fed Ex guy yesterday when Siren got into his truck. He had pulled up in front of the house and opened his truck door, then disappeared into the back to get a package. Siren put her paws on the first step, looked around, then, tail waving jauntily, leaped up the steps and into the cab. She was not the least bit repentant when I captured her and apologized to the Fed Ex guy, who was balancing a 60-pound box of dog food and clearly wondering how he was going to explain taking a header out of his truck because he tripped over a cat.

So the kittens came in the house this morning. It wasn’t the first time they’ve been in the house. It was the first time they’ve been in the house with permission. I wondered if this was the start of my descent into crazy cat lady status.

I gave them food, water, litter pans and a couple of cardboard boxes to entertain themselves with. They settled in with apparent gratefulness. That is to say, they immediately started prowling around in the shadowy corners, knocking things over and coming out draped with cowebs. Our basement is a veritable feline Disneyland, complete with all sorts of rides and attractions. I went back upstairs and spent the rest of the morning listening to assorted thumps and bangs.  Whoever said cats are stealthy and silent never met the Adorables.

Later in the morning I went down to see how everyone was getting along. Siren was sitting on the top step on the basement side of the kitchen door. Being the social climber that she is, I opened the door and she waltzed into the kitchen. I reached down for her and she darted across the floor. Phoenix had a look of delighted disbelief on his face. Finally – cats in the house! Disneyland indeed!

The fact that there are kittens in the house has Phoenix in a state of consternation. He thinks the basement is clearly a Gateway To Hell and will not go down the scary stairs but will sit for hours and stare at the door because he knows the kittens are on the other side. And maybe if he stares hard enough, one will slither through the half-inch crack at the bottom of the door.

I captured Siren and turned to find Weezel sauntering toward the dining room.  I scooped him up, too, and headed down the basement stairs, stopping just long enough to pull the door shut behind me. The Farmer is going to have to deal with cats dropping out of unexpected places in the basement the next few days – I’m pretty sure he doesn’t want to find one in his recliner in the living room, too.

Lest Gryphon feel neglected, I deposited his brother and sister and scooped him up. He let out a yowl, whipped around and sank his teeth into my sweatshirt sleeve.  So much for gratefulness. This is very un-Gryphon-like behavior. Since getting bitten once apparently wasn’t enough for me, I put my hand right back on him. This elicited another unhappy yowl but I was fast enough to move this time and didn’t get chomped. Then I noticed thick greenish yellow pus trickling down his flank. Surprise. I had ruptured an abscess on his back.

I am a farm kid. I’ve seen a lot of gross things. I’ve smelled a lot of gross things. But I have never smelled anything that reeked like the pus draining out of that abscess. How could one relatively small animal make such a big stink? I gathered up Gryph and carried him up the basement steps, out to the grooming table on the back porch. As long as I didn’t poke at his flank, he didn’t seem to mind.

I collected a bowl of warm, soapy water, a couple of towels and the dogs’ grooming scissors. Holding my breath, I cleaned up the mess and tried to trim the hair around the puncture wound. This met with limited success. Gryph has a coat like a wooly mammoth.

I was wearing leather gloves and had a firm grip on the scruff of his neck. This didn’t stop him from making several more attempts at chomping me. Such appreciation. I decided I had achieved crazy cat lady status.

As I rinsed clean water over the wound, I was imagining my Monday morning phone call to the vet.

“Hi, I called last week about bringing in a semi-feral female cat to be spayed or a semi-feral male cat to be neutered, really not sure which, or I might not be bringing that cat at all if I can’t catch her/him but a totally different cat who definitely needs to be neutered and now I need to bring in another cat who’s been fighting with something and has a nasty stinking abscess.”

I suspect the vet’s office is the only business that gets weirder calls than the newspaper office where I work.

Can’t wait for Tuesday morning cat wrangling.

Friday, January 3, 2014

2014: OCD and OTCh.

We’re three days into the new year and I am feeling compelled to write something profound about goals, resolutions and saving the world in 2014.

My obsessive-compulsive disorder is focused on finishing Phoenix’s OTCh. this year. Easier said than done and probably not a good foundation for a new year’s resolution. In order to finish his OTCh., we have to earn points. In order to earn points, we have to win or place in classes. In order to win or place in classes, we have to beat other competitors, many of whom are highly skilled, well seasoned teams. I really don't want my focus to be solely on winning and beating people. That’s not who I am and that’s not why I show dogs.

I show dogs because I love training dogs and love to go into the ring and give a performance that reflects that love. Plus trust, partnership, confidence, fun and skill. Plus precise heeling, straight fronts and clean finishes and all the other stuff that goes into creating an OTCh.-caliber dog.

We’ve all heard people talk about an “easy OTCh.,” as in “I’ll get a golden or a border collie or a sheltie so I can get an easy OTCh.”

No. Such. Thing.


I live in a part of the country where it’s not unheard of for someone to earn their dog’s UD one weekend and its OTCh. the next weekend. Yeah. No kidding. It happens and it’s amazing. You might say THAT was an easy OTCh. but when you think about the amount of training that went into choreographing the nearly flawless performances needed to win classes large enough to provide 30 or more points at a time . . . hmmmm . . . maybe not.

I’ve put OTChs. on two dogs. I have friends who have OTCh.’d multiple dogs and friends who completed their first OTCh. and never went back into the ring again. It’s a different journey for everyone, but it’s never an easy one. I don’t think there’s a quantitative measure for establishing the difficulty of earning an OTCh. The number of different factors involved boggle the mind and they’re constantly shifting. They include but are not limited to: the breed of dog, age of dog, experience level of the handler, resources available to the handler (time, money, a place to train, availability of an instructor, support of friends and family), area of the country where you live and how good you are at handling disappointment.

Both Connor and Jamie completed their OTCh. 13 months after they completed their UD. I didn’t plan it that way, it’s just how it worked out.

Then along came Phoenix. Our OTCh. journey has been very much like riding a monster roller coaster. We’ve spent a lot of time screaming downhill at breakneck speed, then crawling with aching slowness to the next pinnacle of achievement, balancing on the precipice of brilliance for nanoseconds, then launching once more into the abyss.

I’ve come to appreciate my clever, strong-willed, pushy, tough, sensitive dog more than ever. He is an amazing, complicated creature. Our journey is taking much longer than 13 months, but I’ve come to understand this as a gift that is taking its own sweet time to be unwrapped, heavy with anticipation and discovery. While it would be an awesome experience to finish an OTCh. in a weekend, I wouldn’t trade one second of the last few years with Phoenix. I know he is the dog I am supposed to have and I know we are right where we are supposed to be in this on-going adventure.

Yeah, there have been days at trials when I agonized over that one major error that took us out of the placements. I’ve played the “woulda-coulda-shoulda” game with scores. I’ve looked at the catalog and wondered why Miss 200 Trainer with OTCh. Perfect Dog couldn’t just stay home for one weekend so we could win. I’ve tried to find little, out-of-the-way trials where none of the Big Name trainers would bother going. Guess what - all the other little name trainers with their very good dogs were there, too, looking for the same thing I’m looking for. I’ve gotten ridiculously irritated in training when my dog refuses to share my concern about straight finishes.

And then I’ve realized what a silly obsession this is. Finishing an OTCh. is equal parts love, trust, skill, patience, faith, strategy, attitude, determination and luck. It represents a refusal to quit and a complete lack of good sense.

With Phoenix, I have a soulmate. A friend. A partner. I share my life with someone who teaches as well as learns. He’s helped me find humor in unlikely places and given me a new appreciation for the simple enjoyment of life. He’s helped me discover that my sense of self-worth is not tied to achievement in the obedience ring.

Believe me when I say the joy of achieving an OTCh. (or any title) must come from the journey, not in that final glorious moment when the judge calls your number for the win that gives you that 100th point. Because then it’s over. Done with. Honestly, it’s yesterday’s news within minutes. A bit of applause and then what’s next?

My advice for anyone pursuing a title at any level in this new year is simple: keep your perspective and enjoy your journey. You’re right where you’re supposed to be.