Thursday, February 26, 2015

Tricks by any other name

Some food for thought on a brutal winter day while I’m at home, sucking down cold medicine and trying to keep the dogs from stealing my tissues. (Why are dogs so fascinated by tissues?)

Teaching "parlor tricks" has gained a lot of popularity among competition trainers (both obedience and agility) in recent years. When I started obedience training back in the day, tricks were not given a lot of credibility. We taught the obedience exercises and if there was any time left after that, well, if you wanted to teach tricks, no one was going to say you couldn’t but they’d probably turn the lights out on you when they left.

Tricks burst on the scene, at least onto my scene, during Phoenix’s generation. Suddenly, it was all the rage for dogs of every discipline to have a repertoire of tricks totally unrelated to anything they did “in the ring.” 

Until then, I taught my dogs to shake hands (usually as an assist to wiping muddy paws when they came in the house) and that was about it. I had my hands full teaching the skills I needed to reach my goals in the obedience ring.

Until Phoenix. He knows more tricks than any of my previous dogs combined. He will shake, sit up and beg, dance on his hind legs, roll over (both directions), back across a room, scuttle backward in a down, chase his tail (both directions), back up a flight of stairs, retrieve and stack bowls, put four feet in a box, pivot with his feet on an overturned bowl, bounce in the air and snap his teeth on command. Has any of this improved our obedience scores? I don’t know.

The popularity of teaching tricks surged as trainers started incorporating them to teach body awareness,  mostly for agility skills, although they can be helpful for obedience, too. The phrase “relationship building” also became a popular buzzword, and tricks were touted as being a fun way to build your relationship with your dog.

Call me a renegade, but I have a problem with this. I don’t have a problem with teaching tricks – they’re fun and sometimes have useful applications. I have a problem with the implication that “regular” training (i.e., teaching performance skills) is not a good enough way to build your relationship with your dog and you must rely on something else in order to “have fun” and achieve that end.

Granted, tricks are delightfully pressure-free. They come with no expectation of creating a performance that will be judged according to a set of scoreable standards in order to earn titles. You’ll never mail an entry, then freak out when your dog forgets how to do his tricks. You can use lots of cookies for tricks and you can use them forever, who cares? Generally, you don’t need a lot of room to train tricks. You don’t need a building or a field or expensive, heavy, specialized, customized equipment. Tricks are silly. They make us laugh. Who wouldn’t laugh at a huge dog daintily putting his feet in a small box or flipping the lid open and climbing into a suitcase?

But can’t teaching a dog to lie down from a stand or pick up a dumbbell also be viewed as a trick?

I’m guessing our dogs don’t care one way or the other if something is called a trick or an exercise. They DO care about how things are taught and how rewarding they find the experience to be.

I tend to be a lazy trainer. If a behavior doesn’t have an application to obedience skills, I’m probably not going to take the time to teach it. That’s just me. There’s a lot of cute stuff that I could teach my dog but since I don’t have unlimited training time, I gravitate toward things that are going to help him gain the physical and mental skills he needs to succeed in the obedience ring. Sometimes those  are tricks. Sometimes they are traditional "exercises."

With that in mind, what if you decided instead of teaching your dog to do obedience “work,” you would teach him to do obedience “tricks”? Straight fronts or perfect heel position with total engagement might not be as adorably cute as watching a 53 pound malinois put his feet in a tiny little box (seriously, WHY is that so cute?) but it’s gonna make me smile, nonetheless.

Phoenix’s trick repertoire was generally the result of living with a high energy breed who constantly sought mental stimulation and if left to his own devices would go eat the couch. Those of you who have dogs like this know what I’m talking about. I taught him tricks almost in self defense, to fill those empty winter evenings and to keep his mind out of trouble while waiting at trials.

Banner is nothing like Phoenix and I haven’t taught him any tricks yet, except for four-feet-in-a-box. Our 6 months together so far has been spent laying obedience foundation. For the most part, he thinks it’s all grand fun, although he finds the concept of “stay” a bit disappointing. 

I’ve worked hard to make the obedience training time we share together is fun, full of energy and praise and tangible rewards. I wonder if trainers who are struggling with obedience exercises approached them with the same carefree spirit as they would train parlor tricks, if they could shed the boredom and monotony that plagues many obedience partnerships?

Food for thought. And now I’m off to find another dose of cold meds.

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Here, kitty, kitty, kitty

Adding a puppy to Phoenix’s world last summer was a piece of cake compared to adding a cat.

While I am not in the habit of adding either at random, we’ve gained five cats at our place since the summer of 2013 (3 of them intentionally, 2 by accident) and all of them are still alive and as normal as cats ever get. Phoenix has come to terms with all of them in his own special bitey way. I suspect a couple of them may attend therapy for malinois-induced neurosis but on the surface they appear to be your average Iowa barn cats.

Cat number seven arrived earlier this month.

In case you’re counting, I didn’t skip cat number six. She is Winnie The Cat and she was here before Phoenix. Technically, she was here before Jamie, if that gives you an idea of how insanely old she is. She was actually cat number one. Cats number two through six – Siren, Gryphon, Weezel (intentional), Wild and Bonus (accidental) - came in 2013. 2014 was relatively peaceful, if you don’t count Banner’s arrival, which lit off all sorts of fireworks until Phoenix decided he wuuuuuved his little bob-tailed bro.

And that brings us to cat number seven.
I’m not averse to having multiple outdoor cats. We have a big farm. There’s plenty of room for everyone. There are plenty of mice for everyone. There’s plenty of room around the communal food bowl, too. The price of eating out of the communal bowl is a round trip to the vet. That entitles the recipient to sit on the patio, two squares a day and free run of the farm without being molested by the dogs. Unless, of course, the cat wants to be molested and then it can just roll over and stick its paws in the air and let the dogs sniff and poke. This happens frequently.

That’s where Phoenix and I see things a little differently.

With a malinois, there are no shades of gray. It’s either black or it’s white. In this case, it’s both.

Cat number seven, hereafter known as Freeloader, is black and white. He showed up earlier this month. He keeps a low profile but has figured out the morning and evening feeding times. He’s not a touchy-feely sort of cat but he talks to me a lot.

Phoenix does not approve. Freeloader is not one of “his” cats. He has not cleared whatever passes for a background check in Phoenix’s world. Therefore he does not belong. He should leave. He should leave now.
Phoenix, barking hysterically: Insurgent! Intruder! Battle stations! Scramble the fighters! This is not a drill!

Me: What? What! It’s a cat! Freddie Krueger is not on the back porch!

Phoenix: Yes! Cat! Not my cat! Strange cat! Who’s Freddie Krueger?
Me: Will you relax? It can stay.

Phoenix: No! Strange cat! Not okay! Must leave! I will make it leave!

Banner: New kitty? Where? Want it!

Freeloader: Holy crap. This place has good chow but the natives are a little over the top.
Phoenix: I will give you the malinois death stare. You want to run so I can chase you. You want to run now. Run. Now. RUN! Why aren’t you running?

Banner bouncing enthusiastically: Here, kitty, kitty, kitty!
Me: Freeloader, here’s the deal. You’re welcome to stay. There are two house rules. Number one, once you’re settled in, you win an overnight trip to the vet. Number two, don’t run from the dogs. Ever. It's better that way. Trust me.

Freeloader: Are you crazy, woman? I’m not going anywhere near those dogs. The big one drools when he looks at me and the little one looks insane. Why does it keep bouncing up and down like that? Is something wrong with it?
Me: I don’t have time to explain. Phoenix, put your teeth back in your mouth and quit staring at the cat. It makes him uncomfortable. Banner, stop acting like a rabbit on crack.

Phoenix: He started it.

Banner: Like the kitty! Pretty kitty! Want to sniff it!

Me: He doesn’t want to sniff you, I’m pretty sure of that.

Freeloader: This place is an asylum. Can I get my meal to go?

Me: What is it now?

Phoenix: I thought I saw Freddie Krueger.

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

2014: the year in review

Okay, here we go - the year in dogs and cats. And a few men in kilts. It doesn't cover everything I did in 2014 but it kind of hits the highlights.

The year started with Polar Vortexes 1-6.
Hibernation became a finely developed skill.

I said goodbye to Jamie in February.
Thank you,  Big Red Dog, for 14 1/2 wonderful years.

Everyone needs a Belgian turnover.

Bonus Cat. Yes. He has the leash in his mouth.
I have no idea why.

Siren. In a bucket. Where do you keep your cats?

Enjoyed the Iowa Renaissance Festival in May.  It rained. Again.

CedarWoods Once Upon A Time "Banner" arrived in late July.

Banner takes his inter-species relationships very seriously.

Phoenix and I showed in sweeps at the ABMC regional in September.

Let the games begin!

BFFs, showing fang.

Objects in the camera viewfinder are closer than they appear.

Banner - 5 months

Yeah. They do this in the house, too.

Getting my ren faire on at Halloween.
Yes,  this was at a trial. Yes, I showed in it.
No, Phoenix didn't care.

I get this look a lot.

Phoenix turned 8 in December.

We got closer to our goals.

Wishing you and your loved ones all the best in the new year.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

The Farmer and the dogs

Over the years, the Farmer and I have had a number of interesting conversations about the dogs. Since Banner's arrival, these have not diminished.

Farmer: Why does Banner smell different than Phoenix?

Me: I don't know. What does Banner smell like?

Farmer: A dog.

Me (confused): And what does Phoenix smell like?

Farmer: Phoenix doesn't smell.

When I posted this on Facebook, it led to a spirited conversation among friends, the resulting conclusion of which (besides the fact we had all stopped what we were doing to go sniff our dogs) was individual dogs have their own scents and as their lifelong companions, we humans are able to detect these and differentiate between dogs, based on their particular smells.

And the Farmer was right. Phoenix doesn't smell. He is the most odor neutral dog I've ever lived with. Even the scent of shampoo or coat spray disappears within hours after a bath.

Banner, on the other hand, is very adept at finding substances to apply to his coat, which apparently retains every odor it has ever encountered.


And then there's training.

Farmer, to Banner: Sit.

Banner looks at him and wags his butt.

Farmer: Sit!

More wagging. No sitting.

While I know this drives some trainers insane, it doesn't really bother me. When I tell my dogs to sit, they sit. Since the Farmer doesn't show them and isn't likely to start any time soon, he can tell them to do whatever he wants and whether he follows through is totally up to him. I suspect the dogs know this and tend to yank his chain by acting blissfully oblivious.

But by the third "Sit!" I decided to intervene.

Me: He's not 100% reliable on a verbal. It helps to give a hand signal, too.

Farmer, raising his right hand: Sit.

No sit.

Me: Um . . . that's the "down" hand. Try it with your left hand.

Farmer, raising left hand: Sit!

Banner's butt hits the ground.

Farmer laughs, gives him a treat and says, "Huh. Didn't know he was left-handed."


Banner was sitting on the Farmer's lap one evening while we were watching TV.

Farmer: You sure are a pretty dog. You look just like Connor. Yep, you and Connor look exactly alike.

(Editor's note: Connor was my tricolor sheltie. He's been gone for 5 years.)

I gave him my best "Seriously?" look.

Farmer: Except your nose isn't as long.

More hairy eyeball.

Farmer: And your ears hang down.

Hairy eyeball combines with arched eyebrow.

Farmer: And you don't have a tail.

Hairy eyeball, arched eyebrows and stink-eye.

Farmer: Oh all right. You're black!

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Toys and dead things: ne'er the twain shall meet

So I was online, shopping for toys for the dogs. Because heaven knows, Phoenix and Banner don't have enough toys.

I had in mind a couple of new things I wanted to get for Banner because he is continuing his "I am not a malinois" campaign and that extends to toy preference and play style. Even though he is all about tugging and playing, he really does not care for Phoenix's french linen tugs or jute bite sticks. He's not ball crazy, either - yet - but I am cautiously optimistic on that front.

He likes to bite soft things. Because he is mummy's darling furry little marshmallow puff sweetums. Who bites like a rabid badger on crack. But only soft things. I don't know if this preference will change as he gets older but at six months, he shows a deranged joy in biting and tugging things with the consistency of Smartwool socks and fleece jacket sleeves. The softer, the better.

This extends to dead mice, rats and birds. I know this because the cats have been bringing their kills into the yard all fall and depositing them for my inspection. This is a new development and one I am not encouraging but the cats do not understand my reluctance to admire their hunting prowess. Banner, however, is overjoyed by the endless smorgasbord of dead critters. This tends to not end well.

Picture a middle-aged woman trying frantically to extricate a dead rodent from the jaws of a puppy who is gleefully munching on it while racing around the yard with said dead rodent tail hanging out of his mouth. Yeah. It's a good thing our closest neighbor is the Farmer's mother and she knows her daughter-in-law is a little . . . different.

I've spent the last couple of months prying slobbery, slimy deceased little carcasses out of Banner's mouth on a regular basis. To date, I think he's only eaten one. That I know about.

He still won't drop anything on command. He figures if I want a dead rat that bad I can go get my own. On the bright side, now when he has a dead varmint in his mouth, he WILL come when he's called, then stands in front of me with his jaws clamped tightly shut and little feet or tails sticking out the side of his mouth.

So with that in mind, I'm browsing one of my favorite online purveyors of all things dog, looking for simple braided fleece tugs when what to my wondering eyes should appear but . . . toys made out of dead things.


Critter fur is all the rage on the toy scene these days.

Rabbit fur. Raccoon fur. Sheep fur (okay, wool). Cow hide with fur attached. Cow fur? Really?

There are all kinds of fur-enhanced toys out there, intended to drive your dog into paroxysms of joy by their smell and texture. There are toys wrapped in critter fur, toys with fur hidden inside them, toys with fur braided throughout and toys made entirely of fur.

Not on my watch. Nosireebob.

I am not spending my toy budget on pieces of dead animals. I spend too much time prying the real thing out of the Aussie Jaws of Death. (Oddly enough, Phoenix wants little to do with the pre-killed varmints that turn up in our lawn. If he can't participate in the killing, he's not interested.)

Besides, Banner can be driven into paroxysms of joy by the smell and texture of a dirty sock.

There are already a few of the damn fur enhanced toys (or what is left of them) in various toy boxes through our house, purchased in moments of weakness before I knew better. They're the sort of thing that I saw at a vendor's booth and thought, oh COOL, my dogs will LOVE this! Must buy!

What was I thinking? Do you know what one of those lovely fluffy rabbit fur-and-fleece tugs looks like after 5 minutes of active play with an easily stimulated dog?

You got it - exactly like the mangled, slobber-soaked dead things I've been prying out of canine jaws all fall.

And if the slime factor wasn't enough, both Phoenix and Banner will halt the play if given a chance and commence with single-minded, full-scale destruction of the furry part.

"Excuse me while I rip this pesky varmint to pieces. Please excuse the maniacal gleam in my eye while I systematically shred a $20 bill in front of your eyes. Okay. Done. You were saying?"

I admire people whose dogs can play with those tugs without reducing them to a dripping saliva rope. I just don't have one.

Monday, December 1, 2014


For the last month I kept telling myself I'd write when I had time to take pictures to post, too. That didn't happen and doesn't show any sign of happening. Autumn flew by and now it's winter. So I'm writing. No pics. Deal with it.

Banner celebrated his half birthday about a week ago. He's six months old now, about 19.5 inches at the withers and I have no clue what he weighs but it can't be much because he spends a lot of time flying through the air like a bird. He's charming, sweet, funny, furry and very, very bouncy.

He's got a bouncy recall, bouncy heads-up heeling (providing nothing else is going on) and is learning to take and hold a dumbbell (bouncing optional at this point but I suspect he'll find a way to incorporate it before we're done). Phoenix's dumbbell is a pretty good fit for him - which is a little scary, since it was Jamie's dumbbell first. He doesn't mind having his toenails trimmed. He thinks baths are a Very Bad Idea. He likes sticks, cats, riding in the Gator, chewing on everything, chase games and pretty much everyone he has ever met.

A friend asked me how he compares to Phoenix.

Wow. How do you compare razor wire and marshmallow fluff? Phoenix is all sharp lines and angles and lean, hard muscle. Banner is softness and curves and fluff. They are opposite ends of the spectrum both physically and mentally. I am so blessed to have two such wonderful dogs!

Um . . . comparison . . . yeah . . . I bleed a lot less when I train Banner.  Honestly, that might be the biggest difference. My hands don't look like someone stuck them into a chipper-grinder, which is generally how they looked for the first year with Phoenix. I don't have as many holes in my clothes and I don't have mysterious bruises on odd parts of my body.

They do share a few characteristics: that bright, pushy, busy herding dog world view, always interested in whatever I'm doing and quick with the "WTF?" look when I ask for something that they find completely unreasonable.

I'm having a wonderful time training Banner's foundation exercises. I'm not rushing anything. I'm not pushing anything. There are no deadlines. He doesn't "have" to learn anything until he's good and ready.

He's still figuring out how to live in a body that changes almost daily as he keeps growing. Heel work at this point is mostly learning to trot around with his head up. We're working stays and impulse control and rear-end awareness and how to bring a ball back when I throw it. Banner loves toys and playing but he wasn't a natural retriever like my previous dogs have been.

I'm trying hard to make my criteria clear and help him understand that effort will be rewarded, even if it's not perfect. I'm getting better at knowing when to ask for more and not getting stuck at a plateau or just "settling."

In the meantime, teaching house manners remains a full-time job.

The Farmer says "Your dog has no manners." That's not entirely true. He has manners. They're just bad. Banner is convinced that if he puts his paws on the kitchen counter 100 times and gets scolded 100 times, that the 101st time will be the magic number when he's allowed to grab whatever is up there. He's nothing if not determined.

Phoenix and Banner are definitely besties now. Phoenix is beyond tolerant with his furry, bouncy little brother. Day after day he amazes me with remarkable patience. He's paying it forward, for all the craziness Jamie tolerated from him.

I hope it won't be a month before the next update!

Saturday, October 25, 2014

Life, death, sunshine and dogs

On Tuesday morning, a co-worker found our boss dead on her office floor at the newspaper. She had been working late the previous night and had a heart attack. She was 54, a kind, generous person who was patient with us, often beyond reason. I got to work about 5 minutes after the ambulance, EMTs, two sheriff's deputies and local police chief arrived. My "job" was standing outside the office door, telling co-workers what happened as they arrived.

Her funeral was this morning. It's a lovely October day, cool and breezy with lots of sunshine. Diane was a loyal University of Iowa Hawkeyes fan. They played the Iowa fight song at the end of the funeral. The Hawkeyes have a bye week, so no football game today. Good thing. We laughed that Diane would come back and haunt anyone who planned her funeral the same day as a home game in Iowa City.

Afterward and I spent a couple of hours outdoors with Phoenix and Banner. Not training. Not doing anything in particular. I got my camera and sat in the grass and watched them play. I tried out Banner's brand new sit/stay to take some head shots. They were easier to take than the running-amuck-with-a-ball shots but not really as much fun.

I'll share them, just because they are full of joy and the beauty of being alive on an autumn afternoon.

Just because he can.

Hello, love. Come here often?

Look! Proper ears! Without tape!

Ears! Seriously! I'm absurdly excited about this!

Wingardium Aussiosa!
(Harry Potter fans will get it. The rest of you muggles have to figure it out yourselves.)

Lady Siren