Monday, December 9, 2019

On My Soapbox.. Again

Red, still in MS.

(Giving the same preface I always give... I am a supporter of responsible breeders as well as responsible rescue/rehome efforts.)

There is a blog post going around called "Dog Trafficking: A Multi-Million Dollar Business." Google if it you want, I'm not posting the link here. It was written in 2016, but seems to have gained some ground on social media over the past couple of days.  It brings up some concerns about the exchange of dogs from the southern USA to the northeast USA. It also holds special contempt for Greg Mahle, owner of "Rescue Road Trips" who transports dogs in this pipeline and makes money doing it.

If you know me at all, you know that I support ethical rescue. My own preferred version of ethical rescue includes the following.
  • I do not support "adopt don't shop." 
  • I do not support the idea that every dog is rehabilitatable and should be placed in a home. 
  • I absolutely acknowledge that there is a lot of bad and a lot of greed in rescues. Most importantly to me,
    • Some rescues don't hold dogs long enough to get an idea of temperament, leading to some of the situations you see on the news about dogs just attacking "out of nowhere"
    • Some rescues adopt dogs right off of transport to unsuspecting owners, leading to the dogs getting returned when the adopters realize they've bitten off more than they could chew
    • Some rescues fly dogs in from faraway lands, sometimes carrying serious diseases, sometimes claiming they're "meat dogs" when realistically.. no one stops to ask why so many people in Eastern Europe or Asia are eating purebred Golden Retrievers
    • Some rescues go to auction and spend thousands of donation dollars to save one dog and subsequently line the pockets of puppy millers, therefore keeping the cycle going
Et cetera. All of these things may help an individual dog, but do much more harm than good for dogs over all, in my opinion.

Most of the people sharing this blog post would probably nod along in agreement with my points above. So.. if I feel this way, what could I possibly have to say in opposition to this blog post?

Welp. Frankly, I've read the post a couple of times and have arrived at the same conclusion over and over.  There is an important message in this post, but that message is buried deep under a ton of vitriol that vilifies adopters and makes outrageous claims with little supporting evidence. This all, therefore, negates any positive message the post might have about the problems with the system.

I repeat. This blog post calls people who adopt southern dogs and people who feel good about moving them up here gullible and brain dead.  At the surface, you can see why I might be offended by that statement, as an owner of southern dogs myself.  My second southern dog was not at all any kind of do-gooding impulse purchase. He was acquired by me with a ton of careful consideration, after scoping out both purebreds and mixed breeds, adults and puppies.  He was in foster prior to my acquisition of him, and the rescue group and foster were both happy to answer my extensive questions and let me dictate how the meet and greet went. I'd likely work with them again.

However, realistically, I do not need or care about some blogger's opinion on where my dogs come from. I've been at this stuff a little while now. So what's my real issue with this?

Well.. people have similar things to say about those who acquire backyard bred dogs. Or dogs from the meat trade. Or puppy store dogs. Or doodles. Or whatever's the latest pet buying craze that people disagree with. And while some or all of the things they say might be valid points of concern, they are presenting their concern in the completely wrong way.

Okay, so maybe you do acknowledge there are some problems with acquiring a southern dog, or a $5K designer dog, or a BYB dog, or whatever.  Do you think that calling people names is going to help them say "oh, okay, that's a good point, let me work with you and find a better breeder or better rescue group next time?" All that shaming does is piss people off and turn them away from you.  It doesn't make them your friend, it doesn't make them respect you, and it therefore neglects to solve the perceived problem at hand because it doesn't change their mind. 

And then there is the other stuff spewed in this venomous post.. the claim that the southern overpopulation of dogs is a mythical fairytale, and some vast majority of the dogs pouring north are doing so under false pretenses.

I am sure dogs are stolen and imported by unscrupulous rescue groups, but I have a hard time believing it is a significant percentage of the dogs coming up from the south. I have seen some of the claimed-mythical overpopulation for myself.  Spoken to many people, including Red's former owner, who live there. Visited the shelter Marge came from.  I have seen intact male dogs wandering with my own eyes on nearly every trip I've made to the region. I have read the Facebook posts where people in places like Mississippi say "my girl had a litter and I can't keep the puppies, someone come get them." The south has dogs that people in the Northeast want.  Houndy, labby, herding mixes. You may question how well local organizations and their north affiliates are helping to curb these unwanted litters, and I'd say that's a valid thing to look in to. But, if you're going to make a claim that most of these dogs are actually offshore fly-by-night imports bred specifically for resale, who are run through shelters to get transported north, I WANT HARD PROOF because that's a pretty big, different claim.

(As an aside - I am going to get flack for this, but I personally feel that this guy, Greg Mahle, is filling a niche.  People in the north want dogs.  The south has dogs.  Greg Mahle makes money moving dogs south to north.  He is not a rescue hero, he is some guy filling a transport void that would be filled by someone else if not him. If the media wants to make him a celebrity, I couldn't care less as long as it's not in an adopt-don't-shop, anti-breeder manner. I think neither positively nor negatively of him.)

It very likely would make for a better dog-owning America if the only dogs available were purposely bred animals that people had to wait in line for.  It would certainly be better for the dogs as there would be no unwanted animals then, no impulse purchases, no animals to save and no animals to "save."  I do think that would require a drastic change on how the pet "industry" in America as a whole operates, which would have consequences more far reaching than just "the Smith family has to wait for Rover to be born". Until that utopia occurs, though, the question remains, despite the posts clamoring to END THIS and END THAT.  Americans want dogs, want them now, and everyone is talking about where not to get one, and not talking about where to get one.  

In the current climate, hobby breeders are an excellent choice but cannot meet America's demand for dogs in full and even if they could, some prospective pet homes are unwilling to wait on waiting lists.  Commercial breeders are the antichrist and now.. moving unwanted mixed breed dogs from south to north is no good, either, and wrought with conspiracy and disease and greed and and and.  

So what do we do?  Do we just sit around and complain about all of the things we disagree with, or even if we don't have all of the answers, do we attempt to educate-by-example without name calling and truly, earnestly help people make decisions that better align with our own morals?

I know what category I fall in to.

I personally feel that the people who "do their homework" with regard to dog acquisition didn't arrive to that point by accident.  They met a "dog person" (be it someone involved in good breeding, good rescue, or both), got to know them, wound up admiring them and their mindset, valued their opinion, etc and did more research.  

They did not arrive there because a blogger on the internet got snotty over where their dog came from.

Monday, November 26, 2018

On My Soapbox

If you get your dog from a reputable, responsible breeder, I will support you.  I will not push an "Adopt Don't Shop" agenda or accuse you for being responsible for dog overpopulation or full shelters when those things have nothing to do with you.

If you get your dog from an reputable, responsible adoption or rescue group, I will support you.  I will not tell you that a puppy from breeder is always a better choice or claim that adult shelter dogs all have behavioral issues and are not safe for a family.

If you compete with your dogs in the myriad of activities that organizing agencies have to offer, I will support you.  I will not accuse you of exploiting your dogs for prize money or green ribbons or "forcing" them to do something for someone else's enjoyment.

If your dogs are beloved pets, couch potatoes, hiking partners, fetching buddies, I will support you.  I will not share images of grossly overweight animals to allude to the idea that a healthy, happy dog kept as "just a pet" is somehow inferior to a show dog or working dog.

If your dogs are working to better our world, or the worlds of their owners, through service, livestock tending or guarding, sledding, hunting, police work, or any of the other things they may have originally been bred to do, I will support you too.  I will not make claims that having dogs spend a lot of their time outdoors is mean, or carry on about their work being dangerous.

I'm really tired of the divisiveness.  Yeah, the Greyhound thing started this.   Meme after meme being shared on Facebook, on either side of the argument, about all of this so-called "abuse" going on. Too many people pushing different agendas when really, they each want the same thing: to own their dogs and share the life that THEY want to share with them.

Just because I may opt to give my dogs the type of life they have, doesn't mean that it works for everyone or every dog.

We are too quick to use the word "abuse," I think. A show dog or working dog that spends its entire life doing show dog things or working dog things is not being abused.  While far removed from the duties of the average American pet, please remember.. having dogs just so we can dress them up (yeah, I do that), spend thousands on pet food (yeah, I do that too) and paint their nails funny colors (OK, this one's not me) is a relatively new thing.

Likewise, a slightly pudgy pet dog or a dog who is a certified couch potato is not abuse either. Remember.. not everyone has the time, money, or desire to hunt with their beagle or herd with their Border Collie.  If the dog has a roof over its head, food and water in its bowl, adequate vet care, isn't engaging in destructive or dangerous behaviors and is loved by whoever takes care of it, why are you being so quick to get on your soap box?  All you will accomplish is swaying those "pet people" to believe you're a snob rather than having them ally with you when the dog breeding legislation pops back up.

Maybe I wouldn't give my dogs either of those lives.  Maybe some people feel that either or both those things are wrong. But.. it isn't abuse and it doesn't require any legal interference.

Abuse is somebody choking the show dog when it doesn't perform or overfeeding their overweight dog to the point that it cannot walk normally due to excess weight.  Go ahead, get involved then.   Let the existing laws do their work.

All you people who gasp every time you see a male dog who still has all his parts (*owned by someone responsible who isn't going to make him meet up with the random pretty girl dog down the street) - guess what? If dog breeding wasn't a thing, and every animal ever put on this green earth was spayed and neutered, then we'd eventually have no more dogs (or at least not enough to meet demand), and definitely no more dogs bred to serve specific purposes. 

And on the flipside, if everybody got their dog from a breeder and shelters weren't a thing then we'd have no homes for some of the truly lovely shelter dogs that are capable of many of the same things their purebred counterparts are.  Not to mention, we'd possibly not have enough responsible breeders to meet the public's needs and you'd see an uptick in backyard/puppy mill-type operations.  Maybe those "rescue people" will find themselves suited well to a purebred dog one day.  Maybe they won't.  Just because someone does not choose to get a purebred dog doesn't mean they don't support and stand by them and their purpose.

I am ambivalent about Greyhound racing.  I do not know enough about it to completely decry it and tend to think that if there was widespread abuse, we'd see it and hear about it.  I do think the industry provides a ton of well-adjusted pets once the dogs retire and I take in to account the fact that 100+ rescue groups opposed the ban.  I do think that a percentage of people voted on a quick snap Yes or No decision without doing research and weighing the pros and cons. But that isn't what this post is about.

What this post IS about is understanding that some people do things with their animals that I'd never dream of doing.  Just like I do things with my animals that some others wouldn't ever dream of doing, either.

And that's OK.  Short of true physical or mental anguish... leave each other alone.  I love my mutts and think they're both pretty fantastic.  They suit me and my lifestyle well.  BUT, I have loved, admired, or worked with purposefully bred dogs, shelter dogs, working dogs, family pets, and everything in between. Support each other and learn about each other rather than trying to pass laws about things that you might not know everything about.  Educate the people around you on your ideals for animal ownership but let them make their own decisions.

There's room for everybody.

Tuesday, November 6, 2018

Double Trouble

I had a very informative private lesson with Red yesterday, getting him ready for the beginning of what I hope to be a very successful stint in the Obedience and Rally rings.  I was told that I have talent on my hands with him, by someone who is one of the leading obedience people in my area.

It has basically led to me redefining heel position for both dogs.  I TAUGHT them both to forge.  I got away with it with Marge because she always had a tendency to get laggy in competition, but with Red, it's pushing him in front of me and causing us to flub up really simple stuff.  He isn't being "bad" - he doesn't understand the criteria!

The prescription: several small sessions a day "doodling" and getting both dogs comfortable in *real* heel position.  Doing lots of set-ups so I form the correct picture in their heads of what "heel" looks like. Of course, I took it upon myself to use these exercises for Marge, as she was home and comfy in her bed when I had Red out at the lesson, but since I want to bring her out for her CDX next year.. it's worth doing.

So far, so good.

It's fun (albeit sometimes stressful), having to juggle Red, Marge, Obedience, Agility, Rally, and (for Marge) Nosework plus a real life.  Still, I don't think I overdo it with them.  Just a couple of weeks ago, they were out at about hiking all over the place.  Trails that I didn't know Marge could do - yet she made it all the way up and all the way down with no issue.

Maybe I'll actually revive this blog and start posting again.  At least I know that 2018 will not go by without at least one entry!

Tuesday, May 2, 2017

I Flew The Coop

I had been obsessively searching Petfinder for weeks.

Hours.  I mean, to the point where I was probably spending more time scrolling mostly aimlessly at dogs I had no intention of adopting than doing much of anything else.  Addicted, maybe.

I had spoken with breeders, met and inquired about available 8-week olds, and honestly.. it didn't feel right.  Bawling and thinking about how Marge was going to hate me if I made an 8-week old come live with her outweighed any ounce of joy that I had about the thought of bringing home a second dog.  (Nothing against breeders at ALL, so please don't take it that way.  I just couldn't bring home an infant this time around.)

I finally mustered up the courage to submit an application for a Cattle Dog named Luke available through a rescue in NJ.  We met him, and I was lukewarm on him (no pun intended), but after literally two weeks of having the application open and filled out on my computer, I decided that I'd at least give a meet and greet between this dog and Marge a shot.

It wasn't meant to be.  The day I submitted my application, Luke was adopted.  And honestly, it was OK.  It wasn't the right dog for me, and I was trying too hard in my brain to think about why it was good and why it would work.

Still, I think the experience lit a fire under my butt because I knew I couldn't hem and haw and expect dogs to still be available several weeks later after no action from me.

The following day, I again went on Petfinder, keeping my search radius so large that I wound up looking at dogs three hours away in Connecticut.

I saw this.

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I said out loud, "What the [expletive] is THAT?!"  He was so cute.  A 7-month old Cattle Dog with a perfect description.

I submitted an application later that night.  That was a Sunday.

I e-mailed 24 hours later looking for a follow up. 

By Thursday, I was on the phone with the rescue coordinator setting up my 3-hour roadtrip with Marge and Louie to meet this little guy.

Fast forward to Saturday.  Six minutes from the foster's house - after a 3-hour drive in my new Ford Escape - I pulled in to a baseball field parking lot and bawled.  Why did I need another dog?  Marge is still young, still active in agility and picking up speed in obedience and Rally.  Would a new dog thwart our plans?

I went in to that foster's house thinking that there was no way I was coming home with another dog.  Not a chance.  This dog would have to be perfect, and I'd have to have basically no reservations about his behavior around Marge.

The rescue group deferred to me on how we'd do introductions.  I opted for a parallel walk with NO sniffing or interaction at first, gradually letting them get closer and get their sniffs in. It went fine.

After walking quite a bit, we turned them loose in a yard.  There was no more avoiding it.  If it didn't work now, it wouldn't work ever. 

One snark from Marge, then play bows, and then she ran around the foster's yard with this puppy like I haven't seen her do in years.

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We signed our papers, loaded two dogs in the car and started on our traffic-filled voyage home.

Fast forward a few weeks, after the new-dog equivalent of some kind of weird postpartum depression equivalent on my part (Marge never really had an adjustment period, other than maybe spending a little more time on her couch chair), and I finally introduced Red to the world.

After a lot of digging and a little stalking on the internet, long story short, Red was an approximately 7 month old Beagle/Cattle Dog mix from Mississippi whose owners sent him to the shelter after they were unable to curb his bad behavior around poultry.

Rescue put him on a transport truck to Connecticut, which is when I found his profile and decided I had to have him.

You'd think a leash may have helped with the whole eating birds thing, but hey.. I got an awesome dog out of the whole deal.

So, without further ado.. this is Northbound Flew The Coop, and he's part of our story now, too.

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But don't let that angelic face fool you.  This guy is a wild child.  He is well behaved in the house, amazing with Marge, and a blast while training.. but he's still got a lot to learn about life in the city.  Very different than training a fearful dog. Stay tuned for some training posts about him, particularly as I navigate an 8-week online mentorship with a trainer/behaviorist who I hold in VERY high regard.

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

When Titles Matter More

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Marge's MACH is one of the things I am the most proud of from her competition career.  Her MACH ribbons, the bar and photos hanging on my wall, and memory of her victory lap and MACH party are tokens that represent all we have worked through to become a successful team.  More recently, she finished her CD title, which she probably could have gotten years ago, but I held her back until I felt we were both ready.  Same with Rally Nationals.  I've qualified for them a few times before, but only entered when I put the time in and knew that Marge would have a good time.

There are other things I am working on achieving with Marge, too.  Since she is now a seasoned competitor, getting her ready for the ring across an array of venues is not nearly as much work as it used to be.  I am spoiled in that she is a very easy dog to compete with, in many ways.  It sure is fun to look at her official registered name and see the list of prefixes and suffixes that have become attached to it over the years.  She is a jack of all trades type.  She is not the flashiest, but she gives her best. We've worked hard to form a real understanding of each other and routine for in and out of the ring.

However.. she is almost ten years old. None of it happened overnight, and I sure as heck wasn't worried about this stuff when Marge was learning to be a normal dog and approach life with joy rather than apprehension.

It seems that not everyone shares that sentiment with me.  I'd like to tell a quick story.

At a trial I was at very recently, I witnessed a licensed, fully approved judge essentially will a dog and handler team through a Rally course.  The judge gave the handler tips on getting the dog to move while in the ring, blocked the exit to the ring multiple times, and allowed the handler to retry stations more than once.  She told the handler to blow in the dog's face to get him to move.

Noble, right?  Helping a struggling handler in the ring, who may be a newbie?

No, I don't think so.

This was not a junior handler.  This was not someone's first dog show. I didn't mention that the dog was stressed or scared out of its mind, completely unable to work, and was NOT in the Novice class - so the handler was not new to this.   And guess what?  The judge gave that dog the minimum score of 70, allowing it to finish a high-level title, going so far as to proclaim "you're never going to have to do this again!"

(To be clear, there is nothing wrong with passing with a 70 -- I just feel that this team should have been excused for lack of teamwork, or at minimum given a non-qualifying score.)

What does that title really mean?  Are you supposed to feel good about getting a high-level Rally Obedience title when most other judges would have not only NQ'd you, but excused you from their ring because your dog was horribly stressed?

Maybe I am being too judgmental -- maybe the dog was elderly or ill and was going to have to stop training, and it was their last chance to compete for this Q -- but I do NOT think you should compromise your dog's well being to that extent to bring it in to a ring, and I do NOT think that rewarding the handler with a Q is the right way to go.  As someone who has competed with a dog who used to fear a lot of things, it breaks my heart to see this.  Dog sports should be fun for the dog, not just the handler.

There are other stories I could tell, too -- including what I perceived to be someone poo-pooing me for thinking about holding Red back from his CGC if I feel he isn't 100% ready at the end of his basic obedience classes (for my purposes, the CGC is closer to a barometer on a trial-like performance than it is a measure of community soundness), or, on a similar note, handlers who put dogs in the ring at a young age when it is clear they are not mentally ready for it.

The first few times that a dog goes to shows might be tough.  The first time an agility dog smells horse poop in a dirt arena or an obedience dog goes to a two-ring show might produce some interesting behaviors. I'm not saying every qualifying performance has to be flawless.  Not every obedience run is a 200 (none of mine are) and not every agility performance is a blue-ribbon, sub-30 second Jumpers run (none of mine are, either).  Dogs will be dogs - they will have zoomies, they will sniff, they'll even take a crap in the ring once in a while.  But even in the beginning, and especially in higher-level classes, I would hope that every handler that sets foot in a ring expects their dog to have some level of engagement with them, and is not just going through the motions solely to wrap up a title or get that last qualifying leg.

When did we forget that our dogs are living, breathing DOGS, animals who have no concept of a CD, an AXJ, an RAE, and the title certificates should be a testament to a great working relationship - not a badge for sliding by on the skin of our teeth, with no regarding for how the animal half of the team feels about it?

I'm not going to pretend titles don't matter.  It IS very satisfying to get recognition on a job well done, or on hardships overcome.  But please don't forget about the journey, or forget about the dog, more importantly, in the process.

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Home

At the end of March, Louie, Marge, Red (wait - who's Red?! Yeah, I haven't formally introduced him on the MargeBlog yet), and I traveled to the AKC Rally National Championships in Perry, Georgia.  Marge has qualified for other Rally National Championships in the past, but the perfect situation presented itself this year for us to go.   It helped that the competition was in Georgia - Marge's home state, where she came from.  Certainly makes for a good story.

We rented a GMC Yukon XL - an absolutely massive, fully loaded truck.  It isn't that we couldn't have fit in my Ford Escape, but this was a lot more comfortable.  Yes, I drove it too!

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Marge did great at the competition, with scores of 86, 99, 98, and 97 out of 100.  If not for that 86 (a 10-point hit that we suffered was likely my fault) - we would have been 29th out of 148 dogs.  Instead, we were 56th.  Still amazing.  I beamed with pride the entire time.

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The other really special part of this trip was the detour we took on the way home.  About 2 1/2 hours to the north of the competition is a town by the name of Ellijay.  Ellijay just happens to be where Marge came from before she was transported to New York and I adopted her.

We wrestled a bit about whether to drive through there or not - it was a bit out of the way - but ultimately decided that we had to.  Chances are that I'd never find myself in Georgia, with Marge, ever again.  How amazing would it be to say that I took her home?

Before our tour officially began, we took the dogs to the Chattahoochee River Recreation Area not far away for a hike.  How fun!

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Our first official stop was to the Cherokee County Animal Shelter - a open admission, but progressive, shelter.  This is more than likely the place that Marge and her litter came through before being pulled by the now abolished Noah's Bark Rescue Group.  I went in and said I was there to give a donation, but risked having the shelter staff think I was nuts and told them part of the story after cutting them a check.  They seemed genuinely interested to hear about Marge.  (They did send me a card thanking me for my donation in MEMORY of Marge week or so later -- yikes! I'd like to think that they meant in memory of her stint there but I know it was just an honest mistake!)

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Before leaving, I went back to the kennels.  I knew that I shouldn't have, but I did.  It has been about 8 1/2 years since I've been in a shelter, and I guess I forgot how intense the emotions would be.  After a bunch of tails wagging at me from behind kennel doors, I couldn't take it for longer than a couple of minutes and went back to the car to bawl.  It made the whole thing so real... to think that either of my dogs could have had a setting like that be their final landing spot was a gut-wrenching thought.  It was especially tough to think of Marge, given the fear issues that she used to have and other quirks that to this day make her unique, not finding her way to me.  I don't mean to give myself a pat on the back, and I am not perfect, but even to this day, Marge is not a normal dog and I truly wonder what could have happened to her if she was in the hands of someone who treated her differently than I have.

Our next stop was to the town of Ellijay itself.  We drove around it for a few minutes.  It had a touristy feel, with antique shops and gift stores and even municipal parking, but it's pretty far away from everything, so I'm not sure who's going there to visit.  It was very cute.

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While there, I plugged in what I believe to be her former foster family's address in to the car GPS.  I have it because I am good at stalking online (and proud of it).  I can admit all of this without any fear of them being upset or anything... because they are both deceased.

We were taken on some twisty mountain backroads (no dirt roads, though!), and reached a gate to a private road.  We couldn't go any further, but my guess is that the house that Marge lived in was just beyond here.  Really cool.

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We let the dogs potty in a park back in Ellijay proper before hitting the road again for our first real portion of the trip home.  What an amazing experience. My rescue dog from Georgia got to go back nine years later and compete on the national stage before getting to visit her hometown. Very few, if any, people are able to say something like that. Really think about it. Let it sink in.

Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Control Unleashed - The Dog's Idea


Well, well!

I'll skip any forced introduction along the lines of "wow, I haven't written on here in nearly two years." Instead, I'll jump right in to it and say that I attended a Control Unleashed seminar at my dog club this past weekend.

Those of you who may still be reading this blog and were around in the beginning know that Control Unleashed exercises played some role in Marge's behavior modification training back in the day.  Most notably, I remember playing the "Look at That!" game when Marge would go absolutely nuts watching dogs, particularly bigger dogs, zip around at the agility field.

I got to recount this with Leslie McDevitt herself, which was super cool - especially since I had Marge on-leash next to me, who had little interest in or concern for the environment around her, thanks in part to some of these games.

Anyway, it's been a long time since I picked up the book, and I mentioned that to Leslie.  I really thought that the seminar would be more of a refresher for me, a way for me to silently nod my head and recall my vague memories of reading and using sections of the book.  How silly of me. Leslie said that since the book came out, she's had a lot of time to think about things, and I guess amend the way that she teaches them.  She wasn't kidding, because the seminar was absolutely mind-blowingly good.

The premise of the entire seminar was teaching the dog to have a conversation with you about the environment, rather than focusing on the environment alone.

It started with the concept of teaching the dog to breathe. I was confused at first by the idea of literally watching a dogs' nose to see if they are taking breaths, but it actually makes a lot of sense.  To just breathe, a dog can't be jumping up all over, stress panting, barking, whining, or otherwise being raucous.  To be able to sit quietly and calmly, to be able to truly connect with the handler in a myriad of environments, is the foundation for everything else.  Drive, interest, excitement.. perhaps that should come later.

There was a recent blog post that circulated about the idea of dogs being stressed in competition settings. Marge herself likes agility and seems comfortable at trials, but can be barky right beefore entering the agility ring.   The gist was that although dogs may appear driven and may appear to love what they are doing (and maybe they do), is it possible that the screaming outside the ring, dilated pupils, nervous pawing, is actually not a good thing?

Based on this seminar, I'd think that the answer to that question is yes.  Seems obvious, but a dog that can't settle ("breathe") may become unglued more easily in a pressure-filled setting.

After that, the rest of the seminar basically consisted of versions of Leslie's games used to build patterns that reassure the dog and rewards that stimulate interest in the handler rather than the environment.  I won't get in to all of them here, but the one I found most amazing was a rendition of CU's "Give Me a Break" game.

One working participant was called in to the ring with her dog to act as a demo.  The participant happened to have her dog off-leash, figuring he'd follow her in to the ring. He didn't.  In fact, he went left, he went right, he sniffed.. he went everywhere OTHER than through the ring with his handler, even after being called.  Pure avoidance behavior.

This is something I've struggled with to an extent when I do things like Obedience and Rally with Marge.. although she gives me a good performance in everything she does, it sometimes feels like I'm dragging her around in those two activities, as opposed to agility, where she appears a lot more animated.

After seeing what I saw, I realized that we stand a good chance of raising the dogs' level of interest and comfort by using predictable patterns and making participation in the behavior "the dog's idea."

What Leslie did was bring this dog into the ring, fed him a bunch of treats, rewarded him for breathing, for calm eye contact.. and then slowly exited the ring.  Once she sat down for a break, the dog eventually looked back up at her.  At that exact moment, she took the dog back in to the ring, repeated the same process, and then left the ring again. The eye contact outside of the ring became the dog's cue for "MORE! MORE!"

The dog who was, at first, completely avoiding the ring was now voluntarily asking to be brought back in.  In the span of 5 minutes or so.  Entering the ring became his idea, on his terms, and his entire demeanor changed.

After a while, Leslie not only had the dog sit and breathe in the ring, but also added heeling and other obedience exercises slowly in to the mix before exiting.  The dog remained engaged.  The pattern was predictable, plenty of treats were had, and the dog was happy.

It's not a perfect system, since dogs can differentiate between practice settings and trials, but it is a start, and can be easily implemented at match shows.  Besides, forming the pattern itself (dog asks to be worked, we go in the ring, do stuff, and then go back to our chair) may be enough to make a dog more comfortable in a trial setting.

An upcoming goal that I have for Marge is to obtain her Companion Dog (CD) title.  She earned her UKC CD several years ago, but in a quest for Marge to be my Novice A Obedience dog, as she has been my Novice A Rally and Agility dog, I'd love to earn her AKC CD, too. If I put her in the ring tomorrow, she'd stand a decent chance of qualifying.  However, I've been hesitant to bring her out because of how different it is than agility.  Things like the presence of the judge and the lack of feedback from the handler may make it tougher for her.  Since a Q with an uncomfortable Marge would not make me happy, I've been very picky about deciding when to enter.

We have been practicing weekly or bi-weekly with decent success. However, after dabbling with the "Give Me a Break" game as explained above, I'm really excited to continue training and see where it leads us.

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