Thursday, October 30, 2008

The Incident (A Tale for Halloween)

The Incident occurred on July 27, 2005. It involved Jack and Jen. Jen was the bitch I had leased to breed to Jack. She was three weeks pregnant at the time of The Incident.

Jack and Jen were a lovely pair of fox terriers and I think I'll save the story of their relationship for other posts. Let me just say that they got along extremely well. So well, in fact, that I kept them together in an expen in the kitchen when I went to work. The black and whites were crated in another room.

I came home from a long day at work on July 27, 2005, to be greeted at the door by a strong smell of blood and Jack and Jen running loose in the house, covered from head to toe in blood.

I panicked.

But the real hysteria didn't start until I walked into the dog room off the front entry to find this:

Lola sniffing the blood on the wall. There were two more crates
on the left that I removed to take the photo. This pic was taken
later that night as I faced the clean up job.

A nice gory close-up.

I had just brought a new kitten, Lola, into the house and my first thought was that they killed her. There was no fur in all that blood but there were certainly paw smears arcing across the wall. In a tearful frenzy, I put Jack and Jen outside--even though they were covered in blood they weren't covered in fresh blood and I figured I had a few minutes--and started looking for the cats. I found Bix. I found Bhumi. But I couldn't find Lola anywhere. I called my friend Gosia and left her a horribly garbled hysterical message. I called my vet--it was only minutes before they were to close for the day and I lived half an hour from their office. They said they would wait.

Finally Lola ambled out of some hidey hole, blinking from being woken from her nap. I made sure the black and whites were more or less okay (no obvious wounds), shoved Jack and Jen into the crates in the car, and zoomed off to my vet. Gosia called when I was on the way. Action had cleared my head a bit and I was able to talk to her all the way there. I doubt I was rational but at least I wasn't sobbing hysterically. I had a plan: get to the vet. After that? I took a deep breath. I would figure it out.

When I pulled up to the vet office, a swarm of techs rushed out the door, threw open my car doors, grabbed both dogs, and whisked them inside before I had even gotten out myself.

About an hour later, I brought these two sad dogs back home:

Jack on the left, Jen on the right being sniffed by Dyna

What happened that day? We know that nearly all of that blood came from Jack, mostly from his left ear, which Jen just shredded (most of his ear is scar tissue now and the tip is missing). He also had a nasty puncture bite on his paw. She had a bite to one ear but was otherwise unscathed. Over the next few days, I found blood in every room of the house, on walls, on furniture, on the carpet. I can only guess that I didn't latch the expen, they were running around the house loose and something set them off--Jack being hapless as usual, a squirrel running across the yard--and they started fighting.

When I got home, I discovered that all of the black and whites had bleeding gums and lips from biting at their wire crates as Jen did her little smackdown on Jack just inches away.

The carpet was never the same.

What did I learn from The Incident?

1. Jack and Jen needed to be crated like everybody else. Separately. And the latches double checked. (That is a habit that I still maintain today for all of my dogs.)

2. Do not, repeat, do not mess with the pregnant bitches. They will kick your ass.

3. Fox terriers are tough little buggers.

4. The pictures of the bloody walls still make me queasy but I can laugh about this now. So even as bad as things were that afternoon, they did get better.

A very chastened Jack.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

The Red Bed

A couple of weeks before Iz died, a friend from work gave me a special bed for her. Iz was too sick to be able to spend much time in it. She had to lay on her side and couldn't curl up anymore. But I left it on the couch anyway.

It's a simple fleece bed, round, with a bolster all around the edge. The bolster is patterned in beige, red, and brown stripes.

For some reason, almost every animal in the house just loves this bed. I started taking what I call the "Red Bed" series of photos of the ever changing occupants of the bed.

You'll notice Bhumi and Gracie are absent from these photos. Gracie prefers the back of the couch and Bhumi rarely joins groups. If he uses the bed, it is during the day when the dogs are crated and I'm not there.

And yes, those are candy-cane striped fleece blankets. Terrier-sized blankets, in fact. A gift from my mother last year for Christmas. She sent one for each dog. I let Iz take one with her. My dogs are quite tough but they do like their creature comforts, one of which is being covered up at night when the weather turns cool.

There's always room for one more on the Red Bed!

Friday, October 24, 2008

Training Terriers: Play is Work and Work is Play

Those of you who get Clean Run magazine have seen the articles about training "Pigs Fly" dogs. I like those articles because they present a perspective that is not so border collie-centric. Not knocking BCs, mind you. Some of my best friends are BCs.

But not all dogs come with the same hardware and software as a border collie and a training program that is perfect for that breed is not always the right fit for another dog. Sometimes a creative approach--and a lot of patience--is needed to get some dogs to excel at agility. My smooth fox terriers are a type of "Pigs Fly" dog--they have drive and enthusiasm in abundance and are perfectly willing to do things over and over again. They are happily motivated by food and toys. But my fox terriers do present certain interesting training challenges.

Both Mimi and Gracie are relatively unencumbered by gravity and put a tremendous amount of effort into boinging up beside me as often as possible. They are quite savvy about this too, boinging just so they brush me but not actually boing into me. They tend to boing often when they get excited. This makes it hard to accomplish training tasks like getting them to sit at the start line or go over the jump in front of them.

This is a little video I made of Gracie working on her contact board and the slanted weave poles this afternoon. She actually did make progress but you can see there is lots of boinging and dithering and excitement that competes with learning.

But, in the end, for my dogs, play is work and work is play. So if they aren't behaving like crazed white fleas, then they aren't having a good time. That's what it's all about.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Four Short Stories

1. Organic Gardening
Five of these giant mushroom colonies grew up around my seedless mulberry. I pulled them all up and put them in my compost bin.

2. Co-lateral Squirrel Damage
I live in a fairly densely wooded area. Most of the trees are 20+ years old and support a prolific squirrel population. I also keep a bird feeder, a Squirrel Buster, which I can say truly does work as advertised, but the birds are picky and thus messy and the squirrels (and the doves and other ground feeders) eat the seeds that get tossed onto the ground. I'd have squirrels running around anyway, but the free food does tend to attract them. Imagine my horror last weekend when I discovered a piece of siding that had been either pulled out or that had fallen from under one of my roof eaves. It could only mean squirrels were now romping and procreating in my attic! Oh my god. I called a wildlife removal service that offers humane solutions, not traps or poisons. Two guys showed up this morning, one a new trainee. They poked around my roof for a while, then asked to get into the attic. The primary access is from the garage. The trainee proceeded to step off the staircase right through the ceiling of my garage.

At least it was the garage and not the living room or my bedroom so clean up was easy. This is a fixable problem and I didn't get terribly wound up about it. And thankfully, there was no evidence that squirrels, or god forbid, raccoons et al., had taken up residence inside my attic. The hole under the eave is now fixed. The hole in my garage ceiling will be fixed in a couple of days (paid for of course by the wildlife removal company).

3. Who Needs Throw Pillows?
I don't have cable or satellite TV. I don't watch enough TV to justify the expense. But I do watch TV sometimes. And when I sit down on the couch, I am immediately surrounded by dogs and cats all vying for the prime position of my lap. As a result, none of them actually get to sit in my lap. So Gracie and Lola have come up with the best compromise by taking spots on the back of the couch. Lola tucks in behind my neck (a warm, furry, purring pillow) and Gracie likes to drape her front paws and head over my shoulder.

4. Amazing Gracie
In class on Monday night, Gracie got introduced to an Aframe contact. Debbie is having us backchain contact performance. That is, they didn't do the entire Aframe, only the last few feet of it. We either lifted them up and put them on the down side of the Aframe or we lured them up. There was a target on the ground at the bottom of the contact. Because my own Aframe is currently being rehabbed (details to come), I've only worked Gracie at home on a 12" wide plank on the ground. So she'd not seen a slanted contact before. She happily jumped up on it, turned around, and raced down to the target, dropping into the most beautiful down with her front paws on the target, lined up perfectly straight on the obstacle, and repeatedly offered a nose touch for multiple click/treats. I released her with my command "okay!" and she came running off towards me. I turned and stepped into her with the intent of slipping her collar/leash back on, but I've been doing a lot of flat work with her and she interpreted my movement differently. She turned when I turned, ran back up the contact, spun around, ran to the bottom, and dropped into a down, paws on the target. It happened so quickly that I could hardly get treats out fast enough. How can I characterize this sort of learning? It happened in a single session. Gracie is apparently just as scary smart as her sister Mimi but WAAAAY more focused on me from the outset.

So tonight, I decided to test what she actually did learn. I propped one end of my 12" wide training plank up--a terribly shaky set up to be sure. Nothing was tied down or particularly solid. This plank is a 1/2" by 12" board that I nailed some slats to and then painted with primer and sand. Nothing fancy. But it's a versatile training tool to work contacts.

Gracie wasn't sure that a wobbly 12" board was at all the same as a nice, wide, stable Aframe. So I lured her up the board twice, then had her turn on the board--make a 180degree turn on that 12" wide wobbly board, not a trivial move by any means--and when she saw the target on the ground at the end, she SHOT to the end of the board and dropped into a down, paws on the target. Amazing. I didn't get any pics of her on the board but here's my little set up.

I'm going to have to get a personal exercise trainer to keep up with these sisters if they both proceed to make all this potential the real deal.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Flyball with Dogz Rule!

Dogz Rule! hosted our annual tournament a couple of weeks ago. Our folks manned the score table for most of weekend (thanks to Sena and Cameron and Philip) and we also fielded three teams, all in Regular divisions. Three of our newbie dogs got titles (kudos to Duncan, Sisko, and Ryp). We gave out these super cool flyball-themed calendars as awards (big pat on the back to Sandra for designing and printing them). All in all, it was a fun weekend and a well run tournament.

I had helpers shoot a lot of video over the weekend (Ben did a lot of it)--so much video that the raw video files fill six CD's. Here's a little taste with clips from each of the three teams, plus some miscellaneous people shots at the end (flyball takes a LOT of people if you want to do it right). I also included a gratuitous clip of my sending Harry to a false start. Hey, it's my blog so I can include extra bits on my own dog if I want to.

Friday, October 17, 2008

Paean to My Petsitters

I've mentioned before what great petsitters I have. When I am going to be gone for hours at a time, or even for days at a time, I can depend on them to take care of my little menagerie. They bring in my mail, drag my trashcan in from the street, and leave me these hysterically funny notes describing in great detail what each animal did during each visit. It's enlightening to read someone else's perspective on behaviors that I sometimes take for granted.

I remain miffed that the cats greet Tina at the door. I come in the house each day to find them waiting by their food bowls, not interested in greeting me but only in what I might feed them.

Because Gracie and Mimi want to kill each other, letting the dogs out for something as simple as a potty break becomes this complex exercise in dog management. But Tina never wavers, always following my instructions to the letter. And Danielle, who only has to deal with the pack every so often, has it under control as well.

I'm paying for a specific service but there are complicated undercurrents of value associated with it. Sure, my dogs get a break from their crates, get some fresh air and sunshine and a chance to potty if they need it. That's a tangible benefit. But I'm also getting peace of mind that they are being cared for with the same attention that I would give them.

Here's to my great petsitters!

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Food Bowl Scrum (Puppy Star)

Oct 17, 2005 (age 7 weeks)
From 12 o'clock, it's Viva, Tupelo, Gracie, Elvis, and Mimi.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Things to Celebrate

Mimi got two double-Qs this weekend.

We got multiple refusals in every run and had to make multiple weave pole attempts, all of which are allowed in the AKC Novice class. But in between those moments of frantic scrambling to get me and my silly pup back into the right place without her backjumping anything (thank god we aren't judged for style points), there were supreme moments of brilliance.

I'm happy there are agility trials that are close to my house (total RT for this one each day: 2 hrs, 30 minutes). I'm happy that some of them are nice little intimate trials filled with friendly dog people. I'm happy that Mimi stuck with me in the ring--not because she was coerced or intimidated into doing so but because she wanted to (she stayed so close to me that we collided in our Standard run today). I'm happy that I live alone so that when I crawl into bed with my legs and feet still sandy from the ring and pull my hard-working little pup up beside me, nobody's going to complain about the sand in the sheets. I'm happy that she seems to be having a good time. I'm happy that one of the judges told me she really enjoyed watching me run Mimi because Mimi was so enthusiastic in the ring (I had judges say the same thing about Iz). I'm happy that I have plenty of things to work on with Mimi before our next trial in a month. I'm really happy that I could reward Mimi so thoroughly (we went through FOUR cans of vienna sausages this weekend; I can probably cut back on the volume now, don't you think?). I'm happy that Mimi's start line stays and contacts are solid even under pressure.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

It's all about the jackpots...

yeah, that's a green Q ribbon and a placement rosette...

So today was Mimi's third day in the competition ring--the first day of her second trial. It was an AKC trial held in a working county exhibition barn/arena. And I do mean working. There was a pig sale being held in the next building for most of the afternoon! A few of the pig farmers came over in the afternoon to watch us crazy agility folks play with our dogs.

The dirt-floored building could be entirely closed in but because of the beautiful fall weather, doors and gates were open all over the place. I have to admit that I was really worried about Mimi running off. There were so many places for her to get out of the ring and the building...and then it would be off into rural Collin County to parts unknown or pig farms unmapped. Because of my nerves, I acted like the greenest novice handler ever. I stationed food bags stuffed with vienna sausages at both the entrance and exit to the ring (they were on opposites sides of the arena right by large open doorways) and I also placed toys that made noise along with the treats...just in case I had to do some panicked chasing down of my truant dog.

Every time I took her for a walk during the day, I let her walk for several minutes, then I did focus games all the way back to the crate, playing "get it" and tug with her fur tug-n-treat, playing familiar crate games, doing lots of "follow me" groundwork games, and so forth.

I posted a few days ago about how much more connected I have been feeling with Mimi. This gave me confidence to walk the first course, Jumpers, from start to finish. I made two Plan Bs, finding places that I could call her to me if she was getting the zoomies or looked out of control. But I walked the entire course and made my plan as if. As if we were going to do the entire thing. I really had no idea what to expect but I knew that the course offered her the chance to at least do four obstacles before a potential meltdown. That's what I was aiming for.

I warmed her up on the practice jump and then did lots of calmer focus work while we waited in the gate area. I had a feeling that things might be different than our first trial two months ago. She rarely sniffed the ground. Her eyes never left me as she watched me to see what I was going to have her do next. She hardly even gave an eye flick to the other dogs in the gate area. After what seemed like forever, it was at last our turn.
Warning: Even though I saved these videos at a low resolution, they are still about 6 mb's each. Try downloading them during slow traffic times.

Mimi is still not feeling fully confident in these new places. You can see from the video that she is jumping with a high, rounded arc--this is quite inefficient but since I know from class that she flattens her jumps out when she is sure of herself, I believe that her jumping like this is a function of her not being sure of the arena space. Plus, she pulled off obstacles when I moved laterally too fast--in class she would have been committed to the obstacle in front of her much sooner, but in that arena today, she wasn't quite sure of things so she decided to stick with me no matter what.

But that is the most exciting thing about our two runs today. We had refusals in both runs because I pulled her off jumps by not realizing she needed a bit more support closer to the obstacles. But she pulled IN TO ME every time. She ran both courses, every obstacle, in order, and entered the ring by my side and left the ring in my arms! She didn't get the zoomies, she didn't run along sniffing the ground. She had beeeyootiful start line stays.

In fact, she got her first qualifying run in Jumpers! And she placed second in the Novice B 16" class!

Quite a few people who saw us run in August came up afterwards and complimented me on her performance in Jumpers. One guy who runs a smooth fox bitch himself told me, "you've got a real winner there." I agree. But of course I thanked them. How cool that they watched us and actually noticed what a great run we had today.

Her contacts were spot on perfect in her Standard run. Conveniently, all of the contact obstacles were clustered in the middle of the course so I clipped out a bit of video to brag a little about her totally awesome contacts!! Believe me, after struggling with Iz for years to get even a toenail in the yellow, Mimi's performance on the contacts just sends me to the moon.

And after watching the video of her Standard run, I believe that she might have qualified there too. Because I didn't stick around to the end of the class, I'll find out the results in the morning.

But that's okay. Tomorrow's another day. I exhausted her little brain today and she's hardly roused herself since we got home except to eat dinner. Tomorrow's another day for me to explore this wonderful relationship I'm building with my crazy, fabulous little terrier.

Thursday, October 09, 2008

Me, an optimist? With Mimi, I am!

Mimi has her second agility trial this weekend. It's an AKC trial in McKinney, north of Dallas. I'm trying not to feel nervous. I know that she has the skills to nail any novice course out there (she ran that USDAA Masters Jumpers course in 28 seconds during class last month). But will she have the focus? Will the trial setting overwhelm her again? Will I be able to run a full course with her? How much should I realistically expect? How can I tell if it's good Mimi or bad Mimi walking into the ring at my side?

I'm taking the optimistic, half-glass-full approach. Not only do we have a trial this weekend, we have a 3-day trial in November, and two 3-day trials in December. What was I thinking?

One of the December trials is with USDAA. I entered Mimi in every game except Pairs. I couldn't be sure she'd be ready and I sure didn't want to let another competitor down. Still, that's four runs a day. And the November AKC trial includes FAST (FAST is an acronym for some really stupid name made up by AKC but let's just call it the AKC gamble game). We're going to have more than 25 opportunities between this weekend and mid-December to make our partnership work in the ring.

To be honest, I don't think I could have written any of those things three years ago. With Iz, I thought only about winning. I learned almost too late that winning is not the only prize. I am ashamed that I sometimes left the ring disappointed in my dog. That is never ever going to happen with Mimi.

Happy Iz in September 2004

**After reading Gosia's comment, I realized that I may have left you all with the impression that Iz wasn't a winner. Iz was a most wonderful agility teammate for five years. She always gave 110% and she always ran with a smile on her face. If I was disappointed for not winning, then I failedto appreciate that my little terrier was always trying her very best. I failed Iz by not telling her after every run, no matter what the outcome, what a great thing it was that we just did. Thinking that the only measure of success was a qualifying run meant that I missed all those opportunities to celebrate a fabulously tough weave entry or a perfect dogwalk contact or one of those runs where it all becomes effortless. Iz kept trying her very best despite my thoughtlessness. So when I say that won't happen with Mimi, I mean that I won't miss those opportunities for celebration.

We didn't have class this week because of several big thunderstorms that came through north Texas on Sunday and Monday (I recorded an inch of rain in 36 hours), so I worked Mimi on short sequences that I set up in the training yard on Tuesday night and again tonight. I wanted to reinforce good strong 2on2off contacts and work through some of my nervousness about this weekend. Work is play, play is work. The transition between play and training is now seamless for Mimi and I want to reinforce that often.

I had set up some jumps to build speed to the Aframe approach and Mimi was rocketing forward when out of the corner of my eye I thought she stumbled as she was climbing the Aframe. To my horror, I discovered later when I was putting my equipment away that she did not stumble--she PUT HER FOOT COMPLETELY THROUGH THE ROTTEN WOOD. No injuries, not even a scratch on Meems. But I think next weekend I'll be doing some equipment maintenance!

Wednesday, October 08, 2008

Monday, October 06, 2008

Gracie Meets Tippy Board

Whew. We are all back at home after a long weekend. Gracie's class was canceled tonight because of rain (monstrous thunderstorms, actually, but we need the rain so no complaints here). And Mimi's class is canceled in the morning. Instead of working with them inside tonight, I felt a little lazy after a busy day at work so I finished putting away my flyball and travel gear then made a round of nice dinners for everyone. I'll fall into bed early and try to catch up on my sleep.

Fortunately I anticipated this and made a video last weekend of Gracie's introduction to the tippy board.

For those of you who don't do agility, the tippy board is an extraordinarily simple, versatile piece of training equipment. I cut four 1"x1" slats and nailed them in a box shape in the middle of an approximately 28"x28" piece of scrap plywood. I want the board to be big enough for the dog to get all four feet on. So the plywood has to be relatively strong, although I think I used 1/4"--I do have small dogs after all. The box on the bottom is just large enough to fit a regulation softball into--this is what make the tippy board tippy. Best of all, since I want the thing to move and pivot, it doesn't matter if the box isn't perfectly centered on the board! I painted the top of the plywood with paint mixed with clean sand, then painted it again with plain paint. This gives the top of the tippy board the same look and feel as most of the contact obstacles a dog will see in agility.

You can use a tippy board to teach balance, rear end awareness, even for physical therapy after surgery or injury. It is most often used to introduce the dog to the concept of getting on and off a moving board, that is, it is like the teeter obstacle in agility. I always train the tippy board on a hard surface (porch, garage, or in this case, my newly decarpeted front room--I'm planning a tiling project this winter) so that just like many teeters, it makes a loud bang when the dog gets on it quickly.

When I was training Mimi, I could send her to the tippy board from more than 20 feet away, and she would run at top speed, throw herself on it to make the loudest sound possible, then fling herself off and run back to me at top speed. I never trained her on a teeter at a lowered height or put stuff under the teeter to check its fall. She went straight from exhuberant tippy board to exhuberant full-height teeter. Since she loved the tippy board game so much, I gave it a command "hit it!" which is now her command for the teeter.

Nature versus nurture. Will Gracie learn the teeter the same way and as quickly? I absolutely love watching her try to figure out what I want her to do. I'm staring at the board, thinking about my criteria and waiting for her to touch it, clicker in one hand and turkey hot dog bits in the other. She offers me a few of the old tried-and-trues at first: sits, downs. You can see in the video that I do lure her onto the board. But I did three sessions on the tippy board with her, separating each with a few minutes of a completely different exercise. Each time she gets more confident. You can see the wheels in her little brain whirring faster and faster--along with her tail!

Thursday, October 02, 2008

Off to Flyball

I'm packing up to head to Austin for a flyball tournament. My club, Dogz Rule!, is hosting it so I'm heading out early to help set up everything tomorrow.

I've been thinking about Iz this week. I'm posting pictures of her running in her next-to-last flyball tournament in July 2007. She collapsed in November 2007 with auto-immune hemolytic anemia. This was the first of a series of horrible auto-immune diseases and syndromes and complexes that she developed in the subsequent months. She fought as hard as she could but by the end of July, her own body betrayed her.

These pictures are from a much happier time. This is how I want to remember my wonderful Iz.

Wednesday, October 01, 2008

Mimi's Epiphany

Class with Mimi the last two weeks has felt different. I've been thinking about why this would be so for several days and I am going to take a stab at trying to explain it.

When you train a green dog, a dog like Gracie for example, you have to "reset" the dog often when you do a specific task or exercise. For example, on Sunday I introduced Gracie to a plank with a target at the end (a setup to help her learn contacts). I had to realign her to my side before every attempt at the behavior. The realignment itself is its own task--I still click and reward her for moving into heel position and sitting by my side facing the same direction I am facing. So we can't do multiple attempts at moving down the plank and touching the target. Each try at that task is interrupted by the other task of realigning her position--the reset for the actual exercise of moving down the plank. Dogs of course can easily learn several different tasks at one time as long as you are clear on your criteria for performance and reward for each. Performance and reward can be rapid but each task is very short in duration, separated by other short tasks. Lots of resets.

I realized today that I have not been "resetting" Mimi. I can repeat sections of a longer course within the same course flow if I make a mistake, giving me a chance to learn the correct handling in the right context (at speed, correct dog and handler positions, etc.). I can reward her contacts while we are running a course and then continue on to complete the course. These sorts of things used to be "resets" for Mimi, separating what went before and after into completely different events.

I believe that Mimi now understands the concept of the course. This is a huge leap in learning for her and I think it happened in the past few weeks and I'm just now seeing it. More importantly, she trusts me to tell her what she needs to do. She expects me to give her direction and is completely willing to follow my directions once issued. That is an even larger leap in her understanding of the game. It means that Mimi and I run as a team. Not just handler and dog running around a course, but equal partners in the adventure, each contributing to the outcome.

It is so difficult to explain the connection between us but it is as much emotional as it is physical. I turn my shoulders, she turns. I tell her "hit it!" and she drives to the end of the teeter and slams it down--even as I am moving to another position. I drop my arm, she pulls in to me. I am giving fewer verbal commands because I just don't need them. Mimi and I now have shared goals--completing the course at my direction and at her speed (remember that sports car with no brakes metaphor--it still applies!). What an exhilarating feeling to be connected to my pup like this!