Saturday, May 23, 2009

Better Living Through Engineering

My new knee brace.

I tore the ACL in my right knee in 2002. I had surgery that winter--my new ACL graft was constructed from my own hamstring. I also damaged the cartilage in the joint in that same fall. In 2006, I had another bad fall that ravaged most of the cartilage in the inside half of my right knee. I saw the photographs the orthopod took--there were fingernail clipping-sized pieces of cartilage floating around in there (that explained the pain and crunchiness). Thankfully, though my graft was damaged it was not torn completely.

I got a knee brace in 2002 and since the fall in 2006 have been wearing it obsessively whenever I expect to put a lot of stress on my knee such as when I do agility or flyball with my dogs. I have also accumulated a collection of lighter braces which I wear when driving or even walking the dogs. For example, I wear a neoprene sleeve when I have a long drive of more than an hour. It keeps my knee warm and compressed and prevents it from stiffening up due to the inactivity.

Despite the excellent surgeries, physical therapy, and desultory exercise work at home, I have been living with nearly constant pain since 2006. On a scale of 1 to 10, it is usually a 3, but it would jump up to 8 or 9 fairly often. After running the girls back to back in class for three hours followed by a 45-minute drive home, I would be unable to walk for several minutes. I would have to hold onto the car as I hobbled around to the back to collect my gear and the dogs. My knee was very stiff and if I tried to put weight on it, it would collapse.

Knee braces are hot. When doing yard work or running around in a dirt-floored horse arena, inevitably sand and other painful grit works its way under the straps and pads and can rub raw patches. Eeep! Get a little sweat into those and it wakes you right up. To keep my brace from slipping, I would have to tighten the straps very tightly, sometimes too tight as I would discover when I removed it. (I have no feeling in the front half of my lower leg because of nerve damage during the two surgeries so I can't tell when the brace is too tight. I have to remember to loosen it every so often to check.) The pads and straps get pretty smelly after a while and have to be removed and washed. All in all, it is a tough compromise: I need the brace to do the things I love doing but it was a bit of a pain to keep after all of the little details.

This had to change. I figured that in 7 years, brace technology must have improved. If nothing else, a new brace would be lighter and hopefully somewhat lower profile.

So I found a local orthopedic group and got an appointment with one of their surgeons. He took some xrays, listened to my tale of woe, and said, I'm going to order you an unloader brace.

Even though there is still fairly reasonable clearance in my joint when I'm standing, I probably do have some bone rubbing on bone during activity, especially on the inside of my knee joint.

The unloader brace is special because it has an extra large pad on the outside of my knee joint with an adjustable tensioner inside it. It pushes my knee joint towards the inside, forcing the inside half to open up more.

The new brace has much more metal than the old one, and more straps, but it weighs about the same because it is made of an aluminum composite rather than straight aluminum like the old one. It is also contoured to fit the shape of my leg better. This is not an unloader brace, but it is the same model as my new one, a Breg Fusion, so you can get the general idea.

New on the left, old on the right. The new brace is asymmetrical as your leg actually is. You can see it is tapered too. The tensioned pad is on the left as you view the brace; it fits on the outside of my knee.

I've now worn the new brace to a flyball tournament and agility class, and amazingly I have even done a tiny bit of running with the dogs during our last two evening walks (I ran about half a mile each time, have to start with small goals). I have done my best to push myself--during that flyball tournament I ran two start dogs, and since Gracie got to run in Mimi's class and it is a very small class, I was running flat out every few minutes with one girl or another.

It is a miracle. No pain. None. No stiffness. No limping.

Some smart engineers and medical folks got together and designed this amazing brace and overnight it has changed my quality of life.

Friday, May 22, 2009

Life With Terriers

A couple of weeks ago, a good friend in Austin discovered her 10-lb JRT bitch guarding this treasure from the BC pack. My cats are bigger than this terrier.

Yes, indeed, the sharp-eyed among you win the prize. That's no tug toy Trixi has in her mouth, it is a Texas coral snake. Just in case you get lazy and don't follow that link, let me quote some choice bits:

New World coral snakes possess the second most potent venom of any North American snake, behind some rattlesnake species. However, few bites are recorded due to their reclusive nature and the fact they generally inhabit sparsely populated areas. When confronted by humans, coral snakes will almost always attempt to flee, and bite only as a last resort.... Coral snakes have a powerful neurotoxin that paralyzes the breathing muscles; mechanical or artificial respiration, along with large doses of antivenom, are often required to save a victim's life.

Kim says that the blood on Trixi's face came from the snake. It's a miracle she wasn't bitten or scratched.

When I lived southwest of Austin a few years ago, I only saw rat snakes on my property. While large and aggressive, they are not poisonous. However, one of my neighbors killed a coral snake which resulted in the amusing scene of half a dozen of us gathered around her trash can for a viewing. Hey, when you live in a rural area, just about anything can provide entertainment.

I salute Trixi, a little dog with the heart of a lion.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Gracie, My Agility Queen (2)

Gracie is still holding tight to the 'Gility Queen title. She got to run again with Mimi's class this morning. That class is a full two levels above Gracie's usual class. But I'm so proud to say that the only thing Gracie really struggled with was a rear cross on a super tight sliced jump.

Well, she didn't actually do all 12 weave poles either. Gracie can do 6 poles in either direction on the first attempt (she is still weaving for her dinner) but I've not yet dragged the other set of 6 poles into my training room. I'll probably do that this weekend. But that's an easy problem to fix and I have no doubt she will be flying through 12 poles in a matter of days. (For you non-agility folks, my reference to "either direction" for the weaves is the result of a slight difference in the weave entry depending on which side the handler is on; the weaves are performed the same every time so the difference is one of perspective, not of performance. The dog must step left between poles 1 and 2. If I am on the dog's left, the dog has to put the first pole between me and her and often has to step away from me to do this. This is sometimes called offside weaves. There is a difference in performance of the weave pole exit depending on which side the handler is on but we'll leave that for another day. Some dogs can do one direction better than the other but this is a fault of training. It is best to train both directions equally. That way the dog learns weave performance independent of handler position. But enough of these technical details.)

Everybody in class complimented me on Gracie's obvious joy as well as how nice her runs were. I was throwing serpentine handling, threadles, 270s, front and rear crosses, even a couple of lead outs at my green girlie and she stayed right there with me for every sequence.

Even with all the fancy handling, Gracie's commitment point for obstacles is still pretty close to said obstacle. This means I can't run Gracie like I run Mimi. I nailed a fabulous rear cross on the weaves with Meems but didn't even try that with Gracie, opting to rear cross the next obstacle, the chute, instead. And Gracie's contacts need work. She really, really wants to do running contacts as part of her natural stride and I'm not sure I want her to even know such things exist. It is quite a luxury to catch up to Meems as she calmly wait on her contacts.

Mimi had some very lovely sequences and we had a clean run in the Standard course that we ran today. (We rarely run full courses in class.) She was even more focused than usual after watching me run Gracie on each exercise, so even though Operation Jealousy has been toned way down, it is still working its mojo on Mimi's brain.

Gracie is a magnificent agility partner and I can't wait to see how she progresses in the next few months.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

More Flyball Than You Can Shake A Stick At

Whew! What a weekend! I never would have thought I'd say this, but there is such a thing as too much flyball fun.

Harry's team raced 8 times both days in a 3 out of 3 format. I really don't like 3/3 racing--you barely get going and suddenly it's over. Plus getting the dogs out and into the lane 8 times each day was simply too much. Too much commotion for the other dogs, too much before race peeing and after race cool down walks.

But my little old man Harry is a real trooper. I usually start him around 45 feet at the first light but because he was running so much this weekend, I moved him up to around 14 feet at the third light. That was easier on him but I couldn't control his starts as well. He was never truly up to top speed on the run down to the box. His times suffered a bit but he held on to 5.2 -5.3 seconds all weekend, even on Sunday. His feet held up well too. Not bad for 10 and a half years old!

He picked up some decent title points. We were furiously calculating and we think he might get his next big title at our club's own tournament in November. That is the Onyx title that comes with 20,000 points. Harry of course would not notice this particular milestone and I hope that he continues to run fast and happy for a few more years to come.

Besides running Harry in start position for our B team, I had the honor of running the start dog for our A team. This was the first time Dogz Rule! has put a team into Division 1. That team was seeded at the bottom of the division and we figured we'd just race as tight as we could and try for clean and fast. Well, we took third place on Saturday and second place on Sunday. Sunday included a personal team best of 17.5 seconds (wow!). We certainly attracted attention by fielding such a strong team that has lots of potential.

I was totally rocking the starts with Marz. He's a big black and white border collie. Big, as in 50 lbs big. He's a flyball maniac but this makes him a pretty easy dog to start. He jumped out of my grip a couple of times but I was able to get pretty consistent starts under 0.02 seconds. Best of all, on Saturday, I got a perfect 0.000 start with Marz! That means I let him go back there at 54 feet and 6 inches and he crossed the line just as the countdown timer hit zero. I've been doing flyball for 9 years and this is my first perfect start.

I told Lauren, Marz' owner, that handling Marz was kind of like handling Harry in his prime. Only Marz is bigger. And furrier. And much faster (Marz usually runs under 4.0 seconds). But it was the same handling experience--gripping this barking, bucking dog who is so excited his fur is nearly standing on end, feeling him become still then tense up and position his feet as my start cadence lets him know it's time to ...GO!

I yell a lot at flyball. I get pretty excited (one of the judges told me I was a "handful"!). We've noticed that several of the other dogs on the teams I run on get pretty excited when I yell too. Kim mentioned that her BC Stella was hopping in the air as I released Marz. But hopping sounds too mild for what was happening. Stella was levitating! We just had to film this. So here's a short video of me releasing Marz with Kim (in the yellow shirt) and Stella in the line up to my right. Notice that Stella does a pre-release hop then the full bore levitation once I let Marz go.

I also took a bunch of video of the general scene. The constant noise and activity, the veritable explosion of equipment, dog crates, tugs, food, and all of the other stuff needed to make flyball fun. It will take some work to turn it into something viewable so I'll post it later this week.

Flyball is generally a pretty clean game with very high levels of sportsmanship. Teams often thank each other for "great racing!" as they are leaving the ring. But at the same time, beyond the fact it is a game we play with our dogs, it is a game of skill and strategy and there aren't many people who do flyball who aren't there for the win. The competition is fierce. But to keep it all in perspective, there's always alcohol.

Alcohol is prohibited at all of the places we hold our tournaments so I'm speaking hypothetically here. But let's say on Sunday around 8:30am, you look across your club's set up (resembling a gypsy encampment) to the next club's area to hear them discussing the availability of jello shots to be followed by a "what the heck" and the opening of the jello shot cooler. Yes, that club brought a cooler especially for their jello shots.

Hypothetically, other beverages are also easily managed. Did you know that if you put red wine in a plastic water bottle it looks just like grape juice? And if that plastic bottle happens to have a soda label on it, Dr. Pepper, say, well that red wine looks exactly like Dr. Pepper. Amazing.

Here's to many more great races with my club, Dogz Rule! Cap, you have some big shoes to fill, little buddy.

Friday, May 15, 2009

Time for Flyball!

Four of the dogs and I are off to a flyball tournament north of Houston this weekend.

No, only Harry is actually competing. I'm dragging the others along to try to save some money at the kennel.

Cap is becoming more and more affectionate, asking for belly rubs and attention fairly regularly now. I've noticed him watching me a lot more too. I got spoiled with my obsessive terriers who openly stare at my every move. I hope to have our relationship to the point where I can begin some flat work with Cap next month. It is a method to teach a young dog what the handler's body movements in agility mean without asking him to do repetitive jumping or any obstacles. He needs to be willing to run with me for flat work to be effective. And for that he needs to find me more exciting than anything else going on.

Some of you might find it odd that I would describe such an apparently social little dog in this way. But Cap was in half a dozen foster homes and while he was by no means abused or mistreated, he was left to his own devices for the most part. While it is in his nature to want to be with his person, he has never had the luxury of time with just one person. Remember, I got him when he was only 14 weeks old. And here he is, 8 1/2 months old, just starting to feel comfortable about coming to me for attention and love and play.

So I think I can truly say everyone is happy and healthy.

And my little old man Harry is really looking forward to a weekend of barking and flyball! He's been watching me pack and won't let me out of his sight.

I probably won't get back to the blog until next week.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Gracie, My Agility Queen

I'm going to start with a very big brag: Gracie earned her third Novice B Jumpers Q on Sunday! This means that she earned her NAJ title in one trial--her first trial at that! That doesn't happen very often. She's going to be quite the serious competitor, I think. I'm now taking wagers on who gets out of Open first, Gracie or Mimi.

I always called Iz my 'gility queen. After this weekend, I am passing that title to Gracie, at least for a little while.

What's even more amazing is that her third Jumpers run came after I had to pull her from her Standard run earlier because she was behaving so oddly, hunched over and refusing to do any obstacles. I took her outside and she had terrible shooting diarrhea. Several times. Ew.

Everyone agreed it was a combination of rich treats, excitement, stress, and a very long three-day trial. Still, Gracie is a real trooper. After she'd had a couple more trips outside, she seemed to be feeling much better. Back to her bouncy, tail wagging self. So I decided to run her in that very last class.

It was a wonderfully glorious run, too. Not pretty (had to fudge the weaves) but I did some fancy handling including two front crosses (yes, in a Novice course!) and she was right there with me. She just sailed through the middle of the course, stretching out and taking the jumps with lovely form.

Mimi and I didn't manage to pull it together on Sunday. The girls were engaging in horrible screaming crate fighting while I was trying to walk the Open Jumpers course so by the time I left the course two times to go up and try to separate and cover their crates, I was in a pretty foul mood. I wasn't able to muster up the happy voice until second half of the course. Since Mimi missed the SECOND jump (my fault entirely) but continued to take the third (so it wasn't a refusal but a wrong course, which is not allowed in Jumpers), the entire run was a wash. I finally did remember to use the happy voice and she just blasted ahead. I don't think I did right by her in that run but I tried.

Something very odd happened during our Open Standard briefing. Standard that day was being judged by the out-of-town judge (it was a two-ring, three-judge trial--had to be with more than 890 runs on Saturday and nearly that many on Sunday). Anyway, after the usual AKC safety review, she said, I want to remind you all of something.

During the Excellent classes, the judge said, a handler sent her dog off course with an incorrect hand movement. Even though the dog performed the rest of the course with no errors, the handler was glaring at the dog and speaking tersely. The judge said she could see the dog crumbling with each obstacle. At the end of the run, the handler gave no praise to the dog, jammed the leash on it, and left the ring clearly angry.

The judge paused, then said, I want you all to remember that many of us would give anything for just one more run...and the entire Open class, about 30 women and a few men, started crying. My first thought was that I would give anything, anything, to be able to run with my Iz again. Then I thought of my friend DSL and her Bullet. We would indeed give anything.

The judge looked around at all of us, and then she started crying too. Wiping tears from her face, she said, oh, I didn't mean to make you cry. Be happy, love your dogs, have a good run.

She was still wiping her eyes as she started off to measure the course yardage, and the entire group of us walked the course sniffing and trying not to be too obvious about wiping our eyes.

I know she didn't mean to make us sad.

And I know that I never, ever want to be that handler.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Mimi and the Happy Voice

I've had a couple of rough days with Mimi. She has been alternating between blowing me off to follow her own agenda and worrying about the Agility Trial Monster. However, this worry about the ATM has not been nearly as extreme as it has in the past. For the most part, her tail has been up and she does have moments of really good connection with me in the ring. But up until our last run of the day yesterday, Open Jumpers starting at 6pm (!), she hadn't been completing courses. It was always something--the weaves, the table, too many refusals, etc. etc.

I was getting frustrated and sat down to chat with Debbie, our instructor. She said, know what you need to do for Mimi's next run? I said, no, what? Beat her with a jump bar? Not run her at all? No, no, Debbie laughed. You need to let her know she is doing a good job. You need to say "Yes" even if all she does is take the right jump. Oh, I said. You mean just give her lots more verbal rewards on the course. Exactly, Debbie said. In your happiest voice ever.

Debbie then proceeded to tell me this hysterical story about a private consultation she did with a couple who had a rescue dog with lots of baggage. Debbie noticed that whenever the man, who was very large and had a large deep voice, said anything to the dog, the dog would flinch. So Debbie told him he needed to speak in a higher register. To talk to the dog, well, like a girl, all happy and squeaky. They all noticed a big difference in the dog right away. Then Debbie noticed that when the man ran with the dog, the dog was also flinching and shying away. The man ran with large pounding footsteps. Um, Debbie said, you also are going to have to try to run like a girl too. It was a good thing it was a private lession, she said, because otherwise the guy may never have gone along with this. But he did try it--talking like a girl and running like a girl. And the dog just opened up to him immediately. I was howling the entire time she was telling this story.

Well, I've been practicing that happy voice a lot. Cap totally shuts down when I use the terrier voice on him. I have to be all happy and squeaky no matter what and he complies with my requests right away. Use the terrier voice and he just stands there and looks at me. So I can do the happy voice.

Okay, I said, happy voice, say Yes, let her know she is doing a good job. I'll give it a try.

Well, the attached video shows the result. You can hear me squeaking and Yes-ing the entire time. Debbie was filming and you can hear her commentary as we run, which doubles the fun, I think.

Look at her at the beginning. Mimi has NEVER been that happy at the start of a run. And watch Mimi's weaves carefully. About halfway through, I say, yes, good girl, and she SPEEDS UP!

That off course was totally my fault. I was so wrapped up in trying to keep my eye on her and to remember to praise her that I got turned around on the course and turned too tight after that one jump and pulled her over the dummy jump instead of sending her to the weaves. But I kept going and I'm not sure Mimi even knew it was a mistake.

So no Q but I'd have to say that run was more like the runs we have in class than anything we've ever done in the ring together. Still not as fast as class but by golly we are having a good time!

Friday, May 08, 2009


Rest in peace, our little friend. You will be missed.

Gracie's First Agility Trial

Gracie went to her first agility trial today, an AKC trial in Ft. Worth. As you can see, she didn't Q in Standard because she wouldn't do a down on the table. But her contacts and weaves were just great! That little dance around the tire at the beginning got her a refusal but that by no means was the end of her run.

In Jumpers a short while later, she did earn her first Q!

Gracie has been weaving for her dinner for 8 or 9 days now, and everything started to come together for her around Tuesday. So the fact that she did her itty bitty 6 poles in each run the first time with no errors was a pretty big deal.

Mimi was at this trial too and I'll post about her runs later.

Thursday, May 07, 2009

T3i Product Review: A Perfect 10

This is a first, folks. T3i has never before awarded a perfect 10 to any manufactured dog toy.

I was in Petsmart to get some cat litter and while wandering down the toy aisle, I came across the Megalast Megaball. Hmm. It had no squeaker to annoy, no feet or other appendages to chew off. Seemed to be soft (Cap likes chewy rubber toys). Smelled nice. It was round and clearly would be bouncy. Perfect size, about 3" in diameter. Heavy, so hopefully it would last more than 10 minutes.

It's a total hit. It has survived six solid hours of constant, hard chewing and tugging with nary a dent, tear, or scratch. Jack, Cap, and the girls go crazy trying to steal it from each other!

What a find for my pack.

Saturday, May 02, 2009

Learning About Cap (2)

It's been pouring here for hours. By 2pm, it was so dark outside that I had to turn on lights in the house to keep from tripping over the dogs.

Dyna and Mimi both are extremely upset by thunder. And rainstorms up here are always thunderstorms. They've also learned that big thunder is preceded by a big flash of lightening. You can see them duck and shiver and pant in anticipation of the boom to follow. Pottying outside? Forget that idea. They won't even step foot outside much less go pee.

One time I did an experiment with Mimi, though. It had stopped thundering and was just raining heavily. Still, she wouldn't go outside to potty. So I grabbed a tennis ball, one of the most treasured items in her universe, and tossed it way out in the the yard. Yep, you guessed it. She went streaking out into the yard to get the ball, brought it back to me wanting me to throw it again. In the pouring rain. She did end up pottying that time.

Cap has a similar weakness. I joke about the terriers being obsessive, and indeed they are. But Cap takes obsessive behaviors to new levels. I mentioned in the previous post how he prefers hard rubber toys. That's hardly the way to describe it.

He is almost never without a toy in his mouth. He becomes frantic if he can't find his current toy, racing around the house making this odd huffing noise until he finds it. Cap will literally bowl the terriers over in his frenzied search for his toy. He's got a great memory and checks first in the place he last left it.

Just to fuck with him, on a few occasions I picked the toy up before letting him out of his crate in the morning. I gave in pretty quickly because I thought he was going to have a breakdown.

He takes his toy outside too. I used to make him drop it at the door but that wasn't enough. I would have to bend over and pick it up and HIDE IT because if he thinks it is in my hand, he stands staring at me. And he won't simply leave it on the ground and go outside.

God forbid he drops his toy outside and comes in without it. When he realizes it isn't in the house (after the usual frantic search) he will throw himself at the door trying to get back to it.

Several of my terriers guard. Their obsessive behavior in this case consists of preventing any other creature from getting access to that resource. But they aren't really that wound up about that particular resource for what it is. It only represents something they have and the other terriers don't.

In contrast, Cap is happy to share his toy--all the better to play tug and chase games with the girls trying to get it back. He shows no guarding behavior at all.

I'm very lucky that he is quite happy to transfer his obsession to a succession of Cuz toys since none last more than a few weeks.

He has no preference for color but prefers smooth rubber and roundish shapes, which all the Cuz variations have in common. A squeaker is good but I've actually killed them long before he does because Cuz squeakers are LOUD and he will squeak the thing for HOURS!

Friday, May 01, 2009

Catching Up (2)

I'm usually quite a pragmatist about the weather. Whatever it is doing, hot or cold, sunny or cloudy, I think it is all good. It is part of having an atmosphere surrounding our little blue ball, and that is a pretty good thing too.

But it's been cloudy, grey, and raining for what seems like days and endless days up here in north Texas. We've got more storms moving in tonight and again Saturday night. My yard is a bog. Even the dogs squish with every step.

At this point, I'm getting a wee bit tired of rain.

But, back to Circus K9! I was looking through my pictures tonight and realized that I have taken some really nice ones in the past few months that aren't making it to the blog. So here we go.

The first is of Harry taken in mid-January, 2009. He was not feeling well at all. His toenails were in horrible shape and he could barely walk. I pulled him from our January flyball tournament at the last minute. In this photo, he is napping in a sunny spot in my office--dogs that are feeling a bit punky get go to work with me. They think it is special and I can keep an eye on them.

But this next photo was taken a couple of weeks ago. It's the bottom of one of Harry's paws. What's the big deal about that, you ask? Well, his condition, alopecia areata, also resulted in hair loss from his ears and nose. The cyclosporine, an immune system suppresant, keeps his body from attacking his toenail-growing cells. But it affects hair-growing cells too. Harry is growing rugs of hair on the bottom of his feet. Some breeds do this normally but fox terriers don't usually have that much hair on the bottom of their feet. And his ears are covered with downy fuzz! But best of all, he has about 6-7 mm of new nail growth on every one of his toes. The dermatologist was extremely pleased with Harry's progress!

Here's a picture of Bhumi napping in the box of dog toys which is up on a bookshelf in the dog room. I had to put all of the dog toys away because Cap is insanely destructive. He is like some Tasmanian devil dervish--he can chew his way through toys in minutes, leaving a few shreds as evidence. Unlike the terriers, he swallows most of his demolition work. Cap only gets one toy at a time now, and it has to be at least an 8 on the T3i scale. Plus, if those weren't enough restrictions, he prefers rubber toys. So mostly all he gets are one variation or another of the Cuz toys. Great toys, but with the master dervish destroyer, one will last perhaps two weeks if we are lucky.

Here's a picture of Cap looking distinctly non-devilish. He's 15 1/2" at the shoulders and 18.2 lbs at 8 months. I took him to class with Mimi and Gracie this week to start some socialization. Opinions were mixed as to what I should try to ILP him as--BC or Aussie--but there was general agreement that it would probably not be successful. He's just too small to be a proper BC (at least from the perspective of the ILP process) and there is that troublesome issue of no tail.

Lola and Bix often hang out together. Here's a picture of them relaxing in the sun on their Cheengoo cat lounger. I switched them all to Felidae senior cat food. Now into their second bag, Lola is at last losing some weight.

It is of course too wet to play in the yard tonight so instead I did weave work with Gracie, introduced Cap to the tippy board, and played ball with Mimi. It was a special transparent red rubber ball with LED lights that come on when you smack the ball against something. Harry wouldn't touch it but Mimi just loved it. Here are some fun pics of her. She reminds me of a B-movie monster!

Woo Hoo!

You know you are something special when your club's FIRST trial gets a write up on the AKC website.

Many wags of the tail to you and your club members, DSL!