Wednesday, December 28, 2011

The Great Sacrifice

In the wake of many recent bouts of pet-related sickness and tragedy, both here in the blog world and otherwise, I got to thinking about what it really means to be not a animal owner, but an animal lover.  This isn't meant to be a sad or depressing post, just merely a reflection on reality.

There is a giant difference between the things some people will do and the things that others won't do for their animals.

There are those that will discard their animals at the first sign of adversity, those that will not part with their dollars should things not go as planned.  Those who view their animals more readily as a nuisance than they do as a gift or blessing. There are those that will find themselves unable to expend any mental bandwidth on solving an issue that arises, those that will not be willing to make themselves the slightest bit uncomfortable, in away way, for the sake of their animals.

And then there are those who are different.  Those who find such tremendous value in the day-to-day memories made with those close to them.

Those who will work tirelessly to ensure a happy and safe life for those they are responsible for, no matter the dollar cost or effort required.

Those that will cherish and accept their pets' imperfections rather than see them as inconveniences.

Those who will go above and beyond for not only their own animals, but try to help the other animals around them as well.

The sad, and perhaps unfair, part of all of this is that the latter group consists of those people who will inevitably get hurt as a result of such fierce devotion.

I think the bottom line is that when you truly give a piece of your heart to an animal, you are making a tremendous personal sacrifice.  You're opening yourself up to potential stress, worry and grief that many people are too afraid to experience.

...Yet would you want to have it any other way?

(KB, K, we're mustering up every good thought we've got. Sandra, we're still thinking of you, too.)

Monday, December 19, 2011

Where To Begin?

I want to encourage all of you to chip in, as I just did, for Sandra's Fire Recovery fund.  If you haven't heard, Sandra (possibly better know as mom of the "Houston Pittie Pack") lost five of her rescue dogs and her entire home to a fire a few days ago.  Sandra has commented on my blog in the past and I can speak from personal experience that she is an exceptional person with a big heart.  I can't imagine the pain and sorrow she must be feeling right now.


I have no idea where to even begin with this post.  I suspect it'll shape up to be little more than rambles, but when you've been gone away from your blog for as long as I have (a month?) and have instead been buried in textbooks, anything goes.  I'm still adjusting to the fact that I don't have to pick up a book until February at the earliest.

I guess the purpose of this post is to let you know that we're all still here.  School has left me much too busy to post and comment, but I've been following along with everybody's posts pretty well.  My finals are now over and I hope to have some more free time.  The worst is over for me - while I will be at school literally every day over my winter break (more on that another time), I've only got two classes to take in the Spring, and then I'm home free.

I've applied to Physical Therapy school and expect to hear a decision from them sometime in February.

Marge and I have been practicing agility, but aren't overdoing it; we'll kick in to full swing again sometime in mid-January, hopefully.  Otherwise, she has been enjoying walks and games of fetch in the field across the street and some snuggle time here or there.

Layla's doing well, too... still battling some asthma issues, but we're taking one day at a time and just keeping her happy.  I hate the fact that she's on steroids, but it doesn't seem like we have much of a choice, as it's keeping all of her many ailments relatively at bay.

I've been riding quite often, too, and am so thankful to be getting lessons from a horse and a human who are excellent and knowledgeable teachers.

And when I'm not walking my dog, getting cuddles from my cat, or horseback riding, I'm tending to my 40 research pigeons.

Yep, my life has gone to the animals.

I'm not sure what the direction of this blog exactly is any more, since Marge is far from the fearful dog that she was three years (!!) ago when this blog started.  But I do intend to keep it going, even if it's in a more limited capacity, hopefully posting more about Marge's adventures (though they've grown increasingly mundane as my schedule has kept me away from parks and the like) and dog training in general, and perhaps throwing in some posts about issues that I think could spur interesting debate/discussion among my followers.  Aside from writing the actual posts, it is the discussions and sharing of knowledge and personal stories that I miss most about blogging.

So here's to a 2012 of more than one post per month.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Nineteen To Go

This past weekend, Marge and I attended a huuuuge AKC agility trial at Dream Park, located about 2 hours from my house.  Normally, I'd attend only one day of a weekend trial at this facility, but this time, I got to stay in my friend's little travel trailer for 2 nights.

This trial was a big deal for MargeDog, as it marked the biggest trial she'd ever been to (1100 runs per day!),  the longest she'd slept away from home (2 nights), and the most runs she'd had over two days (five - the usual two classes plus an extra class, Time 2 Beat, on Saturday).

We went down to the site Friday night, in preparation for our first runs of the day at 8 AM on Saturday morning.  We hung out inside the RV, ate spinach ravioli and talked about horses until almost 11 at night.  Marge and her friend, Spirit, had an awesome time with each other.  When they weren't laying next to each other, they were wrestling and slapping each other with their paws.

I didn't sleep well at all Friday night, but Marge didn't seem to have any problem getting comfy.  To save space, I decided not to set up her crate, and had her sleep, curled up in a little tiny ball, next to my pillow.     I thought for sure that she'd be antsy, especially with another dog around, but she had no problem getting comfortable.

Saturday morning came, and I was super worried about the gunshots that I was hearing that sounded very, very, close by.  Living in New York City, I totally forgot that it was deer hunting season.  Marge had a bit of a breakdown, but was definitely comforted by Spirit, who didn't react to the noise at all.  Once I got her back inside the RV, she was totally fine.  (In a bit of a milestone, she actually managed to poop outside on the grass despite the fact that she was unnerved by the sound.)

Now for the agility!  My first run was at 8 AM Saturday morning - Excellent B Jumpers with Weaves.  I don't have it on video - my friend asked if I wanted her to record it, but I told her that she could just watch this run, and record my later run.  Boy, am I eating those words now!  Here is the course.

I ran with Marge on my right until the takeoff side of jump #7, where I put in a rear cross.  I also reared on the takeoff side of 11, 15, and 17 (I think).  We ran in to a little of of trouble after the 180, where Marge was *so* close to taking the off course #19, but ran it clean for 6 MACH points.

The next class was Excellent B Standard - our first time in the Standard B class following our 1-2-3 AX legs at our last trial.  It was a tough course with a lot of tough discriminations.  Here is the video.

Again, not the most beautiful of Q's (I think I'm very very lucky for not getting called on that tunnel refusal), but a Q nonetheless. We came in at 11 seconds under time for 11 MACH points. Our first double Q of what I hope to be at least twenty of them!

I was absolutely thrilled to have QQ'ed and quite honestly wished I hadn't entered a third class.  But, one more run was to be had, and just a little while later, I walked the course for Time 2 Beat (T2B), AKC's newest titling class.

I had entered T2B so that I could have more practice on a Standard-esque course without the stress of having to form my own sequences in FAST (another AKC class, for those who don't know).  The course was fun and fast, but it was clear that Marge was tired; we did qualify and picked up 4 out of a maximum 10 points for the class, but it didn't feel like a great, connected run.

I was absolutely pooped after that, and headed back to the RV, ribbons in hand, and took a nap.  I slept like a rock that night, with Spirit and Marge curled up beside me.  Spirit had a successful Saturday, too, scoring her first 17 MACH points in Excellent B Standard, as well as wrapping up her Open FAST title.

Sunday, we couldn't repeat our stellar triple-Q day.  Mostly, our double-NQ was due to my own bad handling.  Unfortunately, though I asked people to record me, none of the videos came out (a lot of people have trouble working my camera, for some reason.. I think it's easy to use, but whatever!).

Jumpers was an interesting course.  It started out tight, then got big and flowy with pinwheels and 180s, then tightened back up for a tough weave entrance, then spread back out again.  Marge and I aced all of the hard parts, but we incurred a jump refusal as well as a knocked bar due to a rear cross that Marge just couldn't pull off on a tough angle.  We definitely ran really well, though, considering the difficulty of the course.

Standard was one of those beautiful courses that you can't wait to run and qualify on.  I thought we'd be a shoe-in for a Q.. that is, until, I tried to front cross and pulled poor Marge right off of a jump.  We then incurred a tunnel refusal, most likely due to bad handling, and, then, the worst of all.. Marge walked on to the teeter, remained motionless for a good 2-3 seconds, and then bailed without tipping it :( My guess is that she was worried and stressed from the mistakes I made and that's why she bailed.  On a happy note, she did nail all of her other contacts, including the table, and we had a pretty nice finish to the course.

BUT, now, of course, I'm worried about the teeter again!

We hung around until Spirit's Excellent Jumpers run (which she aced, save for one knocked bar), then got back on the road.  Here are the two amigas posing in the RV parking area before we headed home.  We had a GREAT time together, and I am so fortunate to have a friend who enjoys my company and lets me come along and stay over at trials with her.

And that concludes the 2011 trial season.  Though I didn't formally set any goals, I completed my biggest goal - the AX - and, much to my surprise, finished the year with a QQ as well.  We're going to take a couple of weeks off from agility because we're totally pooped out, then train and get ready to head back out to the shows in February.  It seems like Marge is getting a) more consistent, b) faster, and c) less forgiving of bad handling.  We're having a blast together and learning a lot about each other as we go    on.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Eight Pounder

This week, Layla's delicate immune system decided that it was jealous that it was Marge's turn for a vet visit.  In true dramatic fashion, Layla started hacking and coughing in what looked to be a pretty severe asthma attack.

In fact, she was so bad Saturday night that I considered bringing her to the emergency vet.

Alas, Marge's weekday appointment was switched to Layla's weekday appointment.  A couple of x-rays later, Layla does, indeed, have some asthmatic stuff going on in her lungs.

Thankfully, the vet did not seem overly concerned, and said that he was actually happy with the x-rays, since they showed a normal-sized heart (yippee!).  We will continue her low dose of Prednisone (which she is on for the intestinal issues) and perhaps increase if needed.  She still takes her liver protectant supplement, Denosyl, as well.

Oh, and the other tidbit of good news was the fact that little Layla, who was down to nearly 6 pounds earlier this year, is now a nice and lean 8 pounds, 3 ounces.

Not to worry, Marge wasn't spared a visit.  She got to go in that same afternoon (talk about an expensive day) for her wellness exam.  She checked out perfectly fine, except for a couple of back teeth that seem to accumulate tartar no matter what I do.  It may be time for a dental.

She was a trooper, too.. so much calmer than I ever recall her being at the vet's office.  She sure has come a long way.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

My Night With 81

They told me he was going to be put down on Thursday.

Imagine, then, how surprised I was Friday, when I went in to the bird room and found him still there, sitting perched atop his little castle inside his big dog cage.

I have been taking care of this bird for a few weeks through his illness and perhaps it makes me a bad researcher, but I've grown attached to him (and to many of the others).  Though I had lots of other things to do while my experimental bird was busy pecking away in the chamber, I decided that, with 81's future up in the air, that I'd give him 20 minutes or so to do whatever the heck he wanted.

He walked across the floor, eyeballing me in that way that pigeons do and scurrying under the desk when I got too close.  Then, suddenly, he started to look up, bobbing his little head in all different directions.  He squat down, spread his wings, and vocalized as he fluttered right back up to his cage.

I have no idea if he will be there Monday when I return - I am not sure if they are giving him a second chance or have basically just not gotten around to the dreaded task - but at least I can say I allowed him to be a bird, just for a little while.

 My mind has been swirling with happiness over the fact that I am allowed to have this experience of working so closely with my research animals and anger that I have been allowed to do so because of the emotion it creates.

I work with the birds only because they are not discarded at the end of the experiment.   It is not a typical research lab. These birds are not disposable.  They are not subject to pain or aversive treatments. Many have been living there for a decade or more.

Most research animals don't have that luxury.

And that, in a nutshell, is why I will not continue with research after I graduate college... because although I love science and all that it does for our world, and although I am not, per-se, against animal research (my feelings on it are incredibly mixed and it is one of those things I just prefer to not think about), I would be unable to separate my emotions from my research participants.  I am an animal lover first and anything else second.

I really love my birds.  I see them almost every day and can completely discern them from each other.  They have their own "pigeonalities," you could say.  It's not supposed to be that way, but it is what it is.

I am only human.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011


Marge and I went in to this weekend of agility with not a single qualifying score in Excellent A Standard.

We went out with three.

Yes, in what I consider to be a stunning turn of events, Marge and I qualified in three straight Excellent Standard runs at my club's 3-day agility trial.

We were helped tremendously by the fact that we had a special training session at a not-so-nearby agility club to address Marge's aversion to the new teeter that they have been using in local competitions.   My club owns an old teeter that my dog is familiar with, which makes it pretty much useless for my purposes.

So, I dropped in to a Beginner agility class about 60 miles away to work on that specific teeter.  Thanks to the help of the instructor (whose instruction I REALLY enjoyed, and who I will be having a private lesson with this weekend), I also corrected some handling mistakes that were making matters much worse.  I was hesitating at the middle of the teeter plank and that was causing Marge to lose momentum and sometimes bail off.  It was a handling strategy I had originally incorporated to help coach Marge over the teeter, but I guess it started to backfire.

She was pretty much solely reward-based in her agility training methods and reminded me of some things that I could do to build positive associations between various things in agility and at agility trials.

Coming in to this weekend, I had one goal and one goal only - run to the end of the teeter plank and get Marge to stay on the board and complete the obstacle.

Turns out I far surpassed that goal.

How or why Marge and I ran so well in Standard this weekend, I will never know. Could one little training session have fixed several months of failure in Excellent Standard? I don't know. I just hope that we keep running like this.

(Our Jumpers runs were good, too - one off course the first day, one dropped bar the second day, and one tight little sequence that doomed us on the third day.)

That's it, we're in Excellent B now. The big time. Every qualifying run will come with a point value attached to it. Every Q (and double Q) will bring me closer to the one title I truly covet.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

The Most Beautiful Place on Earth

I've been struggling to find some fitting way to introduce this.. maybe with a bit of wit, or a bit of nostalgia.  But for some reason, it's easier for me to stare at a blank page than to come up with things to say on this topic.  In fact, I've opened up this page several times and tried to write something, to no avail.  The thoughts just kind of swirl in my head: happiness, ecstasy, anxiety, and memories that race back to some really fond times in my life.

I've waited several months before even attempting to say anything, as I always had that lingering fear that perhaps it was too good to be true, that it wouldn't work out.

But I can't wait any longer; I made that mistake the last time and no one knew what a large part of my life it was until the very end. 

I'm riding again.

Yeah, woo-hoo, there's the big dramatic three words.  But, for real, I am riding again.  Several times a month, in fact, on one wonderful 20-year old ex-lesson horse whose owner is gracious enough to share her gift of horses with me for really what is such a small amount of money.

Words cannot define the feeling I felt while rocking back and forth in the saddle to a canter for the first time in over four years.  Words cannot define the feeling I felt after picking up a curry comb and a hoof pick and a dandy brush.  The feeling of cinching a saddle or soft horse lips nibbling at my fingers in search of treats. 

I've ridden Phoebe about 5 times now and she is a whole lot of fun.  I even went on my first real trail ride this weekend, a 7.5 mile ride that took close to three hours.  I am still sore, 3 days later.

She pranced the whole way.  I even took my first tumble, due to a saddle that wasn't tight enough.  Don't worry, I'm fine, I thought it was the funniest thing ever and wasn't scared at all.  Guess that's why I've always liked small horses.

But to ride through those open fields, to see deer running past, to look up at a picture perfect sky, all with the ears of a horse pointing forward underneath me.. those pains are worth it.  It was the most beautiful place on earth, or one of them, at least.

After our ride, we turned the horses back out in to their giant pasture, a sight so foreign from the dirt turn-out pens that I'd grown up around.  I commented on how happy they looked, ambling from each corner of the field to another. 

And I counted my lucky stars as I watched them, so thankful to have this opportunity again after so much hurt, so thankful that I am once again able to enjoy these remarkable creatures.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Here I Am

Yeah, we're still around!

I have had a ton going on and just simply haven't had the time or mental willpower to post.  Marge, Arrow and I did wind up trialing two weeks ago; I still have to upload the videos and write up a report on that (not sure if I'll get around to it before our next trial; we'll see).   Honestly, agility really isn't going as great as I'd like it to right now, but I'm hoping to correct some big issues with a trip to a different training facility in the near future.

I also got hired by one of the physical therapy practices I've been volunteering at.  I'm now working there one day a week, which takes Thursdays totally off of the calendar.

I've had some other great things going on in my life as well, but I'll save that for another post.

As for Marge.. she's hangin' in there with my busy schedule.  We've been spending a lot of time together, despite the fact that I've been so busy.  Between all of my other commitments, I've been making sure that I do some special things with her, too.  Here are some pictures from a hike we took with Louie last week.

I may have gotten to the point where life will no longer fluctuate between busy and calm; seems like I'm going to be stuck in this "busy" for a long, long time!  But as long as I remember who and what is important in my life, I think I'll be just fine.

Monday, September 19, 2011

We Went Back

Marge's reaction to trialing in Sewaren was profoundly different this year.  She had no trouble with the planes overhead and, for the most part, her head wasn't swiveling all over the place while she was in the ring.  Thanks to some really heartbreakingly small errors, we didn't walk away with any Q's.  But I am SUPER happy with Marge's performance since it was her first trial outside since June.

Saturday - Standard

Standard was the first run of the day on Saturday, which is usually recipe for a lousy Standard run.  The course appeared pretty fun and flowy, with the problem areas coming towards the end.  The contact obstacles came in the first half of the course, though, which I think helped Marge stay focused; it was almost like a hybrid Standard/JWW course.

It started out quite well, with Marge holding the A-Frame, getting right on the table, holding the dog walk.  The next part of the course was an offside tunnel entrance to the teeter.  Marge held her dog walk while I led out just a tad and then attempted to flip her in the to tunnel.  She didn't pass the plane of the tunnel, but went in on an angle.  I didn't think much of it and continued.

The serpentine at the end was a bit sloppy but we got it done.  We crossed the finish line after jump #20 and I was ecstatic.  Our first Excellent Standard Q? Yes? Maybe? No.

No one clapped, which was the first warning sign that perhaps I didn't qualify.  Louie went over to get my scribe sheet and sure enough, written on it was "R (Tunnel)."

Perplexed, I watched the video that he had just recorded to see what the problem was.  Marge had entered the tunnel kind of weirdly, but she didn't stop her forward motion and didn't go behind it.  Furthermore, the judge didn't raise her fist to mark the refusal.

I approached her after the class ended and asked her where the error was.  She said that because Marge entered at a nearly 90-degree angle to the entrance of the tunnel, based on the "rule of thirds," she had to score it as a refusal.  She said it was a close call and told the scribe to write "tunnel" on the sheet so that I would know where the problem was.

I'm still not really seeing it.  In my mind, Marge Q'd on this course.

Saturday - JWW

Determined to run a good run AND have the AKC actually record it as a qualifying score this time, we set out to run Jumpers.  The course played well to Marge's strengths and I thought that perhaps we could do it.  However, this time, an error by me sent Marge over an off course jump.  A rear cross cue likely would have gotten her in the tunnel where she was supposed to go.

Sunday - JWW

Tricky course, and I knew it.  I THOUGHT that if we managed the weave pole entrance, that we'd be okay.  But, frankly, there were a couple of off course traps that I missed, including the one where I sent Marge out after the triple and she took an extra jump as I tried to front cross.  Calling her in might have saved that.

Then, she went around a jump, which, again, would have been solved by actually calling her in.  It didn't help that she was jumping HUGE.

Sunday - Standard

Our last shot at a qualifying score for the weekend.  I was worried about the beginning and the icky line from the table to the teeter.

I opted to not lead out in the beginning, and that went alright.  Got her on the teeter and was thrilled with how she flipped away from me to get on the table.  Her eyes were darting all over the place on the table, though, so I wasn't too thrilled with that.

But the damn tunnel got us again.  She swung out too far and incurred another tunnel refusal.  Later, she nailed a really hard weave entrance while I rear crossed behind her, but then popped out of the poles.  I truly think that it had to do with where the judge was standing.. several people commented that he was awfully close to the dogs.

Still, not a bad run, and really, just two freak little things that kept us from qualifying.

Look who visited us right after our Standard run.  One of these jumbos was on approach to Newark when I pulled in to the park in the morning, also.  They didn't seem to bother Marge today at all so I was happy to get to spot my favorite plane.

We're *so* close to a breakthrough, I can feel it.  Our next trial is at East Freehold Park in two weeks, where, historically, we have had awesome luck.  Some of my best runs have come at this park, so I'm ready to get kick our Fall agility season in to high gear then.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Gearing Up

I have had a lot of my mind; personal things, school things, family things are all swirling through my head.  I'll apologize in advance because this post is not particularly well written or clever; in fact, it's being written by someone with a huge migraine headache who just stress-ate a half a sleeve of Oreos (there goes the diet!).  The pace is going to be grueling over the next month or so for me, and it's pretty easy to sit here and worry about things.

But I AM going to an agility trial this Saturday and Sunday, so I'm excited about that.

I have practiced the teeter a TON with Marge since our last trial.  In fact, I took her to practice at a private facility over the weekend, where she got to train on two teeters... an old, squeaky one, and a new, rubber one.

She didn't hop off at all, so I'm hoping her confidence transfers over to this trial this weekend.

Her runs this week at class were also excellent.  I haven't seen her run that well with me at our club's agility field in a long time.  I'm betting it's the cooler weather.

The trial is being held in the same park that spurred a lot of agility worries for me last year.  However, I really think that our situation is different this year.  For one, our last trial was only a month ago, as opposed to three months ago.  Also, Marge's noise sensitivities aren't quite so extreme any more.  And lastly, they are not using that dreadful automatic counting table this year at the trial.

I'm hopeful.

Oh, and in case you forgot (since I haven't posted for real in what feels like 5 years), here's what Marge looks like.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

The Greatest City On Earth.

Monday, September 5, 2011

Shy Dog 101

A dog training dream of mine is to teach a class for fearful dogs.  Shy and fearful dogs are the dogs I'm drawn to work the most with when I'm teaching, and to have a class of 6 or so of them would be something I'd enjoy a lot.

There are very premature talks of a class like this eventually being offered.  If it is, indeed, offered, there are several people (to my surprise) that are interested in being involved in it.  Despite this, I've just as prematurely started to think about what the most important things to convey to a class of fearful dog handlers are if I was, indeed, to teach it.

1. Learn to think in terms of association, not rewards.
The distinction between classical and operant conditioning is, admittedly, something that is a bit hard to teach.  Most people (unknowingly) only think in operant terms when training their dog - "If my dog doesn't bark, I'll reward him" - even when the situation might be better suited to associative learning - type work.

I think the best way to teach this concept is to avoid any technical terms (classical, operant, reinforcement, conditioned response) and to delve right in to the bare minimum that a fearful dog owner should know - how to use desensitization and counterconditioning to change what the dog does, rather than reinforcing outright behaviors.

Getting handlers to think in terms of "loud noise = cookies" or "new stranger = playing with a toy," as well as being able to recognize that fear is not voluntary, would be monumental in the rehabilitation of dogs of this type.

2. Learn how to properly approach a shy dog.
Even those who OWN shy dogs bend over, reach their hands out and talk to the dog to try to get it to sniff them.  The reality is that this type of greeting is super scary to the dog - a big giant human hand is entering their space, maybe grabbing for them, and they just don't like the idea of that.

Much more beneficial is the idea of letting the shy dog approach on their own terms.  Standing or sitting still, not making eye contact and not outstretching their hands is a much more inviting posture for a dog who is afraid of being touched by someone they do not know.  As the comfort level increases, the new person can start to offer food, perhaps by throwing it on to the floor.

3. Learn how to stand up for what's best for a shy dog.
If a well-meaning but uninformed person approaches Marge looking to pet her, I have no problem body-blocking them and telling them NO if I do not feel Marge would be comfortable with that situation.  Unfortunately, this is something that takes a little while to get used to doing.  I can't tell you how many shy dog owners in my classes have allowed people to pet their dogs when the dogs are clearly not enjoying it.  In fact, I myself have had to stand up for these dogs and politely point out to both the offending party and the owner/handler that the dog is uncomfortable.

It would be awesome for shy dog handlers to learn that it is OK to say "no" to a friendly advance from a stranger.  By apologizing and saying that the dog is shy and learning how to comfortably be around people, it minimizes conflict and keeps the dog AND the person safe.

4. Learn about different aids and products that make the process a bit easier.
"I don't want her on pills." "I heard ____ product only works some of the time."  "I don't think she's THAT scared so I don't want to use it."  The excuses are many, but people seem very, very reluctant to add anything in to their training toolbox when it comes to alleviating some of a shy dog's anxiety.  While I do not think the decision to put a dog on medication should be taken lightly, I do think that it is helpful for shy dog owners to learn about medication as an option, should a situation ever arise where the dog needs to be medicated.

In terms of natural or non-invasive products, it is true that the results vary from dog to dog.  However, most of these products are cheap; some, like an anxiety/body wrap, can even be made from household items.  Sampling some of these and seeing how the dog responds would, again, be quite beneficial.  If the end goal is to have a happy, comfortable dog, what's wrong with speeding the process along?

On a similar note, it is also important for shy dog owners to know how veterinarians, behaviorists, and dog trainers can provide their services to help a shy dog get better.

5. Learn to be proactive.
There are certain things in the environment that you can't prepare for - you can't do much in advance about a crack of thunder or a child jumping out from behind a bush.  However, sometimes shy dog owners walk their dogs right in to not-so-good situations.  Walking in close proximity with crowds of people, particularly children, or taking the dog to the park on the 4th of July are, for example, not the greatest ideas, depending on what type of fears the dog has.

The same can be said for situations around the house - if the dog is afraid of strangers and you're expecting your neighbor (who, to top it off, refuses to leave the dog alone) to drop by, put the dog in the yard, or in another room, or in a crate, instead of "seeing how it goes."

Similarly, learning your dog's specific signs of anxiety can be useful in getting out of a situation before it spirals out of hand.

I hope that I get to put my knowledge and enthusiasm for working with fearful dogs in to motion.  I'd also like to hear from you.  Lots of my blogging buddies have fearful or shy dogs and I'm always looking for new ideas. What do you think should be covered in such a class?

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Our Obedience Journey

Our competition obedience journey started roughly one year ago, when the obedience training director at my training club told me that Marge was advanced enough in her training to drop in to a Show-Ready Novice obedience class.

Dogs in this class were already competing or close to doing so.  I had never set foot in an obedience ring, never went through the foundation classes like every one else.  Yet, I was now here in this class, not knowing what to expect.  Would I like it?  Would Marge like it?  Would we do well?

Long story short, we made the decision to press on with our competition obedience training.  Two obedience matches later, we entered our first UKC obedience trial in June of this year and picked up scores of 193 and 194.  Here is her first run.

Last weekend, the day that Hurricane Irene scared the pants off of all of us, I had to make the difficult choice to either go to or skip the obedience trial I had entered.  I was stressed to the max with thoughts of my house being washed away by a storm surge (dramatic? maybe), but needed to free myself just a little bit from the chaos and so decided to go.

We had not practiced at all, save for one little ring rental hour shared with a few friends earlier that week.   Marge was picking up on my stress and I just couldn't seem to get her where I wanted her to be in terms of performance during our warm up.

But we went in the ring and got it done.  Not as pretty as our other two legs, we managed to hold on to a 191 and earned our final qualifying score.

Marge is now registered as a United Companion Dog (UCD).  Her first obedience title.  She also was, once again, the high scoring mixed breed in the trial.

It's hard to explain how I feel about the whole process as it's so vastly different than anything else we've ever done.  I wish I could say that it was the title that took us the most work to get, but I'm not sure that's true.  Sure, having Marge hold a Stand For Exam was the culmination of years of socialization work, but the rest almost came naturally.  A little heeling practice here and there, some fronts and finishes, and we were really good to go.

Still, I am really proud of the both of us for earning this title.  Even if it was a tiny little trial at our home training club, I never, ever thought we'd do competition obedience, let alone do it successfully.

We're done with competition obedience for the time being.  Quite honestly, the possibility is there that we will not continue competition obedience at all.  Real life responsibilities beckon (the same reason I've been absent from the blog world), and I'd really like to focus on agility for now.  We are dabbling with the Open exercises, though I'm not sure if I'd like to start fresh in AKC or go on to Open in UKC.  Only time will tell!

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Tropical Assault

I am glad this weekend is over.

I am SO glad this weekend is over.

People across the country are (childishly, if I might add) laughing at the response to a barely-Category 1 hurricane here in New York, but, as a person who has never experienced a hurricane, I will freely admit that I was terrified.

We got word around 2:00 PM on Friday that we would have to evacuate our home by 5:00 PM the next day.  While that left us plenty of time to do whatever we had to do to prepare, I could already feel the environment around me getting more and more hysterical.  I was volunteering in the PT Department at the nursing home at that point and was watching as they brought in old and/or sick evacuees from the hospital, whose walls fell within the dreaded NYC Flood "Zone A."  Hospital beds were being wheeled in to elevators and placed where ever there was room for a patient to ride out the storm. It was unnerving.

The scene became too much for me to deal with, so I headed home without finishing my hours.  I was way too strung up.

I definitely overpacked for both myself and my animals, but I wanted to make sure that I had absolutely everything I needed in the event my house was damaged or we needed to stay out of the area for a long time.  

For the pets, I had..
  • 20 cans of food for Layla plus several pounds of dry food
  • Enough cat litter for two or three litter changes, plus the litter box
  • 15+ pounds of kibble for Marge
  • Several bowls and containers for food, water
  • Treats and treat-dispensing toys to keep Marge occupied
  • Marge's giant soft crate, Layla's carrier, plus a spare 36" wire crate
  • Towels, blankets
  • Several leashes and collars including THREE collars with identification information
  • All of Marge's important paperwork, including my NYC Dog License, vaccination information, and ownership documents
  • Photos of both Marge and Layla
  • Medicines/supplements for each of them
.. And God knows what else. 

With most of my packing done Friday night, I made the difficult decision to attend the UKC Obedience trial that I had entered for that Saturday.  I only stayed for the first trial, but decided that since the weather was safe and my packing was complete, that it would be mentally beneficial for me to stop worrying and remove myself from the chaos of the incoming storm.   Marge qualified, despite my extreme stress levels, with a 191, for her UKC Companion Dog (U-CD) title.  More on that another time.

I didn't want to leave the trial - I was finally able to relax a bit while there and didn't want to venture back out in to the world.  The Mayor was taking this storm seriously and therefore I was as well.  I knew the possibility of extreme flooding at my house was possible, depending on the size and strength of the storm when it arrived.

When I got home (approximately 1 PM on Saturday), we prepared my house for the storm.  We adorned the basement windows with several towels and taped plastic garbage bags around the inside of them to prevent water from coming in.  My dad boarded them up from the outside.  We moved all of our valuable items in to closets and away from windows.  We disconnected the computers and moved them  off of the basement floor. My mother hunted down sand bags at one of the stores and placed them in the yard around the house.  We taped up the windows to prevent them from shattering if they did, indeed, crack.  We were essentially preparing my house for a worst-case scenario.  Overkill? Maybe.  But I have truly never experienced a feeling quite like that before.  

By about 4 PM, police were blaring sirens in my neighborhood, telling people to GET OUT.  It was starting to rain at that point.  Long story short, by a bit before 6 PM, we (my mom, sister, Marge, Layla, and me) were at my grandmother's house, which was not in a flood zone, with all of our many things.  My dad, as well as several other neighbors, decided to not heed the evacuation warnings and opted to stay with the house.

New York City was already becoming a ghost town.  Most businesses were already closed at that point Mass transit would slow to a halt by the following morning.  The airports were closing.  Bridges and roads were being closed or used only as evacuation routes.

Without getting in to painstaking detail, it was a long night.  In addition to the hurricane drama, my grandmother found out that her brother on the West Coast passed away, which, of course, upset her greatly.  My mom, sister, and me all opted to (not so comfortably) sleep in the same room.  When the lights started to flicker a bit, I opened up Marge's crate and put her in there so I didn't have to worry about knowing where she was if the power went out.  We wound up staying up practically all night, watching the TV and checking for updates on the track of the storm.  Thankfully, we never lost power.  We did feel like we were going to lose our minds.

Around 5:30 AM, being cooped up started to get to Marge.  I let her out and she went absolutely wild.. jumping up, panting, yipping and whining a bit.  I don't know if that was her way of letting us knew that she felt the storm coming or what.  I decided to brave the elements outside at that hour and took her out to pee, on leash.  I was extremely worried about the dog pottying situation, since they predicted several hours with strong winds and heavy rains.

8:00 AM was T-time.  That's when the tide was at its highest and storm surge would be at its peak.  The TV showed video from all over the city of water creeping up on boardwalks, roads, and parking lots near the shore.  It was extremely unsettling.  We spoke to my dad back at home, and he said that there were no water problems; the surge had not reached my block (which is a half mile from the shore).

Conditions started to improve rapidly from there.  Perhaps it was simply because we could exhale a bit after apparently missing the worst of the storm surges that were predicted, but I was definitely much more relaxed at that point.  Aside from a few bands of rain and some wind, things died down.  We were home by about 3:30 PM.

We did have a lot of damage in the borough.  Downed trees, thousands without power, several streets flooded.  My block, as well as my grandma's, was spared from the worst of it.  Thank goodness.  Thank goodness.

On Saturday night, I thought about moving my car in to this driveway.
On Sunday morning, I was glad I didn't!

All of the packing and preparing may not have been put to as much use as we anticipated, but I am glad that we followed the advice of the authorities and got out of our home. I do NOT regret at all taking a few extra safety measures just in case things got bad.  You should always prepare for the worst scenario, not the best one.  That's what we did, and we were lucky to walk away from Irene without any severe damage.  The same cannot be said for some others in our community, our city, and in the neighboring states.  It wasn't a storm to screw around with.

Friday, August 26, 2011


Well, my worst fear about this storm has pretty much happened, as I am due to evacuate my home before 5 PM tomorrow.  For those who are not familiar, I am on the East Shore of Staten Island, which is one of the boroughs of New York City.  I am a half mile from the Lower New York Bay.

Luckily, my grandmother lives nearby, outside of all evacuation zones.  So that's where we (including Marge and Layla) are heading.

While this evacuation is likely precautionary, I am taking it seriously and starting to round my things up.  Marge's important documents are all in my agility backpack already.  I have stocked up on food for both the cat and the dog, as well as cat litter.  We have tons of bottled water.  I am taking Marge's giant soft crate, my cat's carrier, as well as my spare wire crate with me.

We've experienced lots of bad storms here, but never storms severe enough to warrant the type of evacuations we're currently seeing.  I don't know whether I should be more worried about the wind or the prospect of flooding.

Several bloggers have my contact information, so rest assured that I will be in touch.

Good luck to all of you who are also dealing with this storm.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Two Sundays Ago

So this is, oh, two weeks overdue. Yeah.. sorry about that.

But now that I'm stuck in the house with a nasty ear/nose/throat cold yucky icky thing that I probably caught while volunteering in the Physical Therapy department of a nursing home, I have no excuse not to update.

Thankfully, the agility gods must have read my last blog post and rewarded me with a great day of agility the next day. It was quite a long and busy day, actually, so I guess it didn't leave me time to get upset about the snarky people at the trial.

The reason it was so action packed was because I had double the work to do! I had two dogs with me - my own lovely MargeDog as well as one of her best friends, Spirit, the Golden Retriever, who I ran and qualified with last December. I'm also her dog walker, which makes me one of her favorite people in the world.

The Jumpers course was lovely and I knew it when I walked it (which isn't always a good thing - it usually leads to me not qualifying!). However, Marge totally rocked all of my rear crosses and powered through the course, picking up 8 MACH points and her second MXJ leg.

Spirit, too, had a lovely run with me. I handled it exactly the same way as I did with Marge, and, aside from her one error (popping out early at the weaves), I actually thought her run was nicer than Marge's. If you want to see the run, you can find it here.

Next was Standard, that class that Marge and I just can't seem to qualify in. Unfortunately, in this run, we were extremely close. If she would have held on to the teeter for literally another second before bailing, we would have qualified. Unfortunately, this was a new teeter that squeaked at the tipping point, so Marge was startled. I think that's why she bailed.

But there is a lot of good in this run.  Look at how close the freaking judge is to Marge while she's on the A-Frame - and notice that she doesn't even look at him!  She did notice him when she got to the table, but I kept verbally praising her and tried to position myself so that I was kind of in between the table and the judge.  She also hit that really difficult weave entrance, which I am SO proud of her for.

Spirit ran very well, also. But she, too, did not qualify. In her case, hopping the dog walk contact and incurring a refusal at the weave entrance (which was EXTREMELY tricky) prevented a clean run. Her video is here.

After Spirit's run, we stuck around to see Amy and Layla's Standard run, and then headed home.  I really don't know how the heck I would have managed to get two large dogs and two large dog crates back to the car without Louie and Amy's help.  I can see why all of these top agility handlers like working out of the car so much!

And that was our weekend! I would have liked to qualify more than once out of the 6 attempts that I had all weekend (and really wanted to bring home a ribbon to Spirit's momma), but, aside from Marge's zoomy run on the first day of the trial, I had 5 really solid runs with my two girls. I was so glad that Sunday was a pleasant and fun agility day - which is how it should be!

Our next trial is the trial that I kind of flipped out at last year. It's still about 3 or 4 weeks away, I think. It still remains my worst weekend of agility ever, but, because the both of us (ESPECIALLY me) have done a little growing up since last year (in addition to the fact that they will not be using the automatic table counter), I was willing to give it one more shot. If this year goes icky, too, we'll sit this trial out for good.  It ain't worth the stress!

Saturday, August 6, 2011

That's Agility For Ya

Today was one of those agility days where I seriously wonder why I actually do this stuff.  The day ended better than it began, but the whole thing was just so stressful.  I apologize in advance, as this whole thing is just going to be one giant rant.

It started out rough, as, thanks to a faulty alarm clock, I woke up at exactly 6:13 AM, giving me 17 minutes to get to my friend's house.  I ran around the house like a maniac, getting my last bits of things together, which stressed Marge out from the get-go.

Miraculously, thanks to the fact that I packed the night before, I made it to her house by about 6:35 AM.  My speedy performance was a far cry from yesterday, when I hit my snooze butter for 2 straight hours.

The drive was fine.  Marge shared the back seat with Spirit, the Golden Retriever who I walk and sometimes run in agility.  A dog I absolutely adore.

We got to the trial site to find very little parking.  OK, no biggie.  We managed to score the last spot on the blacktop and then took the dogs out to potty.  Unfortunately, there was almost no where to walk them.

When we went inside with our crates and things, we found a crating room that was absolutely packed.  It was only about 7:20 AM and the first run of the day wasn't for more than another half hour, but there was no where for us to go.  People wasted so much space with ex-pens being used for one single dog and inefficient arrangement of crates.  Not only was some of their behavior against the rules, but I also found it extremely inconsiderate.  Seriously?  Do your three border collies all need a separate octagonal ex-pen?  Can any of them be crated or put together to make room for us poor saps looking for a place to put our crate?  And does your Golden really need a 5' by 3' ex-pen when he is curled up in about one-third the space?

Long story short, we did find a place to go.  My friend squeezed herself in somewhere and I, with the help of my other friend, Gloria, found a place as well.  But it set the mood from the start, since the crating room was not only cramped, but not air conditioned, either.

We went down to the rings to check out Excellent Standard.  Some woman with a hunting breed walked past Marge, who was standing directly in front of me and out of the way, and allowed her dog to get up in Marge's face. Well, Marge gave that dog some lip.  The woman continued on her way and said something like, "Oh boy."  Really, lady?  Shorten your God damn leash and then maybe my dog won't feel the need to get upset.  That's in addition to another woman who walked her two giant hounds on the end of a 6' leash without gathering them at all when people passed.  Okay.  Yeah.  Real safe.

Anyway, back to the agility. I didn't like the course from the beginning; it looked deceiving.  I also found out that there were poles in the ring (like support beams or whatever).  Marge has obviously never seen these before, so I expected there to be some issue.

And there was.  The run started off on a sour note, with the dog before us getting whistled and Marge eyeballing the judge like I have never seen her do before.  She was extremely concerned.  I was able to get her head again pretty quickly, but she veered off course after the 4th obstacle.  Then, after a nice A-Frame and table (thank goodness for that, at least), I attempted to rear cross her in to the weaves and that was it.  Full. blown. zoomies.

I got whistled, which I didn't really think was fair since I saw people telling their dogs to lie down in the middle of the course (which is training in the ring), and they didn't get whistled.. never mind the people who do that extremely snail-paced walk, with head down,  dog screaming like a banshee and spinning at their side, back to the beginning of an obstacle after their dog screws it up the first time.  What a time waster.

At that point, I was really upset.  I was unhappy with the trial site, I was unhappy with how tightly packed and testy the environment was.  I was unhappy about the person who told me that my run was "not bad" despite the fact that I got whistled off around obstacle 12 or so and that "she was having fun!"  I'm sorry, but I know my dog, you don't.  Please don't tell me that she was running zoomies because she was filled with so much joy.  She was STRESSED.  I have a STRESSY dog and I don't want to hear about any more of that nonsense about my dog having the time of her life.

Thankfully, I had Amy and Layla to hang out with, which made me feel a lot better.  Layla is such a funny, sweet girl.  It's impossible for her to not bring a smile to your face.  And I always appreciate how Amy is willing to tell me where the bright spots are in my crappier runs without being all like "but it was so WONDERFUL!" Having my other friends around made me feel good, too.  Gloria's kindness in lending me a spot to put my crate helped to overshadow all of the craziness in the crating room, and the fact that my friend Marge (not the 4-legged one) let me hitch along for the drive to the site was something I appreciated immensely as well.

I didn't have to wait very long for my next class.  I was excited and confident for Jumpers, the polar opposite of how I feel during Standard.  I walked the course a couple of times and decided not to overthink it.  I also decided that I didn't wish to stay in the walk-through any longer than I had to, as people seemed pretty nasty there was well.  I bumped in to someone accidentally and she spent the rest of the walk giving me dirty looks!  Seriously?  What is WRONG with some of these people?

We had start line trouble in this run, too, as Marge saw an AmStaff-looking dog walk by behind the start line and thought that he should NOT be there.  Hence why I held her collar for an extra few seconds in the beginning.

The beginning of the run was beautiful, and after getting through what I thought was the hardest part of the course (the front cross to the weaves), I became very excited that we might be qualifying.  However, Marge took a crazy off-course jump - I think just a moment of disconnect - which squashed that idea.  Other than that and a little blip at the tunnel, she ran very nicely, though.  So it was an upgrade over the morning for sure, and I run I was happy with.

After that, Marge, Spirit, Marge and I (gets confusing, doesn't it?) were ready to high-tail it out of there, so after moving Spirit's crate as well as Layla's crate in to our little corner so that we could all be together for tomorrow, we headed home.

Round two coming up shortly.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

A Little R&R

My summer has been extremely hectic, so days out doing fun things have been few and far between, except when explicitly scheduled (like agility events).   The heat doesn't help, either.

However, we did get to sneak to the park a couple of weeks ago with Mable, who I often puppysit.  Mable's mom was away for a few days and I was one of the people helping to care for her.  I decided that she might like a nice long walk in the park. I knew Marge would!

Nothing like a little R&R with friends to de-stress.  It's so wonderful that Mable and Marge get along as well as they do.  Both of them have their reservations with some strange dogs, so it's pretty lucky that they hit it off as well as they did.

P.S. - for those of you keeping track of my academic endeavors - I was extremely pleased with my GRE score, enough so that I will not have to take it again.  I also earned A's in both my Anatomy and Physiology class and my Independent Study/Teacher Assistant gig.  What a wild ride June and July were...

Sunday, July 31, 2011

Learning To Fly

I love planes.

I was originally going to infuse this post with some sort of fearful dog agility metaphor but instead I've opted to just tell it like it is.

It's not exactly a common hobby for a college-age girl, but I absolutely love going plane spotting.  It's something that Louie introduced me to and I can't get enough of it. I can seriously sit in a park near JFK for hours with Louie, watching the planes come in to land, excitedly guessing the airline and aircraft type from a distance as I watch the massive metal birds inch closer and closer, before they eventually pass only a few hundred feet in front of me.  I don't go very often, but I've been spotting for a year and it's just as cool as the day I started.

Yet if you try to get me to actually agree to fly on a plane, that's a whole different story.  The thought of it makes me sick to my stomach.  Nothing particularly traumatic has happened to me while flying, and I'm not afraid of terrorism or things like that. But, Louie has offered numerous times to take me on a flight to somewhere like Baltimore and I have backed out time and time again.  I won't let him buy the tickets, even if the plane being used on the route is one of my beloved Boeings (usually a 737).  I wish I would let my guard down, but I can't seem to.

What I did let him buy was tickets to tour a British Airways Concorde on display at the Intrepid Museum in Manhattan.  I was actually the one who suggested it.  Aside from the fact that Concorde has a really cool story that I was interested in learning a little more about, I thought it would be an excellent opportunity to sit in a plane with no threat of it lifting up off of the ground.  Of course, I'll just skim right over the fact that a trip to Martha's Vineyard on JetBlue would probably have been cheaper... sometimes you've gotta live a little.

Much to my surprise, I was actually slightly nervous as I climbed the stairs to board Concorde.  Despite the fact that I knew for sure that Alpha Delta was not leaving the ground, the emotional side of my brain told me otherwise.  Imagine how my stomach flip-flopped when I saw an elevator move through the window of the plane and momentarily had the sensation that Concorde was, without a single engine installed, gaining altitude!

All in all, I enjoyed the tour immensely and felt perfectly relaxed when I exited the plane.  The tour guide was extremely animated but kept the tour interesting and intellectual.  We got to sit in the cockpit and Louie was able to answer a question that the tour guide didn't know the answer to, based on the equipment in there.  Another tour guide asked Louie and I if we were airline pilots, which I found hilarious.

It perplexes me that I can enjoy watching and learning about something so much, yet be so afraid of it.  It makes me a little sad, too. Planes depart from and land at Kennedy Airport every single minute without incident. I know logically that air travel is one of the safest ways to travel.  But I still can't do it.

I know we now largely live in an age where flying is very often at best mundane and at worst unpleasant, but I have all sorts of silly little dreams of grandeur - the biggest of those being to fly first class on a Boeing 747 to Heathrow.  But I can't realize that dream, as well as my wishes to vacation in Australia or on the West Coast, unless I actually get on a plane other than one parked at a museum.

Still, I guess it was a start - before yesterday, I hadn't been on a plane since I was 5 years old.  So, though she didn't go supersonic this time, Concorde did give me an experience that I'm sure will last a long time, and hopefully one that will get me started on conquering this fear.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Black, White, and Wild

I am SUPER stoked to introduce this girl, who I'm likely going to have the opportunity to run part-time in competition.

I ran Arrow once in at a trial.  It came together pretty suddenly, and the run wasn't so pretty, but it was quite a rush and a lot of fun.  Border Collies really are their own breed of crazy.

Recently, Arrow's owner asked if I would like to start running her part-time at shows.  Basically, she'll enter Arrow in local shows and if I'm entered too with Marge, I'll run both dogs.  At trials I'm not entered in, my instructor will probably run her (she's been running her for years in Jumpers).

She's 10 years old and in Excellent B in both Standard and Jumpers.  I think she already has her MX, but needs a few more legs for her MXJ.

I ran her last night during practice at our field.  Aside from her weave entrance issues, we ran really well together.  It's only the third or fourth time I've practiced with her.

I feel like my handling really needs improvement - my handling errors really stand out when I run Arrow because of how fast she is.  One twitch of my arm, and she's across the ring.  I also need to be able to differentiate running Marge from running Arrow, which is a challenge due to the different strengths that each dog has.  But I'm getting there.

As much as I love running Marge, there is something really cool about running an experienced agility dog who runs agility because she finds agility itself to be the greatest thing in the world. I think she's going to make me a better handler.. which will make Marge a happier agility dog!

And, for the Marge fans, here she is with me playing on the same course.  We ran it clean earlier in the night, then I accidentally pulled her out of the pinwheel on this run. Our next trial is just a week and a half away!

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

The Problem With Dog Training

I have now been in a very active role as an assistant instructor for my dog club's non-competitive agility class for over one year.  Along the way, I've met dogs and handlers who really had me scratching my head - not because their situation was particularly complicated, just that the time to explain and execute plans to help deal with their situation was too much for me to really spend without neglecting the other students in class.  Most times, I've been able to give them suggestions and/or the tools to help deal with their problems, and I frequently did see improvement.  But I still haven't had that feeling that I've really fully helped a problem.  I don't think my problem lies in a lack of ability to convey information or even demonstrate how to deal with an issue, but instead seems to lie in the fact that a huge gap between what I know and what they know needs to be filled, and there just simply isn't the time to fill it.

A current situation that I'm dealing with along these very lines is making me feel a bit frustrated.  Attempting to explain the emotional side of behavior problems to one handler while also attempting to override any previous and ill-suited suggestions to deal with it is a daunting task in a class with four or five other dogs present.  One could argue that the situation shouldn't be dealt with at all in this environment.  But what is an instructor to do in the sixth week of class, when money has already been paid, and a dog's behavior is embarrassing and disruptive for both the handler and the other students in class?

In that respect, I'm stressed out on several levels - trying to carefully correct misinformation that has been put out there without stepping too hard on any one else's toes, while explaining a more complicated but solid solution to the problem and ultimately balancing one student against an entire class seeking personalized attention. It's a situation I've been in before, but it doesn't seem to get easier with repetition.

Sometimes I really wonder: does the ability to understand classical conditioning methods require a genuine and whole interest in dog training and behavior, or even learning and behavior as a whole?  I don't say that disparagingly.  The fact is that we live in a society where it's largely accepted as OK to deal with dog misbehavior with a pop, a snap, and perhaps a verbal hiss.  Can people who just want a nice house pet wrap their mind around the idea of not JUST rewarding or punishing behaviors, but shaping emotions and associations?  Sometimes, the effort really feels futile to me.  It'd be so much easier to just say "show her who's boss!" or "she thinks she's in charge"... but I know better.  I know the dog's behavior is rooted in anxiety and overexcitement and needs to be dealt with accordingly.  How can I stitch up that big gap between what I know and what the handler knows in the most effective way possible?

I hear a lot of dog training people write off pet class handlers with misbehaved dogs as "not trying hard enough" or "letting the dog do whatever it wants."  But the fact of the matter is that dealing with behavior problems is not like teaching sit, down, stay, and come.  It's really hard to convey the right information and sometimes even harder to get a handler to stop resisting what seems like an unconventional training plan.  After all, it only takes a couple of episodes of a couple of dog training shows to see that using food or other high-value items while the dog is barking their head off or growling with its hackles raised is analogous to selling your soul to the devil.

I can only hope I'm making just a little bit of a difference right now.  I think I am.  In the future, if I ever get the opportunity, I want to teach smaller, more personalized classes that work on specific issues.  Fiesty Fido or Shy Dog classes sound great in theory, and that's because they are.  But they're not offered nearly enough.  Subsequently, those teams who need a little bit of extra help are thrown in with the teacher's pets and valedictorians.. and the result isn't pretty.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Walking The Plank - Or Not!

This past Saturday, Marge, Louie and I took a road trip to Hatfield, Pennsylvania, for an AKC agility trial. Though I was swamped with school work (and still am) and even at one point regretted entering, I had a great time.

The trial site was AWESOME.  The layout of the rings was really cool - two turf rings separated by an aisle with chairs and bleachers.  The crating area was huge and was in the back. I left Marge's crate at home and opted to just let her hang out for the day, thinking she might need time to adjust to the site.  Nope.. walked in and made herself comfortable immediately.  Always amazing me, this dog!

Outside the JWW ring.
Jumpers was our first course and it turned out to be pretty tricky.  I started the run off on a sour foot by calling a rear cross too early and pulling Marge right off of a jump.  She was just a tiny bit zoomy - maybe the surface, maybe not - and lightning quick.  I wound up having to layer a jump because there was just no way I was going to catch up to her.  The middle of the course went nicely, until she missed her weave entrance.  Then, at the end of the course she went flying over two wrong course jumps without any thought.  Not one of our best, but by no means terrible.

The Standard course was gorgeous and I was trying to convince myself that it wasn't (because generally, any time I like a course, I screw up on it).  Turns out *I* did everything right and handled it pretty well.  There were almost no crosses - I crossed behind the weaves (easy cross), in front of the A-Frame (another easy cross), and reared at the very end (the only tight turn, really), and that was it. The challenge, I think, lied in the fact that the course was very, very speedy.

Alas, our Q-less streak in Standard continued, due to a very early bail-out on the teeter.  Probably just a freak thing.

It's always something in Standard, it seems. Still, the run was lightyears better than our last Standard run, and since this was a new place, a new surface, etc., I was happy with her performance.  It was a great day out for all of us and I'd definitely trial there again.

We have work to do before our next trial on August 6 and 7... namely, weave entrances, teeter practice, and direction coming out of the chute.  We have NOT practiced nearly enough lately, due to both the heat and my crazy schedule.  I hope to get some quality training time in within the next few weeks to tighten things up and hopefully work on that pesky AX title.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Yes, You Can Actually Use This Stuff

One of my jobs as Teacher Assistant in the summer section of the Experimental Psychology: Learning and Behavior course is to go over principles of learning and behavior that the students just don't "get" on the first try.  Another is to serve as a liaison between the students and the professor, a sort of peer-mentor type figure who can explain things, talk to students one-on-one in a down-to-earth way.. oh, and turn on the computers and chambers and fetch the pigeons when they're ready to be used, of course.

I'm only removed from the class by less than a year myself.  However, I had a distinct advantage in learning the material because of my experiences using it before I set foot in the classroom.  For a lot of these kids, the order is reversed.  In their minds, classical conditioning is, at best, the image of a dog salivating in an old Russian lab, and operant conditioning is, at best, a food-deprived mouse in a little box pressing a lever to get some grub, as a white-haired spectacled man looks on.

Most times, the students in the class take the class to simply get through it, with no intention of learning anything that they'll ever use. Classical conditioning and shaping procedures and negative punishment may sound cool in the confines of the pigeon lab, but will any of them ever use it elsewhere? I'd like to think - and maybe I'm being too idealistic - that some of them really mean it and really take an interest in it.

It happened for me.  I took an interest in behaviorism and it blossomed for so many different reasons. Why can't that happen for someone else?

For the sake of all the dogs out there who live with owners who don't know how to to deal with fear or aggression or overexcitement, for all of the dogs out there who are given corrections that are unnecessarily painful, harsh, or outright ineffective, for all of the dogs out there who are described as "alpha" or "nasty" or "too damn scared of everything"... I can only hope that some of what I say sticks.  Because while the class is not at all about dog training, the principles that are taught would improve the lives of a lot of dogs out there in this world where we like to talk about how dogs are dominant, cunning and crude little creatures who live only to leech off of us, without looking at all into why they do what they do.

The class has such great practical applicability, even if only because it urges you to consider the impact your own behavior might have on others, let alone the impact that environmental consequences have on your own behavior and emotions, as well as the behavior and emotions of others.

You don't have to aspire to be a clinical psychologist or a dolphin trainer to appreciate, use, recognize conditioning in a productive way, in its simplest forms.

If just a few of the people see that, then I will have been successful.

Thursday, June 30, 2011

A Lonely MACH Point

Last Saturday, Marge and I spent the day at a local agility trial.  Normally, we would have spent the weekend, but the weather at this trial has been, in the past, extremely hot.. so we took our chances on one day only.

Our first run was Standard, and, as is becoming a bit of the theme, the run was completely botched.  We actually had two shots at the opening because the timer didn't start before I started running, and we NQ'd on the second and third obstacle, respectively, both times.  She then took a wild off course (because she just can't resist taking a straight line of jumps), and offered her A-Frame contact twice.  She also missed her weave entry and popped out at the 10th pole or so.  It was a wild run.

The little devil.  She doesn't look particularly stressed - I sure hope not.  I  don't want those
crazy runs from last year to sneak back. I think Standard just requires a ton of mental
 focus that we still need to work on.
On the bright side, she held all of her contacts, got on the table, and actually read a landing-side front that I put in.  But, we still don't have a connection in Standard the way we do in Jumpers.

I was not hopeful about Jumpers (what else is new?), particularly because it was super sunny.  Since the sun likes black dogs, Marge wasn't exactly thrilled with things.  I had her in her crate, covered with my sun-blocking mesh silvery thing (that I commonly refer to as my space ship blanket), my small fan hanging on the door.

The wait wasn't terribly long, as the trial was small, at only 397 runs.  That's about 200 per ring (as opposed to 330 runs, which is the maximum number per ring).

As usual, I walked my Jumpers course with all rears (just one front cross, after the weave poles, where a rear would have been highly inefficient.  When I stick to my strengths (rear crosses), we qualify.

Turns out I would have to employ a bit of a different strategy to get around this course.  When I released her from the start line, she began moving at a snail's pace!  I had to play cheerleader throughout the whole course, and even put a front cross in that I hadn't even walked - just because there was no way I could wait for her to pass me to do the rear!  I do not think it was stress in this case - I think it was the heat, as well as the fact that the front of the ring was extremely soggy (see how she trots out of the first yellow tunnel?).

Her speed picked up considerably at the end of the run.  Once it was over, I searched mightily to see if we made time.. and we did.  Our time was 40.16 seconds, and the allowable course time was 42 seconds.  That meant we picked up our first MXJ leg (out of 10), and our very, very first MACH point (points are awarded for every full second you are under course time).

As is customary at every trial we attend, I had her pose with her loot.  In this case, she only received a green qualifying ribbon.. yep, you have to be faster than that in Excellent B around here in order to place.

By no means was it a great trial. After all, the weekend marked one year since our last Standard Q, other than the lone one we picked up back in April to get out of Open. But it certainly wasn't a bad trial.  How could it have been? - now, we've only got 749 more MACH points to earn!  And while that seems like a big number (because it is), my hope is that runs in the cooler weather will yield us way more than 1 point at a time.

Next weekend, we're heading out to PA for a trial in a sports building.  I've never been to the place before, but from the set-up of the rings that I've seen on YouTube, I'm hopeful that Marge will like it. Keep your fingers crossed for us!

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Time Flies By

Amazingly, though all of the GRE prep, Anatomy & Physiology torture, time spent with 40+ laboratory pigeons, and volunteering at multiple physical therapy practices, I almost let today slip by without realizing.


Today is Marge's 4th birthday.  According to the Georgia group who originally rescued her, her birthday was June 28, 2007.

It really is hard to believe that she's four already... and even harder to believe that she is the same dog that I adopted three years ago (her Gotcha Day is tomorrow!).  She has grown into a confident and happy dog.  I never had any idea that we'd be where we are today.

I admit, I didn't buy her anything yet.  I promised her that I'd buy her some stinky treats at our next agility trial on July 9.

I did, however, complete this 7-minute video highlighting the past year.  This video is one of my absolute favorite things to do each year.. and, like the last two, I am happy with how this one came out.  The music is a little too much on the pop-side for me and I actually picked out at least one better song AFTER I had already made the whole thing, but it works for Marge's attention-grabbing personality and fierce courage and determination in all that she does.

I am so lucky to have such an amazing friend to share my life with!

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Dad's Day

One thing I haven't blogged about at all lately is Marge's relationship with my father.  For the most part, my silence on this front means that nothing has changed.

We seem to have hit a plateau, for the time being, in terms of Marge's comfort level around my dad.    She has neither progressed nor regressed (thank goodness) significantly.  However, I don't think that's a bad thing... I actually think we're in a pretty good spot.

Through some sort of funky combination of both classical and operant conditioning, Marge now comes running to me 99% of the time when she hears the sound of the front door opening (recall that my father walking through the front door is one of her biggest triggers).  She'll generally lie either on the doormat behind my chair in the kitchen or, if we're in the basement, make her way to her crate.  Then, she gets treats as the door opens, my dad steps inside, and the door shuts.

Now, when he enters the room, her body language seems a bit more relaxed.  Generally, she gets up, takes a big stretch, wags her tail a bit, and then campaigns for treats from him.

My dad's behavior around her isn't perfect, but it does seem like he reaches out for her a lot less than he used to.  He still does make her bark when he asks for behaviors that she isn't wholly comfortable to perform.. but I suspect there's really nothing I can do about that.

Lately, I've noticed that when my dad is on the couch, either sitting or reclining, Marge will choose to go over to him to be petted - even to the point that I can't call her away from him.

Is there relationship perfect?  Nope.  But I think we're making it work as best as we can.  That's all I can do!

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