Sunday, September 28, 2008

To My Dog Friends

All of my friends are dog people. I meet them in class, at tournaments, through clubs and other groups, and online talking about dogs and training. Some have pure bred dogs, some have rescues, some have both. Most have several dogs. Some have cats too. Some of them live in other countries. What brings us together is our love of dogs.

I know that I can call on all my dog friends for advice and information, for the latest gossip, and for pats on the back. But two of my friends helped me in a special way.

When I called my friend Denise to tell her that Iz was dying, she never hesitated, offering immediately to come be with me. I was the one that hesitated, to be honest. But Denise, who was doing a lot of travel for work at the time, rearranged her schedule (and her husband and her own dogs) and got back on a plane to be with me that weekend. I simply would not have made it through on my own. She was there to hold my hand when I needed it the most.

My friend Gosia couldn't come that terrible weekend. But when I told her that I wasn't sure I could take Mimi to her first agility trial two weeks later because I'd never been to an agility trial without my Iz, she didn't hesitate either. Gosia and I started agility at almost the same time and we trained and trialed together for years. She flew out that weekend and never left my side. While we watched the trial, she chattered about our dog friends back in Utah and the crazy handling going on in the ring. She was Mimi's number one cheerleader. Gosia didn't let me sit and feel sorry for myself. She boosted me up when I was feeling pretty down.

So here's to all of my dog friends. And here's a special thanks to Gosia and Denise: I'm making it through because you were there to help me. I can only hope that I can be as good a friend to you as you have been to me.

Saturday, September 27, 2008

Nature, Nurture, and Operant Conditioning

Mimi's setup this morning

I am fortunate to have a fenced 60x90 training field in my backyard and a full set of agility equipment to train on. I play ball with the dogs in the main backyard but reserve the training field for "serious" play. One of my favorite training times is Saturday morning as the sun is coming up. What a wonderful time of the day to be outside.

When I choose the equipment layout each week, I consider problems we might be having in class the past couple of weeks or I go through my mental checklist of skills that I think Mimi needs to have, such as distance performance or smoother 270s. I get ideas from the Clean Run magazine and their two Exercise Sourcebooks, (which are great if you don't have a large practice space), and I make up layouts myself. Because my field is large but not the size of a full ring, and because I have equipment out there that I figure I might as well use, I always modify the printed courses, adding the teeter, Aframe, and weaves around the edge, or using two tunnels instead of one, or putting in the triple instead of the teeter since both are one-way.

My relationship with Mimi has been evolving rapidly for the last three months. I'm sure that part of the change is because all of my emotional energy isn't focused on Iz anymore. Some of it is due to the training techniques I've been using from Control Unleashed. Some of it is simply her improved maturity. She is so much more focused on me and so much more enthused about playing agility. Even when we were playing ball after training this morning, she would bring the ball back then run past me and into the training field before stopping and looking at me as if she was saying, this ball game is all well and good but are we going to do more of this agility stuff?

I decided that Mimi needs to work on distance skills. I started three weeks ago with the simple stuff--gates only, then gates and a single jump, gates and the teeter, etc. I like training distance with gates. I think using gates in the beginning make the performance less ambiguous for the dog and give them confidence to move away from you. This morning, I decided to work some obstacle discrimination with "here" and "out". I set up a nice little course with slightly curvy line of jumps leading to a tunnel under the Aframe. Going the other direction, I could have her exit the tunnel or Aframe to discriminate between the line of jumps or a single jump and the weaves. I could run both directions from either handling side. The picture at the top of the post shows the layout.

First run down the line of jumps handled from the right, a "here" and a small RFP to the tunnel--except she went straight up the Aframe! Oops, no reward, not even for her lovely 2on2off contact. Now you could argue that I was late with my here or didn't hold the RFP long enough, but this wasn't complicated handling. She just didn't listen that first time. But that was the only mistake she made for the rest of that part of our session! She was spot on.

And what about Gracie? She got her turn this morning too. Now that I'm "doing something" with her instead of just playing ball, her focus has been skyrocketing. Three weeks ago, I had a heck of a time getting her to calm down long enough to do two jumps in a row. Now she is doing two jumps into a tunnel, exit to two more jumps. Wow! And I am already moving away from the tunnel and not babysitting the entrance and exit.

I even replaced the two outer jumps with a single jump set in the middle then did a side change while she was in the tunnel. I have shown her front crosses on the flat and with a single jump but this was the first time I did one in the context of multiple obstacles. She didn't even bat an eyelash at the side change--performed perfectly. She also had to jump those offset jumps when all she's seen to date are jumps in a straight line. No problems at all. I have been using a clicker which I think has helped her to understand the concept of "more than one".

Gracie's other big project is target training to prepare her for contacts. She pounces on a target with both front feet outstretched and rocks her weight back, usually to the point that she drops into a down. Perfect. I had her bouncing between two targets about 10 feet apart this morning. She loved that game--kept going faster and faster. I think I'll start her on the tippy board and the plank on the ground tomorrow.

Despite the considerable differences in their personalities, I can already see that Mimi and Gracie learn in a similar way. They respond to praise and reward and the clicker quickly, and reliably repeat performance once they understand what I want. They are completely fearless. It's an interesting insight into the role of nature (genetics) and nurture, since they are littermates and were together until nearly 10 weeks of age but experienced radically different life experience and training during their first year and a half. They were both raised in loving, attentive households so the nurture part isn't that different. But Mimi has had three years of intense foundation training in preparation for an agility career while Gracie has had the basics (sit, down, stay, come, and some flyball training) but not much more until recently.

Mimi and Gracie (4 wks old) on the puppy tippy board

How about that? I've got my own little science experiment brewing right here in my backyard!

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

A Tale of Two Packs

When I do an overnight in Austin, I usually stay with my friend Kim. She's got a big rambling house in south Austin and six dogs of her own.

The first time I showed up, I think I had three terriers with me (I've traveled to Austin with as many as four). Kim and I were on full alert as we introduced the two packs that first time. But to our surprise...nothing happened.

Sure, we are careful to feed them separately and pick up food bowls and other resources, but this is just basic multi-dog management anyway. Every single time I stay at her place, we marvel at how well the two packs get along.

It really shouldn't happen this way. My pack is a tight unit even though Mimi and Gracie have to be separated. The world of the smooth fox terriers is large (they travel, stay in hotels, go to tournaments, get dragged to exotic locales, etc.) but their energy and attention are focused on me first, then each other. I think the same is true for Kim's pack.

It is interesting to watch the two packs interact because there is very little direct interaction at all. A smooth fox will brush past a border collie in passing but neither one reacts. Two or three dogs might race to sniff the same spot in the back field, but there's apparently plenty of smell to go around. The two packs don't blob together and form one large pack. Instead, the two groups interleave, winding in and among each other yet still behaving as two packs.

Kim has a large field behind her house accessed by gates in her backyard. All of the dogs love racing around this field. There is a great frenzy of pushing and shoving among the dogs as we open the gates, and they are obviously excited, but everyone behaves.

Three smooth foxes and four of Kim's dogs moving into position at the gate.

My terriers are pretty reactive in nearly all other situations so I can't figure out why Kim and I have been so successful at putting them all together. Is it because all the dogs are so fabulously well trained? Can't say that for my dogs, no. My dogs may be on good behavior because Kim's place is obviously not their turf nor turf they can reasonably claim. But it is more than that. There just isn't any tension at all between the two groups. The dogs take a surprisingly pragmatic approach to the situation.

Aaand they're off!

I've been thinking about how this applies to us, the humans. Perhaps the lesson is that we too often focus on us versus them, on differences, instead of what brings us together: the joy in running across an open field in the morning sunshine, the pleasure in being together with friends.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Fabulous Mimi!

What a difference a good night's rest makes! In contrast to last week, I was on my game this morning and so was Mimi. Bad Mimi never made an appearance in class this morning.

Now that the weather has cooled a bit, Debbie had us run two full courses, plus a few exercises on each. Mimi absolutely NAILED a Masters Jumpers course on her first run.

Well, that's not quite true. On our first attempt, I mishandled the third obstacle, putting me in the wrong place for jump #4....

But that was just bad handling. Once I got straightened out, it was fabulous Mimi all the way.

When you have that connection with your dog, it feels like you float through those runs. Small errors remain small, correctable. The plan you put together in the walk-through flows just like you thought it would. Mimi and I were running as a team every time we stepped on the field this morning. I videoed all of our runs and watching them brings back all of the excitement and joy I felt.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Let's Play Flyball!

Do not, I repeat, do not get between Harry and the flyball box!

I'm getting ready to head to Austin this weekend. My flyball club is hosting their annual tournament in two weeks and this is our last planning meeting, and for me, the last practice, before show time.

We've got raffle baskets to wrap, judging schedules to finalize, prizes to organize. The entire club plus their spouses, siblings, and children are mobilized. It's a lot of work to host a tournament.

And per usual Dogz Rule! tradition, there will be adult beverages, silly games, tables groaning with food for us and the judges, and lots of fun.

Flyball tournaments, for those of you who have not participated, are as much social events as they are sports competitions. I've been feeling a bit lonely these past few weeks and it will be good to be surrounded by friends and dogs again.

I'd say that easily half of my flyball club has no idea what I do for a living...because it isn't important. What is important is my commitment to the club and to playing flyball with my dogs.

These pics of Harry and Iz were taken in 2005.

(In case you missed them in the comments, be sure to check out the cool posts [here's one and here's another] at Utah Tail Blazers' site.)

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Just A Game We Play With Our Dogs

My thoughts turn to this particular topic often. When my flyball club was going through some growing pains last year, as all sports clubs will do, I kept telling them, remember, flyball is just a game we play with dogs. Meaning, we can strive for perfection and a win every time, and indeed we should have those goals, but we are out there in the ring with dogs. I'm not even suggesting the dogs are the weak link in the chain, but dogs are dogs. We can't expect them to understand division placements and interpersonal squabbling and title points.

It's so easy to lose sight of this. I did agility and flyball with Iz for years and accumulated many ribbons and points and letters after her name. But in the end, it was my pup's joy at being with me, no matter what crazy thing I was asking her to do, that matters. The joy of the moment was simply in being together.

Never lose sight of that. Give all of your furry ones a big hug tonight.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Work is Play and Play is Work, or Training Terriers

With the departure of Ike, the weather has been stunning. Brisk 40s in the mornings, just reaching 80 in the afternoon. The nights are so clear you can read by the full moon. Too bad I'm stuck inside all day but at least my office has windows.

Gracie finally started her agility class on Monday night. I'm taking her to the same instructor that I have for Mimi. Debbie's facility is a large field next to her house. Simple but quite functional. It was the usual first night of a beginners class. Lots of sitting around, going over housekeeping and basic rules of behavior, demonstrating sits, downs, and stays, all of which Gracie does pretty darned well when she isn't sproinging around me like some crazed flea.

To be honest, Mimi does the crazed flea thing too. It's my fault, of course. I encourage them to jump up in the air next to me and they are often rewarded with toys, treats, and attention, so of course they offer ever more spectacular displays in the hope of getting ever more fabulous rewards.

Anyway, I did teach Gracie three new tricks while we were sitting there: tap my hand with her paw, jump over an outstretched leg, or go under and around my bent leg. And I worked on getting faster downs. Oh, and I also started teaching her to spin the other direction.

Dogs are handed just like people. Harry and Mimi turn to the left on the flyball box. Iz turned the same way. Oddly, Gracie prefers the other direction. Which means turning to her left is really hard for her. The first few times I lured her around that way, she corkscrewed herself up so tight she just plopped on the ground. She got better at it with some practice.

Gracie just might outshine her sister in agility. It's a bit early to say for sure but based on our work in the backyard, it's clear that she's got insane drive like Mimi (all that drive comes from the dam) and is wonderfully athletic. Plus, I don't need the super-special bunny fur tug-n-treat for Gracie. No, just offer her a regular fleece tug or a tennis ball and she's having a blast.

So Gracie's class ended at 8:15 and I got home just after 9pm. I was exhausted. Keeping Gracie calm and focused and happy for an hour and a half--after working a full day--was about all I could manage. After I got all the animals fed and had a bit to eat myself, it was well after 10pm. I collapsed into bed only to have the alarm go off at 5am...because Mimi's class is on Tuesday mornings!

And if Gracie is a handful, Mimi is three times that. I was so tired that I didn't do too well in class. For the jumpers sequences, we had box work and a bunch of 270's that required well timed handling. I just wasn't pulling it off today. Mimi could tell that I wasn't fully invested in the game so she was a bit distracted herself. But really, she worked hard for me and it was good Mimi in class for the most part.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Terrier Toy Testing Institute (T3i)

Most dog toys don't survive long in my house. Because I'm a bit of a science nerd, I decided to track this by founding the Terrier Toy Testing Institute or T3i. Every toy is assigned a numerical ranking from 1 to 10. Toys rated a 1 usually don't even last 60 seconds before they are dismembered, disaggregated, desqueaked, and disemboweled. We've even had negative ratings for some toys. Toys rated a 10 may become slightly disabled in a few minutes but generally survive in some recognizable form.

The toy that got me started on this was a gift from my friend Denise, who also has smooth fox terriers and should have known better (joking, DL!). For Christmas one year, she sent the dogs a rope reindeer: he had a small stuffed head with felt antlers, a rope going from the head into a small round stuffed brown plush body, and ropes forming the four legs. It took Harry and Iz less than 30 seconds to pull the head off, pull the stuffing out of the head and body, and chew the felt feet off the ends of the rope legs, which were of course now separate from the rest of it. That reindeer defined a ranking of 1.

As you might guess from the picture below, toys rated 4 and below nonetheless provide quite a bit of pleasure for the dogs, even if it is transitory.

Here's another example. This was a small soft piggy toy (another gift from DL!). It had a plastic disc in it which made oinking noises when it was gently squeezed. Gently squeezed. Harry and Mimi cracked the disc and it was barely squawking in just two play sessions (I removed the disc). They would play fetch with piggy until it was sodden with dog spit. I'd put it on the counter to dry out for a day or two, then put it back into the fray. They've had the toy for a month, but on a whim two nights ago, Harry chewed off both ears and all four feet (the tail had long been pulled off). Deciding that wasn't quite enough damage, he trepanned it and pulled the stuffing out of the top of its head. Piggy, rated a solid 6, and all of his associated parts are now in the trash.

Here is a picture of three of the puppies playing with the sixtopus, who was already a couple of years old in 2005. He had long ago been gutted, blinded in one eye, and had two tentacles removed. Tentacles don't hold up to terrier tug games. Fortunately, tentacles then become toys in their own right, doubling and tripling the fun. Despite the damage, sixtopus pentopus is still with us years after acquisition, and is rated an 8.

Despite their relative fragility, which should result in a ranking of 5 or less, certain toys become beloved favorites of one or more of the dogs. Harry is particularly fond of ducky baby. Ducky baby usually loses his head tuft and bill within a few days to a week, then is slowly but methodically destuffed over the next few weeks. But for months afterwards, if you tell Harry to get his ducky, he will frantically search the house until he finds the grayish-yellow rag that is ducky. I replace ducky every couple of years but he gets rated an 8 as well.

So what toys get rated a 10? Rope and fleece tug toys, of course. And those exceptionally annoying double-squeaking Cuz toys (the Devil Cuz is shown below; Gracie removed his horns and feet). RuffWear also made tug toys once upon a time (they still make plenty of other cool stuff). Their tugs were among Iz's favorites.

Postscript: We were on the west side of Hurricane Ike. It only rained about 2/3" in about 3 hours yesterday between noon and three. Hardly any wind. Stunningly beautiful today with a blue sky and light breeze. My thoughts are with my many friends in Houston.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

An Aside; Not About Dogs

I'm a petroleum geologist. I spent about 16 hours today in the field visiting five of our well sites.

These wells will provide the gas that flows to the power plant that makes the electricity that keeps your homes cool in summer and warm in the winter. These wells will provide the oil that is sent to the refinery and refined into diesel for the truck that brings fresh produce to your local grocery store, turned into synthetic fibers and fabrics that are then used to make clothing and shoes that you are probably wearing now, and of course refined into gasoline for your car.

If you believe that "big oil" is the problem, then may I suggest that you go live naked in the woods and grow or gather all of your own food. Our economy, from top to bottom, is built on petroleum. A mature society should seek to transition their economy to a variety of energy sources. No one source is truly green, no one source is perfectly suited for all applications.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Isadora of Quicksilver 05/05/1999-08/01/2008 (2)

Yesterday Gosia reminded me that I left one dog out of my Cast of K9 Characters. It's so hard for me to even think about Iz that I haven't been able to start writing about her. Every picture brings up both joyous and painful memories. It's been a month since she died and I still can't talk about it--her--without crying. I'm crying now, actually. So I think maybe it's time that I started telling you some stories about my beautiful Iz.

I listed Iz's date of birth as 5/5/1999. That's actually the day that I brought her home. She was seven and a half weeks old, so was actually born in late March, 1999. I was living in Salt Lake City then. May in northern Utah can be capricious but that particular week was sunny with promise of a hot summer.

Within weeks of bringing Harry Houdini into my life back in November of 1998, I knew that he needed a buddy. I decided that a female smooth fox terrier would be just the thing. After the first of the year, I contacted Harry's breeders and asked them if they were going to have another litter. As a matter of fact, they said, one of their bitches was pregnant. She was going to whelp in March. Great, I said, I wanted to get a female puppy if there was one.

I must have called them every other day starting in mid-March. At last the pups were whelped, but still too early to see them. Then they opened their eyes, but still too early. At last they were old enough for me to go see them. There were two females in the litter, all black and white pups out of a B&W sire and B&W dam. The sire was the same dog that sired Harry. He was pretty old by this time, perhaps 12 or so, and the family thought he didn't have it in him to breed again. Nature finds a way, believe me. The dam was actually out of the same dam as Harry but from an earlier breeding. So Harry was the half-brother and the uncle to this newest litter.

I told the guy I was dating at the time that I was just going out to Provo to "look" at the puppies. I wasn't going to bring one home, no, they aren't ready, I'll just have a look. Sure, he said, sure.

So I drive down to Provo.

The floor of the kitchen and dining room was entirely covered with newspaper and a short expen kept the pups out of the carpeted living room. The litter was boiling around this space, fighting and tumbling and grunting and running and jumping--little did I know that fox terriers basically continue this their entire lives. The family pointed out the two females. I watched them for a while, then crouched down and made a soft kissing noise. One of the females came running straight up to me, looked me right in the eye, then turned and ran back to beat the tar out of one of her siblings.

I want that one, I said.

And to Harry's infinite relief (he is not a leader), Iz walked into my backyard that beautiful afternoon in May, 1999, and said, not to worry, I'm in charge now.

Iz, we miss you terribly. You are a song our heart sings.

Monday, September 08, 2008

Cast of Characters (1)

I was all over my post topic for tonight--Gracie was supposed to start agility class tonight which no doubt would have provided all kinds of silliness to report. But class was rained out, so I'll have to go with Plan B: Cast of Circus K9 Characters.

Harry Houdini of Quicksilver

B&W Smooth Fox Terrier
Call Name: Harry
Sex: Male
DOB: August, 1998
Where: Provo, Utah
Lines: Australian and American
Related To: I bought Harry from his breeder. He was Iz's half-brother.
Nicknames: Harry Belly, Boo
Favorite Things: flyball, retrieving a tennis ball, playing tug

Sprucehill Bedazzle
B&W Smooth Fox Terrier
Call Name: Dyna
Sex: Female
DOB: January, 1999
Where: Sprucehill Kennels, Pennsylvania
Lines: American
Related To: Sprucehill Kennel tragically failed and Dyna is a rescue.
Nicknames: Dynabug, Sweet Pea
Favorite Things: chasing the other dogs, being loved

Gavingale Kinda Gold
Tan and White Smooth Fox Terrier
Call Name: Jack
Sex: Male
DOB: April 2001
Where: Gavingale Kennels, England
Lines: British
Related To: I bought Jack from his breeder and brought him over from England myself. Jack is the sire of Mimi and Gracie.
Nicknames: Jackolino
Favorite Things: following (and annoying) Harry, eating grass

Quicksilver Let's Play House
Tan and White Smooth Fox Terrier
Call Name: Mimi
Sex: Female
DOB: September 2005
Where: Austin, Texas
Lines: British and Belgian
Related To: Mimi is Jack's daughter and Gracie's sister. I leased the dam so that litter was my own.
Nicknames: Meems
Favorite Things: giving her sister the stinkeye, humping the cat, retrieving a tennis ball

Quicksilver Love Me Tender
Tan and White Smooth Fox Terrier
Call Name: Gracie
Sex: Female
DOB: September 2005
Where: Austin, Texas
Lines: British and Belgian
Related To: Gracie is Jack's daughter and Mimi's sister. I leased the dam so that litter is my own.
Nicknames: Gracers
Favorite Things: giving her sister the stinkeye, hunting squirrels, retrieving a tennis ball

Sunday, September 07, 2008

Mmm, Cat Poop!

Today I thought I'd make a plug for another product that I absolutely love: the Clevercat top-entry litter box.

With so many dogs and cats, I think about poop a lot. I examine it to judge the status of the contributor's health and I think about ways to dispose of it. And poop is also a perennially favorite dinnertime discussion topic among my dog friends, but then that's dog people for you.

But cat poop takes the discussion to a whole 'nother level. Dogs love cat poop. I don't know any dog worth being called a dog that doesn't try to eat cat poop whenever she can.

People like me with multiple dogs and cats have different ways of dealing with this. By my conscious decision, my cats are not allowed outside. All of the places I've lived in the past 20 years have been populated with a variety of predators that like to eat cats. I love my cats, and would prefer that they not be eaten. But cats are in their turn predators. I don't like the idea of introducing into my local ecosystems predators that I artificially support (with cat food, vet care, shelter, etc.). I put out feeders and water and landscape with native plants to attract birds and other wildlife. It seems a cruel injustice to turn cats loose on that buffet.

My cats have all been rescues, adopted when they were very young, and none seem to miss that devil-may-care, free-wheeling outdoor life, if they ever even experienced such a thing. They have rich lives inside with lots of different places to play and hide and sharpen their claws and things to torture and kill, if only metaphorically. I grow wheat grass for them. They have plenty of sunny windows.

But this brings us back to cat poop. Because cats kept indoors need litter boxes.

After watching my new puppies Harry and Iz gobble up sodden, clayey lumps of cat litter way back in 1999, I said, there has to be a better way. And indeed there is: the top-entry litter box.

Clevercat designed a brilliant product. It's basically a plastic storage bin with a hole cut out of the lid. Because we, the human, can get to the entire box by lifting the lid up and off, cleaning it is a snap.

The brilliance of the design is this: the hole is too small for large dogs to get their head inside and the litter level is too far below the hole for smaller dogs to get to it. The exception would be really tiny dogs who could jump inside the litter box just like a cat. But as long as your dog is even a bit larger than the average house cat, this is the product for you!

I purchased this pair of Clevercat litter boxes almost 10 years ago. Five different cats have used them. And not one of my fox terriers has been able to get in there and indulge.

Saturday, September 06, 2008

Doggy Day Spa

(all that white stuff on the ground is hair...)

Today was grooming day for the fox terriers.

Smooth fox terriers have a short, stiff outer coat and they are supposed to have a soft undercoat as well. Harry and Dyna, my black and whites, have almost no undercoat at all. Jack could double as a yeti--both his outer and undercoats are insanely thick and fluffy. Gracie got her lovely coat from her dam--very nice, very correct. Mimi, Gracie's sister, has some weird, old fashioned, throwback-to-ur-terrier coat. The outer coat is strongly waved, almost like a jheri curl.

The outer coat is dense and the hairs pack together tightly because as working farm and hunting dogs, the breed needed protection from brush and moisture. Because of their tight outer coats, it is extremely difficult to wet the tan and whites to the skin.

Anyway, for fox terriers to look their best, they need regular grooming, something more involved than just a bath or a brush.

All dogs need their nails clipped, their teeth cleaned, and their ears swabbed on a regular basis. I do this every couple of weeks.

But today, in addition to the usual, they all got the doggy day spa special. When you groom a smooth fox, you remove the fur on their butts and necks with electric clippers and thinning shears, you trim off the flaggy hairs from their tails, and you strip their necks and backs. Stripping removes the loose outer hairs and pulls out the undercoat and moves the oils from their skin out along the hair, keeping their skin and coat healthy.

The doggy day spa special takes about half an hour per dog. So I invested almost three hours in grooming my dogs today, including setting up all my equipment, then cleaning it and putting it away afterward. That's nothing, really. I used to show Jack in conformation and it would take about 8 hours over a couple of days to get him ready for the show ring. I used more products on him than I used on myself.

But no longer. These days I go for a basic strip and clip and call it good.

I have all kinds of expensive grooming tools but the most fabulous one of all is the one I acquired after I stopped showing in conformation: the Furminator. This is a stripping knife for Everyman. No show ring snob would be caught dead with one, but it is so easy to use, so incredibly functional. I can pull what seems like a pound of hair off each dog in minutes. And best of all, the dogs just love this thing! A professional stripping knife is extremely sharp and if not pulled through the coat at the correct angle, can cut the coat and even the dog's skin. Instead, the dogs line up at the foot of the grooming table for their turn to be Furminated.

And on a nice day like today, I move the entire affair outside so the dogs lounge around in the sun waiting their turn on the table. It was a wonderful way to spend the afternoon.

Thursday, September 04, 2008

Sleeping With Dogs

I can't remember sleeping alone. Or peeing alone, for that matter, but that's a story for another day. There's been a small cast of human partners sharing the bed stage now and then, but for the most part I've been sleeping with dogs for the past ten years.

Iz always slept with her head on the pillow next to mine. I have terrible insomnia, sleep lightly when I do sleep, and wake frequently. It was always a comfort to open my eyes, turn my head, and see her head next to mine. I could feel her warm body stretched out next to me, and I could smell that special dusty smell on the top of her head that was her smell. But as she became sicker, she needed to pull away and find her own space on the bed at night. I started missing my Iz sleeping next to me long before she actually left us.

Dyna has taken over that prime sleeping spot now. She moves around a lot at night but some part of her is always tucked into the space next to my pillow.

Harry has always slept on the bed with me (except for a few months when he was banished to a crate after he broke Lola's jaw at 3am--yet another story for another time). He continues to mourn the absence of his sister, and ever since Iz died, he has been glued to my side at night. No matter how much I toss and turn, Harry is velcroed to me like a burr. It is a comfort to be able to put my hand out and hug him to me, knowing that he understands, that he doesn't mind my waking him up for just a moment to make sure he is still there, still warm, still right beside me.

I've been crating the puppies from the beginning. Jack's daughters were just too wild to have on the bed at night. And after a while, it seemed reasonable to reduce the dog load and crate Jack at night too. He doesn't mind, really, and has been a very good sport about it.

But now that Iz is gone, the dog load has been reduced too much. Harry and Dyna are always pressed up against me, but with Iz gone, it just hasn't been enough.

So I've been hauling the pups into bed at night, one at a time, just for a couple of hours each. (I call them pups even though they turned three on September 1.) Both seem to understand what I want--they snuggle in right next to me (on the opposite side of me from Harry, of course), throwing off those deep terrier sighs of contentment as they drop off to sleep. Neither moves a hair for as long as I let them stay next to me--I always have to pick them up off the bed, warm and relaxed with sleep, and ease them back into their crates.

I can't imagine ever sleeping alone again. I sleep with dogs.

Tuesday, September 02, 2008

Good Mimi...or Bad Mimi?

As I mentioned earlier, I knew I was going to pick Mimi to be my next agility puppy as soon as she popped out of her dam. Actually, she was going to be my first agility puppy because Iz was about 2 when I started training her, and Jack was more than 3 when I started working with him. I had my heart set on a puppy whose little brain I could mold from the very beginning.

(Mimi at 11 days old)

Little did I know what I was getting into.

(Mimi jumping at her reflection in the steel trash can, 4 weeks old)

Mimi has turned out to be everything I could want in an agility dog. She's fast, drivey, aggressive on the course, structurally sound, and just the tiniest bit crazy. Well, maybe a lot crazy, but she comes by it honestly as her sire is quite a clown. Mimi regularly humps the cat and would kill her sister Gracie in a matter of moments if given the chance. My friend Denise and I laugh about getting "drive at a price" but I think it is more than that. Mimi is a complex little creature, and I suspect the brain-molding has been going in both directions. She has presented me with unexpected challenges and opportunities.

(Mimi [rt] and her brother Elvis on the puppy tippy board, 4 weeks old)

The joke I started in one of her first agility classes is that I never know which Mimi I have: good Mimi...or bad Mimi. You can't tell them apart, you see, at least not at first. Everything looks the same until you ask for a sit at the start, leave her and move forward into position, look at her and give the release....and off she runs at top speed in the opposite direction, often to the far end of the field. That's bad Mimi. Sometimes bad Mimi even shows up in the middle of a sequence--a big swooping arc, jump, jump, ju...oops, there she goes, off to check out the obedience equipment for the third time that morning.

No, it wasn't entirely a stress behavior. That would have been too easy. It simply was Mimi deciding that the far end of the field was more interesting than whatever I was going to have her do.

This behavior was increasing in frequency this spring, and I felt we weren't making any progress. Our instructors Debbie and Linda kept insisting that small steps were happening but I was feeling frustrated. I kept tightening the requirements, asking her to focus on me 100% of the time, and getting less of her attention as a result.

All my dogs are operant, respond to a clicker, and I have free-shaped various behaviours with them. Because I crate them during the day, I've always made the crates a most fabulous place to be, associated with high rewards. I think I'm a good dog trainer, I think I know how to dispense rewards and define criteria for success. But I needed some new ideas.

I purchased Susan Garrett's Crate Games DVD and Leslie McDevitt's book Control Unleashed. Both completely changed the way I see Mimi. Both gave me new tools that I used to build an even more intense relationship with her.

Using the crate as a reward, toy, and training tool drove Mimi into hyperdrive. Not that she lacked drive, not at all, but these games channeled her drive into specific tasks. It taught her to turn the hyperdrive on and off. And that huge rewards (such as her meals) would come when she got enough control over that drive to listen to me. This is something that Crate Games and Control Unleashed have in common although it wasn't obvious to me right away: both of them help you show your dog that being able to control their hyperdrive results in fabulous rewards. Your dog doesn't become more introspective, exactly (she's still a dog, after all), but you can see the little wheels turning as she begins to understand how to put it together.

Control Unleashed showed me how I needed to change my own attitude, how I needed to relax a bit and trust her more. But more importantly, it gave me insight into how to reward Mimi with the things she finds most rewarding, and how to subtly shape her to start finding me and agility more rewarding than just about anything else. I never had to teach Iz this--she thought being with me and doing agility was just about the most perfect thing ever. Iz would tug with anything, any random thing I picked up off the ground. But Iz and Mimi, well, they are very different dogs.

I'm not one to fall for every fad that comes along. I give every training tool a critical review and think, how can this work for me and my dog? Because not all tools and methods work equally well for all dogs. So some of you reading this simply have no need for the training methods McDevitt presents in Control Unleashed. But then again, I don't follow her recipes blindly. I modify them for the moment, for how my dog and I play and train, for our particular training times and spaces. Take a look though--I'll bet you will be surprised to find new things in there.

This morning in class, it was good Mimi. Bad Mimi did try to poke her head up a couple of times, but in the end, my pup's desire to play with me was stronger than whatever she thought might be at the far end of the field. Waving the rabbit fur tug-n-treat about didn't hurt either. (Seriously, if you have a reluctant tugger, this darned thing is fabulous.)

I celebrate Mimi's totally awesome contacts--I enforce a two-on-two-off full stop, nose down. Her entire rear flies up in the air but those front feet stay glued to the ground every time.

I celebrate her totally awesome weave entry--jump to teeter to tire, nearly in a straight line, rear cross on the tire to an offside weave entry almost 180degrees from the tire--and she nailed it!! I was nowhere near that weave entry, I was still behind the tire, and she was perfect.

I celebrate learning how to make my dog happy. I thank her for being patient for so long until I figured it out.

I celebrate playing agility with my pup on a fine late summer morning.

Monday, September 01, 2008

Living in the Moment (1)

I love watching my dogs hang out in the backyard. They've probably nosed over every square inch of it at least twice (it's a big yard) so there's probably no surprises and they feel pretty safe out there. After a frenetic few minutes of racing around, they all find a spot and stretch out in the sun. It doesn't matter if it is 50 degrees or 105 degrees as long as it is sunny. You'd think they were plants.

Sometimes they disperse around the yard according to some weird rule that says they have to be as far from all other dogs as possible. Other times they clump up within inches of each other.

They will sit or stretch out, almost always facing the sun, and stay there until they start panting from the heat. Then, they flop over and start rolling in the grass.

They grunt and huff and look quite silly with their feet flapping around in the air, spotted bellies exposed, mouths hanging open.

This is what living in the moment is all about. It's very simple, really. You can't analyze it or put it aside because you are too busy now. You have to embrace the joy you feel, let it out in a dance or a laugh or a roll in the sun-warmed grass. And that moment is nearly always yours alone. Don't let it slip away.