Friday, December 16, 2011

If It’s Not Broken . . .

I follow a lot of dog training blogs and dog training discussion forums, and always enjoy reading about others’ training journeys, successes, lessons learned, and words of wisdom.  But recently, I have noticed the language that people seem to use when talking about their training challenges, and have been surprised to hear talk about “fixing” dogs.  In this context it isn’t slang terminology for spaying or neutering; people are referring to dogs as though something is fundamentally broken.  People refer to fixing their “bar dropper” or their “reactive dog” or their “shut down dog”, etc. 

I am wondering, how helpful is it to use this terminology? 

I am not saying that we should not try to modify behaviors that are problematic, or that we shouldn’t try to fine-tune our training so that the performance meets the criteria we would like it to, but I feel that viewing the dog as somehow broken does not help us do this.  I prefer not to label my dogs, and especially not to label them according to what some may see as faults.  When I approach training, I feel it is more helpful to identify behaviors that I would like to reinforce and make stronger, and behaviors that I would like to replace and minimize.  I want to give the dogs I work with the skills to make correct decisions, and the ability to manage a variety of environments, experiences, and social interactions without stress and anxiety.  I prefer to call this process “training” – not “fixing.”

I very much believe that our language shapes the way we approach and view the world.  When we start to reduce our dogs, our selves, or others to what we see as their shortcomings, we become blind to what is brilliant, unique, and extraordinary about that same individual.  I am a social worker by training, and the human services field picked up on the power of the strengths-based approach years ago.  So It surprises me now to see even very positive, forward-thinking dog trainers slip into the deficit-model of viewing the dogs they are working with. 

I share my life with five dogs, who all have very distinct personalities and temperaments.  Every one of them has behaviors that I would prefer to see less of (OK, I had to think hard about this for Django, but he does bark a lot a meal time).  And every one of them has fantastic qualities and strengths that amaze me every day.  It has been my job as their owner and trainer to build on those strengths, and increase the presence of all those attributes that I love.  To me, none of them have something that needs to be fixed – they are all simply perfect at being themselves, and I want to help them be the best, happiest version of themselves that they can be.


Monday, November 28, 2011

Happy 12th, Jade!!

jade Today is the day we celebrate Jade’s birthday, and it hardly seems possible that our first dog is now twelve years old.  We met Jade a little over eleven years ago at a pet rescue adoption day.  We had just bought our first home, a move strongly driven by our desire to be able to have a dog, and had decided we wanted a black Labrador.  When we saw him in his crate at the adoption event, I think it took us about 30 seconds to decide we wanted him, and we picked him up a week later – the day after we moved in to our new place. 

Jade had boundless energy and drive, and we loved trying new things with him.  Our world began to revolve around finding fun things to do with him.  We began a journey together of learning and playing that led us to many great friends and new experiences – I always say he is the dog that changed our lives. 

Jade 40K_from Sue Jade’s true passion in life was flyball, and he was a fantastic flyball dog.  His fastest time was 3.9 seconds (not bad for a Lab), he was ranked in the top ten point-earning Labs in flyball, earned over 40K points in racing, and had he raced just a few months longer, would have received the new NAFA Iron Dog award.  What matters most though is how much fun we all had together.

Jade’s athleticism made him an extremely talented agility dog as well, but after an bad crash into the side of a closed tunnel in an early competition, he never enjoyed trialing as much.  Still, he was always up for a fun match or some backyard practice.

After breaking a toe in 2009 on the flyball box, Jade has been retired from competition, though he did try Rally Obedience this fall for the first time, and we hope to do more in the future.  He has been so happy to find a new “job” to do!

hiking This past year, Jade has begun to show his age more and more.  I still think most people would be shocked to know that he is twelve, but we see the signs of him slowing down.  He had surgery this summer after being diagnosed with laryngeal paralysis, and fortunately since then his quality of life has definitely increased.  Unfortunately, the condition also usually involves neuropathy in the rear legs, and he is beginning to lose some muscle mass and to get a little weaker and unstable.  He is pain-free though, and still gets around very well.  He walks at least a half hour every day, does strengthening exercises to keep as fit as he can, and is still happy to fetch the occasional ball in the back yard.  As much as I hate watching him age, I think he still has plenty of miles left in him.

Thanks for over a decade of great times, Jade!  We hope our journey still has many roads ahead!

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Django Day

P1030464 Today is the eighth annual “Django Day” – when we celebrate bringing our beautiful red boy, Django, into our home eight years ago.

Django is known to many of our friends as “Mr. Perfect.”  He is the most honest dog I have ever known.  All he ever wants in life is to do the right thing.  Working with him always brings a smile to my face.  He is my heart dog, and I adore him.

This year brought us many more adventures together.  We attended Kay Laurence’s border collie workshop in Missouri, where we learned that he is much too polite to want to bother the nice sheep.  We toured the Upper Peninsula, hiking at Grand Island, Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore, and the Porcupine Mountains.  I also had probably the worst 30 seconds of my life on a boat in Lake Superior during that trip, when during a severe thunderstorm I suddenly couldn’t locate Django on our pontoon boat after a wave had broken over the boat.  It makes me ill to even think of those seconds looking out at the turbulent waters, terrified that I had lost my precious guy to them.  Happily, I found he had somehow curled up to about the size of a house cat and was hiding under a bench seat, safe from the elements.  Upon hearing my panicked cries for him, he crawled back out, I’m sure wondering why he was being called from his safe little cubby hole to sit in the rain, but as always, willing to oblige because I’d asked.

CD_13059_119472_djangoSchmorrowZuckerman_m0165665 We competed at CPE Nationals, and he ran in top form all weekend, even getting a second place in Full House.  We had another great week at dog camp.  This fall, at the Michigan troop outing, he helped our troop win the friendly competition by showing off some of his favorite tricks, such as retrieving a dog biscuit and carrying a beer bottle for me.  Things I had even forgotten I had taught him years ago . . .  but he didn’t forget.

One memory I will treasure from this year was a reminder in how far Django and I have come together.  When we first adopted Django, he could be leash-aggressive and reactive towards other dogs, and we worked hard at modifying that behavior.  The process taught me a lot about dog training, and allowed us to build our relationship even more.  At the Kay Laurence workshop this spring, Kay wanted to demonstrate working on socialization and ignoring distractions for some of the younger BC pups present.  To do so, she needed some very stable, non-reactive, calm dogs who would stay focused on their handlers while the pups worked on their impulse control in their presence.  Kay looked at me and said “Bring in your chocolate guy.”  I paused for a second, about to say, “No, he’s too reactive . . . ", but then I realized – no, he’s not.  Not anymore.  He trusts me, he’s connected to me, and he only wants to make me happy.  I brought him in, beaming with pride the entire time to see the confident, happy dog he has become.  He is a long way from the underweight, sun-bleached, scraggly stray that was picked up in Detroit eight years ago. 

I’m enjoying every minute of our journey, Django.  I hope it continues for many more years to come.  Thank you for all that you have given and continue to give us.

Friday, September 30, 2011

Changing the Approach

I have been struggling on and off for a few months in my attempts to teach Cadence a formal retrieve – the type where he waits to retrieve the object, then brings it back and sits in front position holding the object until I ask him to release to my hand.  He does play fetch with enthusiasm, and happily brings his frisbee right to my hand so we can tug a bit before I ask him to drop it, but it lacks finesse and is anything but “formal.” I taught Django a formal retrieve years ago when I had a broken arm and could do little else with the dogs.  Though I haven’t done obedience, it is one of the coolest things he knows, and lends itself very well to a lot of useful behaviors and fun tricks, so I think it is a great skill for them to have.

Cadence and I have been working with a dumbbell, which he will bring back to me, but then chucks it at me as he approaches.  I have been attempting to fix this by back-chaining the behavior, so I am first trying to teach him to hold the dumbbell for a second and release it on cue.  He quickly will grab hold of the dumbbell if presented to him, but spits it back at me immediately.  I have been unable to raise my criteria to much more than a nanosecond of tooth gripping.

begging When I start shaping behaviors, I often am sitting on the living room floor with Cadence as we work.  This was the case again the other night as we struggled with another session of “Please just hold this for half a second before chucking it at my lap.”  After a couple minutes, I stood up for some reason, maybe just to stretch, and presented the dumbbell from a standing position.  Now, seated to look up at me and with his head tilted upwards, Cadence gripped the dumbbell in the back of his mouth, and legitimately held it for a second before I gave him the release cue and took it.  All he needed to help him out was a little change of position that made the desired behavior feel either more natural or more comfortable, or just more obvious.  In a few more repetitions, I was able to have him get a good hold on it, still only for a second or two, but we now have a behavior to build on.

It reminded me that in training when we are hitting our heads against a wall, we need sometimes change our context a bit and start again from a new perspective or a new approach.  If something isn’t working, even if it is the “right” way to do something, we need to be willing to be creative and figure out what the dog needs from us to understand.

The next night, I experienced this myself.  I have been taking swim classes and lessons for the last year trying to fine tune my freestyle technique, and improve my form in the other strokes as well.  This week, we worked on breaststroke.  I have been told that the front half of my breaststroke is actually pretty good, but my kick is . . . well, it wouldn’t be considered legal in competition.  It resembles something more like an inverted scissor kick.  And unfortunately, breaststroke is mostly about the kick.  My former instructor even got in the water one day and tried to guide my legs through the correct motions, but it was as if I had some neurologic deficit that I simply could not reproduce the correct motion on my own.  I started to kind of hate breaststroke. 

Last night, a different instructor gave a new tip - “Start by focusing on bending your knees together straight toward the bottom of the pool.”  That mental image helped me suddenly start to put together something more closely resembling an actual breaststroke kick.  I mean, swimming being what it is, I still need to do it about 8,000 more times before it is going to look at all respectable, but I stopped feeling like I had no connection to what my knees, ankles and feet were doing.  I also finally had a behavior that I can build on.

All of my instructors are good, and all have helped me tremendously.  I don’t think that the new instructor was necessarily better than the previous one, but she happened to have the lesson for that particular skill that helped me have an “aha!'” moment in the pool.

So, this week, as I start to make a very small step towards progress in these two previous sources of frustration, I am reminded of the importance of creativity, and the need to respect the individual learner and figure out what is going to work best for them.  It is easy in both swimming and dog training to get so concerned with the ideal method for learning a flip turn, or learning weave poles, that we can become unwilling to step back if that isn’t working, and try a new approach.  But sometimes that slight flexibility is all that is needed to make something fall into place.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011


I hate when I get behind in blogging, because I never know where to start, and can’t figure out what to write about first, what to skip over, etc.  So, in the interest of catching up, here’s some highlights of what we’ve been up to in September.

We started out the month by taking our first two dogs, Jade and Tristan, out of retirement to compete in a C-WAGs Rally Obedience trial.  Each dog was entered in two runs, and had a great time.  Each qualified in one run, and Tristan earned a fourth place in his second run.  Most importantly, they both were so happy to be working and competing again, and it felt great to be out there as a team with my first competition dog, Jade, again. 

The next weekend, we participated in Run Woodstock, which is a weekend long camping/running/music festival in Hell, Michigan.  The central event is a 100-mile ultramarathon which begins on Friday afternoon.  For those runners who wish to to run a more conservative distance, there are a wide variety of race distance options on Saturday morning.  We opted for the 5-miler, and also ran in the three non-timed “fun runs” offered throughout the weekend.  Cadence and Maebe joined us for the fun runs, and all involved much slogging through mud, but were still a blast.  Cadence did not appreciate the post-run hose down though.  Lowell ended up finishing first in his age group in the 5-mile race, while I took second, so a good turn-out overall.

walled lake We’ve also been busy with a number of dog scout activities.  Cadence, Maebe, and Tristan got to help out at the Troop 217 booth at the Pet Awareness Fair in Walled Lake.  All did very well meeting and greeting the public, and behaved like model dog scouts. 

Last weekend brought us to our final camping trip of the season up at dog camp for the first ever tribal troop retreat – a friendly gathering/competition between Michigan troops.  Django was my chosen competition dog for the weekend, and he was a rock star!  In the first game, he shut out the competition by retrieving a dog biscuit to me from across the room – a trick I taught him probably five years ago and had forgotten he even knew!  Later that day, he finished in a three-way tie in a “My Dog Can Do That” challenge.  He successfully completed every new trick that was thrown at him, while his special trick (retrieving a beer bottle) ended up eliminating a few of the competitors.  Django is always my dog that tries to do everything I ask of him, and it was very fun to spend special time working together with him this weekend.

October looks to be a busy but fun month, as Cadence and Maebe begin therapy dog visits, we have a few agility trials scheduled, two 5K races, and several troop activities.  I will have to be mindful not to slip behind again as we enjoy the progression into fall!   

Monday, August 29, 2011


With my triathlon season having ended, I have been enjoying the “transition” phase of my annual training plan.  This is the time of year when I can take some time off from sport-specific training, and spend a few weeks recovering and enjoying other activities during the time I had been spending at the pool or on the road.

Lately, this has involved a lot more hiking, camping, backyard dog training sessions, and generally just enjoying the lovely weather we’ve been having after an especially hot July. 

Cadence and Maebe still get their early morning trail runs several times a week, and soon the fall running races, swim and agility classes, and agility trials will start up again.  We also will be trying some new activities – Jade and Tristan will make a return to competition in their first Rally Obedience trial, we are looking to begin Therapy Dog visits with Cadence and Maebe this fall, and Lowell and I are excited to join the “Pit Crew” at the local humane society – a group that runs with the high-energy shelter dogs in the mornings to help them get some exercise and burn off some of their excess energy before meeting with their potential adopters.

But, for the remaining days of summer, we’re enjoying the different (if not necessarily quieter) pace.

dj ballmaebe hiking jade rally

cade and tcade tent

Friday, July 29, 2011

Introducing Wave

wave2 This is admittedly pretty old news by now, but we’ve just been letting our new addition settle in to the household gradually before introducing him to the blogosphere.

After our cat, Milo, died in May, we sort of thought we would not get another cat for a while.  We decided that River would now be an only cat, and after he passed, we would probably adopt two littermates together. 

River had other ideas though.  In the days after Milo’s passing, he searched through the house and howled incessantly.  He was restless, needy, lonely, and inconsolable.  On top of our already broken hearts, it was gut-wrenching listening to his cries of despair as well, and not knowing how to comfort him.  We pet and cuddled him more, pulled out more cat toys, played with him more, but everyone who knew us said the same thing: “That cat needs a friend.”

River loved Milo so much that I thought showing up with a new cat would be like trying to replace a grieving person’s lost spouse.  Over time we realized that even though we’d never find another Milo, perhaps River, and we, would benefit from some more feline companionship.

So, we decided to visit the Humane Society of Huron Valley one Saturday afternoon, “just to look.”  We told the greeter that we were interested in an adult cat, not a kitten, but that we weren’t determined to necessarily get one – we needed to find the absolute right one.

Well, “Vinnie the Paw” made that decision for us.  We entered the first communal cat room, Lowell picked up a cat feather toy, and a chubby grey and white cat launched himself from his perch and immediately started playing.  Most cats remained curled in the beds.  A few showed passing interest in us and the toy, then moved on.  But Vinnie played with us, curled up on our laps, rubbed against us, and didn’t leave our sides for the entire 45 minutes we were there.  OK, we decided that was settled, grabbed his adoption card, and headed up front to fill out the paperwork.

Vinnie was recovering from a nasty upper respiratory infection, so he spent the first few weeks in our house isolated from River until we were sure he was no longer contagious.  Every day we would spend quiet time with just him, and discovered just what a delightful personality he has.  He is very affectionate, and demands attention by sitting up and waving his paws in the air.  It was a trait that we immediately found endearing, and earned him his name:  Wave.  Just so happens that it goes quite nicely with River.

Over the next month or two, we gradually integrated him into the household, and were relieved to find that he and River are quite compatible.  They will never be constant companions like River and Milo were, but they seem to enjoy one another’s presence and frequently hang out together.  At night, I catch them snuggled together at the foot of the bed.  Wave seems perfectly at home in his new forever home, and much to our relief, River’s mood and behavior returned to normal.

It is slightly disconcerting, and completely coincidental, that we ended up with another grey and white cat.  Sure, Milo had long fur, and had a creamy tan color blended in with his grey, but it is similar enough to be a little creepy the first few times we would spot Wave out of the corner of our eye, perched in a spot where Milo used to frequent.  But he is very much his own character, and we feel very fortunate that we found each other at a time when we all were in need of a little more love and nurturing.  Welcome home, Wave.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

DSA Camp 2011

django camp Last week marked our tenth year in a row of attending Dog Scout Camp in St. Helen, MI in July.  As always, it was a wonderful week spent with our dogs and with good friends.  We had the opportunity to do a lot of good training with the dogs, and to just relax and enjoy ourselves while hiking the trails or sitting around the campfire.



Cadence made me very proud this week, showing me just how much he Cade hiking has learned and matured over the last year.  After all our work on recalls, I finally took a leap of faith and let him off leash on our morning runs and hikes.  He amazed me by staying basically by my side the entire time.  He would run up ahead with Django and Maebe occasionally, but always came back to check in, and always waited and came back to me when I asked him to. 

We also worked a lot on recalls and stays at the beach.  Swimming is unbelievably reinforcing for him, so I used the Premack Principle quite a bit – if he came out when I asked, he could get back in and swim some more.  I am still doing most of this work on a long line, but I did test it off-leash a couple times and he did come out of deep water when I called.  This was a drastic difference from last year, when he was oblivious to everything once near the water. 

cade DW He also got to play agility, rally-o, and “agilure” (lure coursing with some low jumps and tunnels).  He did great, was very focused and had a very good time.  At the end of the week, he had earned three agility badges, the beginning Rally badge, Agilure, Hiking, Beach Buddies, and Fine Art of Shaping badges.  He also finished a 10-mile hike for his next Pack Dog title. 

jade rally The four older dogs continued to make us proud also.  Maebe got her Hiking and Beach Buddies badges, Django got Advanced Rally, Tristan got Boating Safety, and even Jade, less than two weeks post-op, got his Advanced Rally badge.  Doing the Rally course with my older guy was one of the highpoints of the entire week.



 T hikingSome of my favorite times at camp though are spent just quietly hiking the trails or sitting by the campfire.  We figure we must have hiked the main trail at camp hundreds of times over the years, and it always brings us joy to watch the dogs happily bounding up the trail then back to us, having the time of their lives.  After Tristan’s long spring of injuries and Jade’s ordeal with laryngeal paralysis, we were especially delighted to have the two of them with us on our hikes again.

Oh, and Cadence made a lot of new lady friends.  For some reason, the girls do seem to like him.  I don’t think his ego really needs quite so much encouragement, but it is pretty cute to watch them flirt!  My favorite was watching him play with a tiny Pom who was smitten with him:


 saige2 saige3 saige4 saige5

In addition to time spent with the dogs, I am always grateful for the opportunity to spend time with friends and to make new ones.  I am always amazed by the displays of generosity and kindness that I encounter at camp, and this year was especially noteworthy in that respect.  It is amazing how when we focus on noticing and rewarding positive behavior, how contagious that is, and how it not only affects our interactions with our dogs but with other people as well. 

All in all, it was a perfect week, and we already can’t wait until next year.wet maebe

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

A Deep Breath of Relief

This spring, we started to notice that our 11-year old Lab mix, Jade, was developing a hoarse sound to his bark, and was beginning to pant heavily upon exertion. The panting eventually grew to have a very rough sound to it (what I learned is called “respiratory stridor”), and he was getting tired faster and faster with any exercise. After losing Milo to a heart condition, I was growing afraid that Jade may have developed congestive heart failure, and so we took him in for an exam with our regular veterinarian.

Since we were preparing ourselves for the worst, we were a bit relieved when our vet told us that his heart sounded fine, but that she suspected laryngeal paralysis. This is a neurologic condition, common in Labradors especially, where they can no longer control the nerves in the larynx, and so are unable to control the cartilage that closes and opens in their trachea, thereby controlling their airway. She described it as constantly breathing through a straw – they struggle to take in a full breath of air. Sometimes the condition goes undiagnosed until a dog is in an acute respiratory crisis, so we were glad that we had addressed this early on.

268100_2048743189982_1586533506_32027987_7844879_n There isn’t a cure for the condition, but there is a treatment, known as a unilateral tie-back surgery. The cartilage on one side of the trachea is tied back, keeping the airway partially open at all times. The surgery is highly successful, and owners report extremely high levels of satisfaction after having it performed. The dogs immediately can breathe better, and return to a much higher quality of life.

Last week, we took Jade to see Dr. Bryden Stanley at Michigan State University. Dr. Stanley is a veterinary surgeon and leading researcher in laryngeal paralysis. She explained that they are finding that this is actually part of a larger neurologic condition, which they have termed Geriatric Onset Laryngeal Paralysis Polyneuropathy (GOLPP). Oftentimes, the disease will progress to involve lack of function in the rear legs and eventually rear end paralysis. It is not painful, and dogs are reported to be bright and active the entire time. With a tie-back surgery performed, the respiratory symptoms will be alleviated, and she gives a prognosis of 2-5 more years.

Jade stayed for tests at MSU and then underwent surgery on Thursday. All went fine. Dr. Stanley, who has done the surgery many times, told us this was the easiest and fastest one she has ever done because Jade is so lean and healthy – she said it was like looking at an anatomy textbook. We picked him up Friday, and he is doing great. He has been comfortable and pain free the entire time, his incisions are healing nicely, his attitude and appetite are great, and he can take a deep breath again! He will no longer be able to bark - another side effect of the surgery - which is weird and kind of sad, but again, there are much worse side effects.

So, the bad news – we are awaiting nerve biopsy results from his rear legs, but it is likely that the neuropathy has started to and will continue to spread. He has lost muscle mass in his rear, and there have been a few instances recently that seem to indicate a slight lack of coordination in his rear. His neurologic exam at MSU was clear, but we suspect something may be beginning. Hopefully the onset will be slow though, and overall Jade is in excellent health, so we are quite optimistic.

The procedure and condition also put him at increased risk of aspiration pneumonia, as his airway is partially open. He underwent swallowing tests at MSU also, and his esophageal function was good, so that reduces his risk a bit. Some of the GOLPP dogs already have swallowing issues which complicates matters more. For a while he will have to be hand-fed “meatballs” of soft food, and he has to eat in an elevated position from now on. He can only be walked on harness, and he can’t retrieve in water anymore, though we were told it is OK for him to swim as long as he keeps his head well above water.

So, we’re all adjusting to the diagnosis, but doing just fine. He’s going on 12 years old, and inevitably something was going to catch up with him eventually, so we can take this. We have every reason to hope for quite a bit more time with him, and that he will be able to be his active, crazy self again now that he can breathe better.

If you aren’t familiar with GOLPP, please check out the MSU website. Since learning about this, I have heard of so many dogs who were misdiagnosed for years until they were in acute crisis or it was too late. Untreated, it is an awful disorder that can continually restrict the dog’s airway and potentially cause asphyxiation. But, there are good options once identified, and it is definitely something to learn about and be aware of if your dog starts to change behavior, tire faster, pant louder, etc. I am grateful, as always, that we have access to such wonderful veterinary care here in Michigan, and have taken much comfort in these past weeks knowing Jade is in good hands.

It is hard seeing my first dog get older, but I’m treasuring these senior years with him as well. As I sat petting him this weekend, an old Grateful Dead song came on the radio, and I caught one of the lyrics for the first time:

“Oh well, a touch of grey kind of suits you anyway . . .”

Your golden years do suit you well, Jade. We will get by.


Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Agility Blog Action Day: Volunteering At Trials

As someone who blogs about dog agility fairly often, I was recently invited to participate in a “Blog Action Day,” where bloggers all are asked to share their thoughts on a designated topic.

IMG_1004 The topic I was invited to write about today was volunteering at agility trials.  There has been much discussion on various agility lists lately about volunteerism at trials – how to encourage it, how to make it rewarding, why people choose to volunteer or not, whether participants should be required to help out, etc.  Trials couldn’t be held without the hard work of lots of volunteers, so it is an important topic for anyone who wants to be able to continue to come out and play with their dogs weekend after weekend.

We generally volunteer at the trials that we go to.  It often offers the best seat in the house to watch the action, and most local clubs offer nice incentives for helping.  However, as I reflected on volunteering at trials over the years, I was able to identify experiences that have impacted my volunteerism habits, both for better and for worse.  While my experiences have been largely fun and rewarding, I can identify some that haven’t been. 

I started to think about how clubs can create positive experiences for volunteers, to encourage participation and ensure that people will continue to sign up to help.  I realized that a lot of the principles that we use when training dogs with positive reinforcement actually apply in this scenario as well:

1) Set One Up For Success

When we train a dog a new behavior, we want to increase the likelihood that the dog will get it correct. We don’t place them in front of a set of weave poles and hope they figure it out – we use 2x2s, channel weaves, weave-a-matics, guide wires, etc. depending on our method of choice.  This increases the chances that the dog will be successful, earn reinforcement, and want to keep working.

Likewise, clubs could help newcomers understand what the volunteer tasks are and what is involved.  People don’t like to make mistakes, be embarrassed, or accidentally interfere with someone’s run.  Having information available that briefly describes the position, and offering a quick training or Q&A for prospective volunteers at the beginning of the day could help people feel better about signing up for a position that they might not have felt comfortable doing beforehand.

2)  Have Clear Criteria

Agility is always most successful in the long run, and less frustrating for the dog and handler, if we are clear in our criteria from the beginning, whether we want a two-on/two-off contact position, want them to hold their start line stay until a verbal release, etc.  When expectations aren’t clear at the onset, dogs can get stressed and frustrated, especially if a handler gets unfairly upset with him/her for violating rules that were not made clear.

Likewise, I always prefer to know beforehand what the preferences are for the task I will be volunteering for.  Is there a specific height that the lower bar should be set at for each jump height?  Are leash runners expected to walk around the outside of the ring gating, or can they cut through the inside?  Is there a chair or platform that the leashes are meant to be placed on?  If there is a detail to the job that is important, make sure the volunteers understand beforehand rather than correcting mid-field, because as we all know . . .

3)  Punishment Stops Behavior

My first experience volunteering at a trial was not a rewarding one.  The club was calling for someone to help as Timer, so I stepped up, with the caveat that I had not done it before.  I was shown how to work the stopwatch (the days before electronic timing systems) and that was it.  I sat down in the timer’s chair, and after a few runs was admonished that the chair was not lined up well with the start line, and that I should have moved it, and could not possibly have gotten accurate times on the first dogs.  This was not a detail I would have thought of as a first-time worker – in fact, I think I assumed I couldn’t move my chair.  Then, an exhibitor didn’t hear my whistle  indicating she should start her closing in a Gamblers class, and I was yelled at by the scribe and the exhibitor for my inappropriate whistling technique (I’m sure her barking Aussie had nothing to do with it . . .).  I switched to bar setting, and was given conflicting information about where to set the lower bar, then scolded by the alternate parties in turn for not doing it correctly.  My memories of the experience are of being told constantly that I was not doing anything right, and I didn’t volunteer again for a few trials.  To this day, I still won’t volunteer to time.  But, thankfully . . .

4)  Reinforcement Builds Behavior

Happily, the vast majority of my experiences volunteering have not been like that overwhelming first day.  And clubs now are doing a great job of rewarding volunteerism with worker raffles, food, dog toys, etc.  Trust me - when I am packing all the crates, ground mats, sun shades, dog treats, tug toys, leashes, dog beds, water bowls, rain gear, footwear, tent, video camera, log books, chairs, etc. that I bring to a typical summer trial, the knowledge that I can just enjoy a workers’ lunch rather than packing a cooler and having one more thing to tote along – that is incentive enough for me.

5)  Put the Time In Up Front

Anyone who hasn’t put in the time to proof things such as start line stays knows that it is far easier to work on fundamental skills early on than have to always compensate or manage later on because you haven’t developed the skill set you wish your dog had.

Not too long ago, a club was asking for someone to scribe.  I have never scribed (more fallout from my early corrections at that first trial), but after this many years I figured I could learn another skill.  I offered to do it if someone could just quickly show me what was involved since I hadn’t scribed before.  Instead, I was told to go trade places with someone who was bar-setting who already knew how to scribe.  It was all the same to me, but ultimately, had someone taken 30 seconds to walk me through the scribe sheet, they would probably have one more willing scribe volunteer today.

6)  Finally, Don’t Blame the Dog/Volunteer!

If we are honest with ourselves, we know that the mistakes made on course are not our dogs’ faults.  It is our bad timing, our mis-step on the course, or something missing in the training foundation we’ve provided.

Likewise, it isn’t the volunteers’ responsibility to know every dog in the trial’s name on sight and to be able to intuitively know when you’ve changed your running order.  It isn’t their fault if your Border Collie barks incessantly at you when you are running and you miss the timer’s whistle. 

Even if it is their fault – take a deep breath and relax.  The fate of the world is not hinging upon whether or not you Q.  I’ve NQ’ed due to people’s errors, and I’ve also been given Q’s.  Usually, if you politely raise the issue, judges and clubs are more than willing to try to make it up to you somehow if they can.

Have fun with your dogs and each other at your trials.  Remember that all animals learn the same way and try to incorporate the principles of positive reinforcement both when you train your canine partner and when you work with your volunteers and agility clubs.  And volunteer – it is a great way to meet people who may become close friends, and it is truly the best seat in the house!

Thursday, June 23, 2011

CPE Nationals Trip 2011: Porcupine Mountains

IMG_1030 The last leg of our summer Nationals trip took us from Minnesota back up the the Michigan UP for a stop in the Porcupine Mountains.  We arrived at our campsite, right on the shore of Lake Superior, by noon on Monday, had a quick lunch, and headed out for a hike at Lake of the Clouds, a picturesque lake tucked in the midst of pines as far as the eye can see.

P1030480 Michigan is a big state, and the Porcupines are almost as far up there as you can get, but they are well worth the drive.  From a short walk from the parking area, you are treated to an amazing view of rolling hills, old growth forest, and a serene lake.  We took in the view, then hiked down to the lake itself.  Eventually we climbed back up and hiked along the Escarpment trail, which offered many more spectacular views.

IMG_1064 Back at the campsite, we all hiked along the rocky Superior shore for a while, reminding me of days playing on rocks along the Lake Huron beaches as a kid.  Cadence played with the waves as they broke against the rocks. 


IMG_1037 At many points during these hikes in particular, we wondered what was going on in the minds of our canine friends.  Do they appreciate aesthetics?  Nature?  They certainly seemed to.  On the vistas of the Porcupines, they all would seem to gaze out over the cliffs.  Cadence would even put his feet up on the stone guard walls for a better view.  Later on, they perched on the rocks and gazed out across the water peacefully and calmly.  We couldn’t help but get the sense that they were as awestruck by this landscape as we were.

IMG_1091 We woke to a beautiful sunrise, and headed back across Michigan towards home.  We were very satisfied with our decision this year to vacation in our home state, which is filled with more natural beauty than I think most southeast-Michiganders realize.  Definitely a memorable trip, but as always there is no place like home, and we were happy at the end of the day to have the entire fur family back together again in our favorite place of all.

Monday, June 20, 2011

CPE Nationals Trip 2011: Lake Elmo, MN

From Munising, MI, we made our way across the Upper Peninsula and Wisconsin, and arrived in Lake Elmo by early morning Thursday.  We set up camp, visited with friends, walked the dogs, and prepared for three fun days of agility at the CPE National event.

The trial was a blast.  All the rings were outdoors on grass this year, which Django loves, and the weather was pretty much perfect for a dog event.  While it rained overnight a couple evenings, the days stayed dry, and a bit overcast for most of it.  Temps were in the 60’s.  While for some people this might seem somewhat cool, the dogs loved it.

IMG_0993 We had three runs each day, two games classes and a standard run.  Django, at about nine years old, ran great for me in every run.  He came in to the ring every time motivated and focused, ran with speed and enthusiasm, and followed my handling cues very well.  Our runs were by and large some of the fastest and smoothest we’ve had, and he was up and happy the entire time.

On Friday, Django closed out the day with a Full House course, and ran agility at a speed I’ve never seen him run before.  I was stunned, as were Lowell and our friends watching on the sidelines.  I ran at an all-out sprint to keep up with him, and he ended up earning second place!

We had one off course in a Wildcard run when he missed a weave entry and in my effort to re-start them, pulled him in to a tunnel behind me.  His Standard courses were all run very nice, but I think he has decided never to hit a dogwalk down contact again in competition.  And, honestly, I am trying to decide if I care.  Initially, Django was never trained with any clear contact performance criteria.  He just was always moving cautiously and slowly enough on them that he almost always hit the yellow.  In the last year or so, we have been working a lot on drive and confidence, and he has picked up speed considerably.  But, that has also meant that now he is all-too-often launching off his contacts.  I have tried this spring to re-train them, but haven’t translated this into competition successfully yet.  After all the work we have done with motivation, there is no way I would walk him off a course and risk shutting him down when he misses the contact.  Plus, he is about nine years old, and although he is in great health with no sign of slowing down, I can’t guarantee how long he will run agility.  So, for now I am not setting goals beyond have fun and try to push ourselves to run fast and smooth and clean.  If Standard Q’s aren’t in our future anymore, I think I’m fine with that.  I’m having the most fun running him that I’ve ever had, and I think the feeling is mutual. 

IMG_0996 Maebe and Lowell had amazingly fast runs all weekend, as usual.  She took first place in Jumpers, even with a spill coming out of a wet tunnel.  Unfortunately, she was having a bit of a bar-knocking weekend, otherwise I’m sure they would have taken home several more blue ribbons.  They had fun and had some great runs other than the occasional bar down though, which is what really mattered.

We had some non-agility successes over the weekend also.  Therapy Dogs International had evaluators on-site during the trial, and were offering testing if you wanted to certify your dog to do therapy work.  The TDI test basically consists of the AKC Canine Good Citizen requirements (basic obedience and manners with other people and animals).  It also includes a few other components which really test the temperament of the dog as well.  Dogs need to be OK with loud noises, novel sights, people using wheelchairs or other assistive devices, and they need to be friendly and accepting of other adults and children.

IMG_1010 Cadence has always done well when I’ve taken him to public events for Dog Scouts.  I’ve thought of TDI testing him at some point, so decided this weekend to give it a try.  Lowell decided to test Maebe as well, so Saturday we signed up for a couple test slots.

As far as testing sites go, I think this was a pretty challenging one.  We did most of the testing in a pavilion set back from, but within view of the four agility rings, and they had to be able to walk through the crowd closer to ringside.  The pavilion itself was in a grassy field that was being mowed right as Cadence and Maebe began testing.  When Cade was doing his sit/stay and recall, the riding mower was cruising along right next to the pavilion, providing considerable distraction.  Nonetheless, both he and Maebe did great, and passed the evaluation.  Once all the remaining paperwork is complete, we are excited to start looking for volunteer opportunities with them.

IMG_1017 Finally on Sunday evening after awards, we prepared for the return leg of our journey, all of us tired but proud of the many accomplishments of the weekend.

Friday, June 17, 2011

CPE Nationals Trip 2011: Munising, MI

P1030461We spent the past week taking our annual summer vacation/road trip to compete in CPE Agility Nationals.  This year they were being held in Lake Elmo, Minnesota.  The last few years we have tried to visit a couple National Parks during these trips, but this year we decided to have a vacation in our home state of Michigan.  By taking a slightly longer route to Minnesota, we were able to travel through the Upper Peninsula of Michigan and visit several beautiful attractions up there on both legs of the trip.  It ended up being one of our favorite and most memorable vacations to date.

cade sandy point With Django, Maebe, and Cadence in tow, we spent the first two nights in Munising, MI, home of Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore.  On our first afternoon, we hiked some of the few dog-friendly areas on the mainland (most of the lakeshore trails are closed to dogs).   Still, we were able to visit a waterfall, and hike along a quiet, remote beach at Sandy Point.   Cadence as always was fascinated by the water, and had a great time splashing at the waves on Lake Superior. P1030464

The next morning, we took a short ferry trip over to Grand Island, and hiked about five miles with the dogs.  They again had the chance to wade in Superior and to catch glimpses of the Pictured Rock cliffs across the bay.

IMG_0956 We returned to the mainland by lunch time, and decided to look into renting a pontoon boat for the afternoon so to better see the cliffs from the water.  Superior was smooth as glass, and there wasn’t a cloud in the sky.  We checked weather from the dock before we left – predictions remained absolutely beautiful, and there wasn’t a blip of rain on the radar anywhere in the UP. 

IMG_0970 Lowell drove us out along the lakeshore, where we had amazing views of the cliffs and beaches.  Everything was perfect, and the dogs were having a great time lounging around the pontoon.  After an hour we reached Spray Falls, where we had been told by the rental company we needed to turn around.  As we steered the boat back towards Munising, we suddenly felt a shift in the wind and things began to suddenly change.

The smooth waters of Lake Superior were growing increasingly choppy.  The breeze was now cool, and ominous clouds were gathering.  The dogs became nervous.  As we began to be bounced around more, I started to gather the dogs on leash to hold them near the center of the boat, and experienced one of the worst 30 seconds of my life when I suddenly couldn’t locate Django on the boat.  I was scanning the lake and screaming for him, when he suddenly emerged from an under-seat storage compartment that had come unzipped.  Clever guy had found a very tiny safe spot for himself to hide in, and gave me the scare of my life. 

We began to hear claps of thunder.  Lightning was striking ahead of us.  Waves broke over the boat and drenched all of us with water that was still less than 50 degrees in temperature.  When the hail started, it just felt like adding insult to injury.  The boat rocked violently.  With just sheer cliffs alongside us, there was nowhere to pull in and get off the water at the height of it.  I have spent a lot of time in boats and on water in my life, and am a strong swimmer, but I can say I’ve never been more scared in my life. 

We fought our way back to shore during what seemed like an eternity but was probably a bit over an hour.  At the dock, the staff looked at us, dripping wet and shivering, and perplexedly asked if we’d been rained on.  The severe storms that were sweeping along the lakeshore cliffs had not caused even a drop of rain at the inner part of the bay.

IMG_0877 We decided our new policy is to not rent boats when the neighboring business charters guided glass-bottom boat tours of shipwrecks in the bay.  Perhaps not a good sign.

In hindsight though, we had an amazing view of a spectacular lakeshore, and have a great story to tell.  We experienced first-hand the extreme and sudden changes that Lake Superior is famous for, so I guess we got the full Superior experience.  The dogs probably won’t want to get back on a pontoon boat any time soon, but they were great troopers during the whole ordeal.  When things got bad, they curled around me and laid still, just quietly waiting it all out though I know they were scared as well.

The rest of the day passed quietly.  We drove a bit farther up the shore on the mainland in the evening, and walked along the beach at our campground.  Our experience of Pictured Rocks was amazing, and we hope to return, though next time we will stick to the commercial guided tour of the cliffs in the really BIG boat!

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Learning About Border Collies

I’m very behind in blogging, but a lot has been going on in the last month so I am going to try to catch up.

DJ down in field The biggest adventure we have had lately was our trip to Brookfield, Missouri with Tristan, Django, and Cadence to attend a “Learning About Border Collies” 3-day workshop with the UK trainer, Kay Laurence.  We have seen Kay at ClickerExpo for the last two years, and couldn’t wait to spend a long weekend working with our dogs and learning from her.  The seminar was wonderful.  Perhaps the best I’ve ever attended.  We met wonderful people, and Kay was as always filled with amazing information. 

Basically, Border Collies are just not quite like other breeds of dog.  All of us BC owners have been told that and know that, but this helped us fully consider how it impacts their behavior and what we ask of them. 

BCs are bred to have a very specific behavior pattern, which enables them to masterfully perform the job they were originally born to do: herd.  They are extremely sensitive to motion and sound, they want things to be under control, and they want to chase.  They work on farms with their shepherd and few strangers.  They work in sprints, and must pause to think.  Too often, we don’t consider these traits when we are blushing at the crowded agility ringside as our overstimulated and overwhelmed BC has a tantrum because they can not control the moving dog and handler on the course. 

T mat It’s not that BC's can’t handle these environments – clearly they excel repeatedly in a wide variety of non-herding tasks.  But we need to remember how their brains work, and help prepare them for the types of environments where we want to bring them.  I loved Kay’s response to those who talk about all the “reactive” border collies that you see: “Well I would hope a dog is reactive – it just means he isn’t dead.” 

I’ve come to have a hard time with that term - “reactive.”  What does it even mean?  All dogs will react to some things; it is just a matter of thresholds.  Someone who saw Cadence in one of his bursts of frustration on the sideline of an agility class a year ago might have decided I had another one of those “reactive” dogs.  Unless they saw him the other 99.9% of the time – he is friendly to other dogs and people and is remarkably calm and well-mannered in a wide variety of environments.  I can take him to training expos with hundreds of people and dogs, I can walk through downtown, a busy park, a hotel lobby, a campground, a noisy truck stop, and even a crowded Renaissance Festival without him batting an eye. 

Me and C and DJ What he is, is distracted by motion, and by things that appear out of control.  What he is, is a normal border collie.  I think all of us shared the sentiments of one workshop attendee at the end of the first day, who said to Kay:  “Thank you for validating my dog.”

Kay also shared a paradigm with us that really beautifully illustrated what we see with our dogs.  Originally presented by Stephen Lindsay (I believe), she displayed an axis where one line ranged from uncontrolled to controlled, and the other from unpredictable to predictable.  A dog’s emotional response to an experience depends on where on the continuum it lies:

-Controlled/predictable = Boredom.

-Uncontrolled/predictable = Frustration.  This is the dog barking at the agility sideline.  He knows there is going to be crazy motion and dogs running, but he can’t control it.

-Uncontrolled/unpredictable = Fear.

-Controlled/unpredictable = Excitement and anticipation.  This is clicker training and shaping.  There is a controlled pattern – dog’s behavior will earn a consequence (reward) - but the dog has to figure out what behavior will get him there.  It is why animals enjoy clicker training so much.

A year ago, when Cadence was having his impulse control issues in agility class, a trainer suggested I medicate him because he was so “anxious.”  I was stunned at this assessment of him.  “No,” I said, “he is frustrated.”  The answer I chose was to work on impulse control and manage his environment to help him better handle his frustration.  Thank you, Kay, for confirming that I know my dog.  As she said, never let some outsider’s judgment of your dog get in between your relationship with your dog.

We also learned a lot about how we can use our body language better – how projecting calmness ourselves can keep them calm.  This was an eye-opener for me.  I thought I was giving my best display of calmness, but Kay pointed out how I was still carrying tension in my body, and jokingly suggested I have a drink before training!   She also advised us to move much more slowly when working BCs.  They have a habit of working us up and getting us to move faster and faster.  What we need to do is slow them down so they can better think, rather than both getting worked up to a manic frenzy.

Finally, the coolest part of the weekend was having the opportunity to see our dogs’ reactions to sheep.  The farm arranged a few sheep in a smaller round pen, and we brought our dogs up to see how they responded and whether they could move them about the pen from outside the fence.  It was a great way to keep sheep safe from green dogs, yet to still observe herding instinct. 

It was fascinating watching Cadence.  He approached with interest but some caution at first, as he often does with new things, then rapidly decided this was the greatest thing ever.  The shepherd commented that he moved into pressure nicely, and held his eye on the sheep until they responded.  She was impressed with his natural instinct and said he had a lot of potential if I was able/wanted to pursue herding with him. 

Much to Cadence’s disappointment, we are not about to sell the house and move to a farm.  But we are on the lookout for some practice sheep and herding lessons . . .


Friday, May 20, 2011


So much to say, yet words simply can never describe him.

He was simply the coolest cat you could ever meet.

IMG_0022 He was a young stray brought in to the Humane Society of Huron Valley.  We stumbled across him ten years ago in the last, lower cage in the cat room on a casual stroll through the shelter as we considered whether our current cat, River, would like a friend.  All the other cats were curled up in the backs of their cages, freaked out and wishing they were somewhere else.  This beautiful grey and white cat was having a grand old time by himself though, tossing toys around his cage, and pawing at a spider on the floor outside the cage door.  There wasn’t a doubt in our minds.

Throughout his entire life, nothing ever disturbed Milo.  He was totally unflappable.  When we took him for his first exam after adopting him, he curled up in the window of the exam room and chilled out.  The vet said, “You could never find a cat with a better temperament.”  He loved everyone and everything.  He wanted to be with you always.  He greeted everybody at the door when they arrived, curled up in everyone’s laps, followed us around the house everywhere we went.  He was endlessly happy, and it was infectious.  Everybody loved Milo.  People who thought they didn’t like cats would find themselves stroking his soft fur as he curled on their lap for hours.

IMG_0122He and River became the best of friends.  They were inseparable.  River adored Milo.  Being a little more anxious and high-strung by nature, River seemed to lean on Milo for comfort and support.  At vet appointments, moves, and other stressful events, a calm Milo would stay by a nervous River’s side.  They spent their days curled together throughout the house, and slept in a “cat pile” next to us at night.  If River couldn’t find Milo, he paced through the house yowling until Milo was located, then would curl up with him.  They groomed each other, played with each other.  It was beautiful, and we hated to think of them ever being parted.

Milo’s purr was amazing.  It never stopped and was practically a dull roar.  Many nights it woke me up from a deep sleep.  Because of his purr, it took veterinarians about three years to conclusively diagnosis his heart murmur.  They would all listen, suspicious, but that motor wouldn’t stop and it masked all other heart sounds.  Finally, there was consensus that something wasn’t right, and we were referred to a top cardiologist at MSU for evaluation and an EKG.  I asked if they would have to sedate or anesthetize him for the EKG.  Our vet rolled her eyes, laughing, and said, “Not this cat.”

Waiting for the appointment, I read up on feline heart conditions.  I didn’t like what I read – cardiomyopathy was believed to be the leading cause of death of middle-aged indoor cats, and their life expectancy was about 10-12 years.  I pushed that statistic out of my head.

At MSU, Milo was cool, calm and collected as always.  After the EKG, the cardiologist brought him in and exclaimed, “I love your cat!!”  He confirmed that Milo had a heart murmur, but they couldn’t pinpoint where in the heart it was, there was nothing else he was really concerned about, so he advised us to just continue as usual and watch for signs of him slowing down, cautioning us at the same time that often cats don’t display any signs beforehand.

Years passed happily together.  Milo never slowed down and was always healthy.  Every year, we brought him in for an annual exam and listened anxiously as the vets listened to his heart.  It didn’t seem to be worsening and all seemed well.

We can honestly say we treasured every wonderful moment with him.  At nights, he would wait on our bed for us to crawl in, then would dart under the covers between us, curl up, and purr contentedly.  We would curl around him, faces pressed into his beautiful fur, hands petting his milky white belly – what we called his “cream filling.”  His purr would melt away any stress or sorrows of the day.

On May 2, we arrived home to find Milo in distress – weak, dazed, and unable to use his rear legs.  Hours earlier he had been fine.  In fifteen minutes we were at the vet getting emergency treatment, but he was departing fast.  Something had just failed suddenly and completely.  Through sobs, we said our good-byes, held him, kissed his fur, and helped him be in peace again. 

We always said that Milo’s heart was probably weakened because it was so full of love to give.  In the end, it simply couldn’t contain it all, and he had to depart us, leaving all that love to burst out and into the world.

When we got home from the vet that horrible evening, we witnessed an amazing sunset with brilliant red and pink skies.  We aren’t particularly spiritual people, but nevertheless we felt it was Milo’s spirit being set free into the heavens.  Two days later, despite our sorrow, we forced ourselves out of bed for an early morning run, and witnessed a spectacular sunrise, and both of us felt a sense of Milo looking down on us, always with that unconditional, endless love.

Thank you, Milo, for all that you gave to all of us.  You will always be with us.