Sunday, June 25, 2017

Archie and The Purgatory of Open

Open is what AKC calls the intermediate agility level. As a friend remarked to me, Open courses aren't really designed, they are what is left over after you take away an obstacle or two from the Excellent/Masters class. Sadly, this is very true.

Open classes in this part of the US are usually quite small, often no more than 12 or 15 dogs from all height classes combined. Archie was the only dog in his height class for most of the weekend.

Some dogs zoom through Open, advancing in just a trial or two to Excellent. After all, to successfully complete Open courses, a dog has to already have Excellent-level performance skills. But because you don't have to many skills at all to get there, other dogs spend quite a bit of time at the Open level. Open has a bit of a reputation for accumulating dogs who just aren't going to do well in agility. On Friday, the judge welcomed us to the "purgatory of Open"--and she wasn't really joking. There are many reasons that a dog may need to stay in Open for a while: dogs may be physically structured such that agility will never be a good fit for them, some dogs just don't like the game and their handlers haven't figured that out yet, handlers and dogs may not yet have the skills they need to succeed, and so forth.

Given how well Archie performs in class, I assumed his time in Open would be brief. But we've now been in Open for four trials and only had four Qs out of a total of 14 runs at this level; this weekend we were 0 for 6.

I was feeling quite frustrated yesterday. But I realized today that I was missing something very important. It wasn't really the heat, although that may have been a factor. Archie simply isn't ready to advance to Excellent yet. His head is not yet in the game.

Ironically, I started the weekend worrying about something completely different. This was our first time at this particular venue. It is an open, dirt-floored horse arena. The fencing is even less complete than at most other places, and the arena itself doesn't even have walls all the way around. There were places where there was nothing more than horse railings separating the dogs from the enormous and exciting world outside. Horse railings with the lowermost bar almost 18" from the ground, hardly a barrier at all to a dog the size of Archie. He already demonstrated that he could get through the usual plastic fencing. I was sure he'd take one look at that horse railing and dive under it and be gone.

Yes, I have a young terrier who I don't trust off-leash. Judge away. I'm sure some of my agility-savvy readers are thinking, then why are you doing agility with him? Well, I don't like to stereotype breeds but...I'm going to revert to a stereotype: terriers are really difficult dogs to manage off-leash. The thought of unhooking my dog from a leash is terrifying. It's like Pandora's box--I have no idea what might happen, although all that I imagine is pretty horrible.

The irony is this: Archie never even glanced at the horse railing. I don't think he even noticed they were there. What he did notice was the hot dogs that a competitor left on a dolly outside the ring. He could barely function inside the ring, pulled magnetically toward those hot dogs after every obstacle. I gave up fighting him halfway through that run and carried him out of the ring. Today, he noticed that someone had eaten takeaway pizza and had left the box outside the ring on the ground. I literally forced him to complete that run. He had so many refusals and other errors while trying to figure out if he could leave the ring to get to the pizza box that we lost the Q quite early on. Our standard run earlier today was so bad that at one point the judge said "I don't know what errors I am supposed to call now!" (Archie had just gotten on the teeter, immediately turned around and did a perfect two-on-two-off contact on the entrance to the teeter, thus failing to execute the teeter and calling the "four-paw rule" into play. It was a clusterfuck.)

So I learned some hard lessons this weekend. The good news is that my pup will come back to me when I call. The bad news is that he will run off if he smells even a molecule of something delicious that he thinks he might be able to get to. Agility itself is not yet enough of a reward that he will choose that first.

I told Archie that I will be ready when he is ready. And I have some plans to help him along. He will be running agility with an increasing number of distractions (think plastic containers with food that he can't get to). He won't get high-value treats on course anymore--those will only come after he is leashed and we return together to his crate. I love my fabulous puppy very much, and am frustrated that he is so young and naughty. But I am glad that I was able to take a step back and recognize that we need some more training.

As a friend remarked this afternoon, when he's on, he's brilliant. Yes, but his moments of brilliance are not yet course-length in duration. We'll get there. I'm sure of it.

Sunday, June 18, 2017

Archie and His Orbee

I mentioned one of Archie's sillier behaviors in a recent post: how he lays down with his front paws straight out in front of him, side by side, and then carefully sets the ball on his paws and nudges it with his nose, using his paws like a piece of Hot Wheels track to direct the ball to me. He's learned, of course, that he has to be more or less facing me or this trick won't work. I refuse to chase balls so one of his newer commands is "no, YOU get it!" 

I'm now going to attempt to describe some other unique aspects of playing ball with Archie. I have to specify that we prefer to play with the Orbee balls patterned like globes. The dogs gleefully and immediately peel off the continents when given a new Orbee ball, which is rare because they last forever (rated 10/10 by T3i), but even without those decorations the balls are satisfyingly knobbly. Iceland in particular is alarmingly large and pointy. The balls are made of soft rubber (not latex), and have two holes in them at opposite ends. The part about the holes is important, as you will see. 

Archie likes to chew on his ball a bit before he rolls it off his paws to me. But he doesn't just mouth it. He rapidly compresses this thick, strong ball nearly in half with his giant fox terrier teeth and jaws. Now imagine what happens when you do this with a hollow rubber ball--all the air rushes out the holes and puffs his cheeks out. Then he relaxes his jaws and the ball pops back to shape as the air rushes back in, sucking his cheeks with it. He often gives a terrier head shake when he clamps down just to make really sure the ball is dead. He will do this more than a dozen times in a row after every throw so I can only conclude that he likes how it feels. His actions are deliberate, not frantic. This is high church ritual for him.

Throwing the ball to Archie has become a challenge. When I play in the house, I don't want things to get too wild so I'll bounce the ball off the floor in a low, forward arc. Archie rarely misses. It's kind of eerie. I've tried throwing faster, to the side, with a higher bounce--I can't really get the ball past him very often. As soon as he catches the ball, he runs back to the same position on a rug near my front door. Mimi is often already there with her ball so Archie has to carefully navigate around her--bumping a cranky old terrier even by accident is not the best idea. He'll lay down a few feet from me, maul the orbee for a bit to ensure it is completely covered in slobber (he has the most slobbery mouth I've ever seen in a small terrier), roll it off his paws to me...and then he waits still as a statue, tongue hanging out just a bit, almost holding his breath, laser eyes on the ball at my feet.

When I reach for the ball, he bursts into action, levitates up and over Mimi, somehow never touching her, and runs to position in the living room, skidding into a turn so he faces me as he comes to a stop. I taught him "beep beep" (the command I use for "back up") simply by waiting for him to randomly take a step back. Now he often starts backing up on his own if I don't wing his ball to him right away. 

I like playing ball with Archie because he is so obsessive, so dedicated to executing all of the little parts of the game just so, over and over and over. To illustrate the depth of Archie's obsessive behavior with his orbee, I have this example. I threw the ball and to everyone's surprise, it bounced off his nose and rolled to a position far behind me. He ran and grabbed the ball then ran back to the position in the living room where he would have originally caught the ball, skidded around to face me and only then ran to lay down in the usual launch position near me, carefully winding his way around Mimi. I was floored. 

I am perfectly aware that playing with him like this created the little monster that wouldn't let me study this term. But the focus he has when we play ball is very similar to his focus when we play agility. I want to nurture this focus, learn to direct it and reward it.

Friday, June 16, 2017

Diary of a Second-Year Vet Student: Progress

Today, I am 50% a vet.

Today, I am now a third-year vet student.

Saturday, June 10, 2017

Diary of a Second-Year Vet Student: New Vocabulary

Vet school means confronting and managing an avalanche of new words as well as old words used in new ways. My high school Latin has proven to be extremely valuable (I won an award for reciting a piece by Cicero). I have long been interested in words and language, dabbling in Russian, Japanese, Mandarin, and French. And of course, I acquired a very large technical vocabulary as a geologist. My geologic vocabulary uses many of the same Latin and Greek (and German) roots, prefixes, and suffixes as medical jargon. I could write an entire post about the joys of looking at a new medical term and knowing exactly what it means because I know what the various parts of the word mean individually even though I've never seen that precise combination of those parts before.

But I can already sense your eyes rolling back in your head--this post is not about my geeking out on word origins. This post is about a different subset of the new vocabulary we must navigate while in vet school. I wrote a while back about drunk cleaning, a sort of multitasking celebration of having time to deal with the mundane corners of life that is generally only experienced at the end of a school term.

Today, I want to talk about procrasti-baking and its cousin, stress baking.

As the end of the term approached and finals weeks looms (we have six finals this term, one last week and five next week), quite a few of my classmates were showing up in the mornings with enormous ziplock bags of snickerdoodles, brownies, and muffins, made with love and lots of butter and sugar. We coined the term "procrasti-baking" to describe this. They know they need to study but we are all feeling overwhelmed with the mountain of material we have to slog through (Principles of Surgery, I'm looking at you). Some of us watch NetFlix, some of us procrasti-bake.

Stress baking is similar but it can only occur the night before an exam. I am expecting stress-baked goods at least one morning this coming week. Overwhelmed and stressed is the constant state of the vet student. 

Sunday, June 04, 2017

Diary of a Second-Year Vet Student: Exams and Tears

Exams don't usually stress me out, or rather, unduly stress me out. My study habits seem to be sufficient to prepare me for most of them. But yesterday afternoon, we had a big exam for our Principles of Surgery lab. This exam was all about demonstrating that we knew how to do some specific things: how to do a sterile prep, how to put on a sterile gown and gloves and maintain sterility, how to scrub in for a surgery, how to tie suture knots and make different suture patterns, which sutures are used in which situations (this includes suture material, suture diameter, and the type of needle), names of about 40 different surgical instruments (all of them named for dead white men), how to fold gowns, how to wrap a pack, in this case the gown we just folded, for sterilization, and how to bandage and cast. That's a long list, and only about half of what we covered in the lab during the term.

Yesterday was the one and only exam for this lab. It was a long, stressful exam--imagine doing all those things while under microscopic scrutiny, and having points taken off for the very smallest of mistakes. There were tears, oh so many tears. I came close myself.

I have to say that the lab techs and the instructors were extremely clear on what we were expected to know and to do. There were no surprises on this exam. We will be cutting into the abdomens of live animals during our first week back in the fall (spays and neuters), and they want to make sure that we are prepared for that.

Two stations in particular were the source of most points lost and the most tears shed: hand throws with suture (that is, tying knots by hand rather than using tools to help hold and pull suture), and suture patterns, both of which had to be done while wearing surgical gloves. We were told in the clearest of language that we had to perform our one-handed and two-handed knots exactly as they were shown in the videos made by the instructor. I am left handed and want to tie my knots with my left hand, and even with that handicap (pardon the pun), I was able to duplicate the videos. Some of my classmates decided they knew better--lost points. Some of my classmates were so nervous that they dropped the suture while tying it--lost points. Some of my classmates never learned their hand knots--lost lots of points. I made sure that I can tie the knots with 5-0 suture (it's scarily fine) while wearing gloves with my eyes closed. But even that level of preparation didn't stop me from being so nervous that sweat was running out of my gloves, leaving tracks of powder on my arms. (Powdered gloves are no longer used for surgery on living animals so they were all sent down to the teaching lab for us second-years.)

It was the suture pattern station that nearly did me in. We had to make three suture patterns. I did the first two (near-far-far-near and Cushing) and was working on the third, the Ford interlocking, a pleasing pattern used for skin closure. Just as I was pulling the closing knot, my fake skin ripped and the entire pattern pulled out. I started over. The exact same thing happened again as I was trying to tie it off. I put my head down on the table, blinked back some hot tears then took a few deep breaths and started the pattern again. I managed, just barely, to tie it off. I was trembling, sweating, worried that I was burning up precious minutes needed for other stations.

Believe it or not, there were a couple of moments of comedic relief during the exam. We had a lecture and lab on bandaging and casting. One of the instructors put a janky bandage and cast on the front leg of a large, plush tiger, included some radiographs of a fractured ulna from a dog in the exam packet, and asked us to list four things that were wrong with the cast on the tiger. There were far more than four things wrong so I thought that was an extremely fair arrangement.

The surgical scrub station was an unexpected challenge. The technique that you use to scrub in is fairly specific and invariable and we had been given several opportunities to practice it under the watchful eye of a lab tech during the term. This time, we lined up next to the sinks and were blindfolded! We then held our hands up as they were painted with green water-soluble paint. Once that dried, we had to grab our scrub sponges and remove as much of the paint as possible in three minutes. From both hands. In THREE minutes. Did I mention the blindfolds? It was stressful and silly at the same time. And rather disturbing to see how many of my classmates still had green paint on their hands at the end of the exercise. 

I managed to only lose two points on the exam (I did something dumb with my gown when putting it on, and I lost a point for not explicitly stating that I wanted a taper needle for a specific application.)

We are at last coming to the end of this second year of vet school. Next week is the last week of the term. We have one final next week and five the following week (and we had a seventh class this term that did not have a final associated with it). We are nearly 50% there!