Melanie fetches the winning tennis ball

Melanie fetches the winning tennis ball

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Tank likes the harvest of the day More »

Donal between the storms More »

March 6, 2015; Hamilton DTC: Melanie & Cindy AKC Rally Novice class More »

 

Demo Dogs, A and B

Melanie + Tank photo signature 4.30.16 rev 4

 

I love teaching dog obedience classes, especially teaching pet dog owners how to train their dogs. I enjoy working with beginner competition handlers to help prepare them and their dogs for the first-step competition classes of Obedience Beginner Novice and Novice, and Rally Novice. I also love teaching Puppy Kindergarten and Family Pet classes.

For classes, I’m always armed with a curriculum, homework, experience, and a sense of humor. But I have an additional ace up my sleeve: my demo dog. Or dogs, since I have mischievous Melanie, my 10-year-old mixie shelter dog, and Tank, my sincere, nearly 5-year-old yellow Labrador retriever. For the most part, I’ll only have one at a time as my demo partner, and I generally split the time evenly between them. When I was showing them both in ringsports, each would get to go with me to dog club, arriving early so we could have some training time in a member ring.

Melanie is my “A” dog, which, in American Kennel Club parlance, means that she was the first dog that I showed to an AKC title. Everyone who competes in dog sports has stories to tell about their “A” dogs. The main thing that we handlers share in common is a lament: wishing that we knew then what we’ve learned from our subsequent “B” dogs. For the most part, the “A” dogs have “suffered” from having “A” handlers. In dog training, there’s no time or need for recriminations; rather, it’s important to integrate each lesson learned and move on.

There are many lessons to be learned from each dog, arguably the most important being that each one has her or his own very distinct personality. And while canines share many traits—including between members of the same breed—each dog is a unmistakable individual. This is very important when it comes to training dogs, so I always encourage my students to be sure to take time to learn their dogs’ temperaments. It makes a difference in how each dog learns and how each owner can be successful in teaching their pups. Learning theory is not just for people.

In my classes, I always try to learn the dogs’ personalities, as this is vital in order for me to be able to help their owners. The vast majority of puppies and dogs are very biddable to the foundation exercises of name recognition and attention, but there’s always one or two who seem to have attention deficits, distracted by anything that moves—or doesn’t move!—ready to pounce on or bark at everything they see. These are the pups who try men’s—and women’s—souls! I feel that “pain”, because I have one of them: Melanie. From the time I brought her home at 8 weeks, she has always been a high-energy, go-her-own-way girl. (If it’s any indication of baby Melanie’s temperament, the first nickname I came up with, only moments as we settled into the car to take her home, was “Monkey Dog.”)

But having a dog with a wild, independent personality has not only led me to dedicate myself to dog training, but also, I think, made me a better instructor. The idiom is true: experience really is the best teacher. Having lived life with a dog who always wants to sniff the ground, who gets bored with the mundane, or who insists on attention on her own terms gives me better insight into not only this kind of dog, but also the owner of such. And this makes having a demo dog very important.

As learners, dogs are much more visual than verbal, but I think people are, too, despite our tendency towards verbal burble. The obedience class demo dog is a vital aid for the human students…and maybe a few of the canines as well. When I introduce my dogs, I’m always clear about the differences in Melanie and Tank’s personalities: Tank is the “yes ma’am” boy, while Melanie is the “Wait, I’m busy sniffing this thing over here” girl. So as demo dogs, Tank usually makes me look great, but Melanie always makes me look human.

Tank embodies the attitude of the puppies of the average temperament, but also those with the shyer—or as I prefer—the more thoughtful personalities. Melanie, on the other paw, epitomizes both the puppy with the newbie owner and the distracted adult with the more experienced handler. And in between, she’s a perfect example of how a high-energy, easily-distracted, super-intelligent puppy will keep that very same personality all her life. And, she’s proof that even the least experienced person has the potential to teach her puppy to be well-behaved.

Between the two of them, my dogs help me teach, but more importantly, they help my human students learn that they, too, can be successful, especially those with the more “Melanie-like” dogs. The proof is right in front of them.

Tank Heeling with Distractions at the Post Office

Here, Tank and I heel on the sidewalk in front of the local Post Office, complete with car traffic and a deck mower cutting grass on the median of the street. My cell phone camera work could stand some improvement, but not bad for a first time, and you can still get enough of a view of Tank as he works and gives me great attention.

Distraction Dog Training

To be successful in competitive obedience, one must teach one’s dog how to ignore distractions. At dog events, there are literally thousands of potential distractions, from a myriad of noises, strange people—including the judge and ring stewards—strange sights, strange dogs, new and exciting odors, to the show site itself.

Dogs are the world’s absolute best associate learners, but they don’t generalize very well. And, as noted writer Alexandra Horowitz, author of several acclaimed books about dogs and dog behavior, has noted, dogs are the anthropologists of us. What this all means is that when you set out to train your puppy to sit, she is not only looking at you, taking in what you’re wearing, your body posture, your odor, but she is also noting the immediate environment, sights, sounds, and smells. This is one reason why, when you take your puppy to Puppy Kindergarten class, she seems to have forgotten everything she knew at home: the new location is different….not to speak of all the distractions of the training ring, the new people, and all her new puppy classmates. And it’s one reason why it can be challenging to excel in competitive dog sports.

The solution in either case is to work in steps to teach your dog, working in new locations, slowly adding distractions as she demonstrates proficiency in each step. Crucial to this, though, is to begin by really getting to know your dog’s personality: it’s the absolute cornerstone to training success. To paraphrase Alexandra Horowitz, we must become the anthropologists of our dogs. It’s vital to know whether you have a bubbly, crazy-energy dog, a more reserved pup, or something in between. This knowledge will help you understand how to communicate with your canine, and this is essential to teaching your dog to be the great companion, polite pet, or competition champion you want her to become.

Tank

Tank

I show my younger dog, Tank, a yellow Labrador retriever, in competitive obedience and Rally dog sports. He’s earned a Level 1 World Cynosport Rally title, and AKC Obedience Beginner Novice and Rally Novice titles. He currently has two legs towards his AKC Novice title, which, when completed, will give him his Companion Dog title. This class involves two heeling exercises, which require the dog to stay in a specific position next to the handler’s left side.  The first heeling pattern is on leash; a figure 8 around two people-posts follows. The second heeling exercise is off-leash, so the challenge is to make sure the dog stays in heel position. This means the dog needs to keep his attention on the handler, which can be challenging enough in a familiar, low-diversion setting, let alone a busy dog show.

There are almost as many ways to proof against distraction as there are distractions themselves, but the rule of thumb applies: start with none or very few, then increase over time. And there’s another part to this, involving duration. Basically, it means not asking the dog to handle more than he is capable of handling until he has mastered the art of attention in the less-distracting situations. For example, if I want my dog to hold a sit-stay while another person walks around him, I need him to be able reliable at holding the stay, period. From there, I can add another person, simply approaching him, then mark and reward for his obedience. I’ll build the intensity of the distraction at a rate commensurate to his reliability.

Last January, Tank and I earned his second AKC Novice leg at the Dayton Dog Training Club trial. It was, as we say in competition, not pretty. He was distracted by the Utility dog in the ring next to us. It was our first time showing with a team competing at the same time in a conjoined ring. It’s the very type of thing one must proof against. During the stay groups, Tank appeared to be watching the advanced dog working next door, so I silently sent him a hopeful thought: “Watch and learn!

While we did earn our second Novice qualifying ribbon, I wasn’t happy about our heeling scores. Heeling is fundamental, and is an exercise in every level of Obedience. Adding to this, the exercises of Open and Utility are ever more advanced. They require the dog to take greater responsibility, and the more complex exercises must be completed without assistance of the handler. Off-leash heeling is a team exercise, but each member must be in sync with the other without conversation or cues. It’s fundamental to teaching the dog that he has some ring responsibilities.

So as part of Tank’s training and education, I’m making a point of working with him in new, distracting places. It’s a dog training road show! (Melanie does get to come along, sometimes, but since she’s retired from ring sports, I’m working on her tracking training plan.)

Today, Tank and I went over to the Post Office. We have not been there since last year, and while the location is not completely new, the passing of time might have voided that familiarity. My goal for Tank today was for him to get reacquainted with the area. The post office is located in the main business district, on a fairly busy 4-lane road with a recently-renovated brick-and-grass median. The building sits at the back of a parking lot, which sits next to a large hairy—tracking dog term!—parking lot abutted by a small meadow.

First, I let Tank explore the area, but he quickly kept checking in with me. Then we did a little heeling on the sidewalk in front of the P.O. He gave me great attention, which was wonderful, especially since not only were cars zipping past, but a groundskeeper was using a large deck mower to cut the grass on the median just across from where we were working.

This was a very satisfying result of some distraction training. (Video to follow in my next post.) After that, we did some sit and down practice with distraction. Tank and I love working together, so knowing that we’re on the right track with our distraction training gives me confidence about our next time in the obedience ring.

The Three Amigos

The 3 Amigos title final version 3.29.16

I have my best friend, Cheryl, who is a kind, generous, witty, and otherwise wonderful human being. But I also have a trio of animal best friends, two dogs, and a cat. And this woman’s furry best friends are best friends.

Like millions of households, mine is a multi-pet home. It’s pretty much always been that way since my childhood, with my sister and me enjoying the benefits—and responsibilities—of pet ownership. Dogs dominated our lives, with at least one, and very frequently two, pups bringing fun and happiness at all times. We also had parakeets, turtles, and fish. And, for a brief time, Tabatha, a very irascible silver tabby named for the daughter of Samantha and Darrin on “Bewitched.”  Tabatha was not happy to be a house pet, often escaping from our home, and being prone to attacking bare legs during middle-of-the-night ambushes. She ended up becoming a mouse-killer at our godparent’s dairy farm, much happier–even if to the regret of the pesty barn rodents. And that was the end of my cat-owning experience…

…until September of 2013, when, at the urging of my then boss, who ran an animal rescue, a young cat entered my life. He’d come into the rescue after being discovered on the porch of one of the groomers, Kim, and her husband. The furry tyke had been enjoying the food set out for the couple’s outdoor cat. Kim quickly realized that the kitty was a stray and brought him in for an exam, shots, and neutering. After a thorough going-over by the vet, the youngster ended up in the rescue, and given the moniker “Donald.” Every time I happened to enter the cat room, Donald would mew and reach out for me. Jaime, the rescue placement director, decided that I needed to adopt him. After a short period of her friendly pestering, I gave in. At home, I made arrangements to introduce him to my two dogs, setting up a giant dog crate for the newly re-named “Donal” to use during the transition. I bought an appropriately sized airline dog crate to transport Donal home.

When I arrived home, the dogs greeted me with their usual “wow-we-thought-you’d-never-return!” doggish enthusiasm: Melanie barking, Tank shoving a toy into my hands while trying to stop himself from jumping up. But as soon as they saw the crate, they immediately switched their attentions from me to the mysterious new object. Donal was silent as I set his crate on the foyer floor. The dogs’ heads went down, shoving close to the crate. Noses were twitching, taking in a strange new scent. Through the air holes in the crate’s side, I could see Donal squishing his body as far as possible from the canine examiners. Then, he settled and gave out a small mew. Melanie woofed, Tank’s head canted from one side to the other.

Once the dogs had settled, I picked the crate up and walked up the steps. Putting the dogs into the kitchen behind a baby gate, I let Donal out of his portable crate and into the giant wire dog crate. The dogs were anxious to see this new addition more clearly and up close; I barely had moved the baby gate when they were rushing over to the wire crate. It was a fascinating sight to see these three animals assessing each other, the dogs trying to decide what Donal was and why he was here, the cat trying to decide whether Melanie and Tank were friendly.

Melanie and Tank quickly welcomed the new arrival into their company. Donal has turned out to be a real “dog cat,” a feline who enjoys the company of his canine companions. He is so much a dog cat that he likes rough-housing with Melanie, frequently starting the action by swatting playfully at her, then racing away. Donal and Tank don’t engage in play-battles, but they like to nap side-by-side and at night, always sleep by me.

It’s a fine thing to have three best furry friends, but even better knowing that they are best buds with each other. Melanie, Tank, and Donal….the Three Amigos.

The Three Amigos final version 3.29.16

The 2016 Garden: the Plan to Defeat the Procyon Pests

Winter is normally spent contemplating and planning for the next spring’s plantings, but this winter, I had to do an extra measure of planning. Last summer’s garden was seriously damaged by masked varmints: raccoons found the luscious ripening tomatoes, ravaging every plant, from the Black Krims to the sweet cherries, chomping the fruit and ripping down the stems. (The raccoons also did a bit of damage to the renovated breezeway, making a few small tears in the new, lightweight screen. Apparently, though, the fruits of the garden were much more attractive to the mischief-makers than was the food-free porch.)

I’d dealt with squirrels and successfully kept out rabbits in the past, but this was the first time I’d had to contend with the clever Procyon pests. After consulting with other gardeners, as well as my best friend—who lives in the country and deals with raccoons almost every night—I learned that I would need to do more research in order to find out how I might be able to keep the raccoons out of my 2016 garden.

The raccoon is an example of just how perfectly able animals are at adapting to almost any human-altered environment. When considering the “enemy,” what first comes to mind might be their forepaws, which are almost human-like in their ability to grasp and manipulate everything they grab. The raccoon’s sense of touch is its most important: not only are the front paws extremely sensitive, nearly two-thirds of the sensory area of the brain is dedicated to interpretation of tactile sensations. The raccoon “hand” only lacks an opposable thumb, which gives humans the advantage in that regard. The raccoon’s brain is also very adept, with excellent problem-solving and memorization skills.

My having opposable thumbs, however, did not give me an advantage last summer against the clever nocturnal garden invaders; I did not get to enjoy more than a very few of the fruits of my tomato-gardening labor.

Building a raccoon-proof wall—no guarantee there—around the vegetable garden is not practical. If I want to plant tomatoes and other succulent vegetables this spring, I would need to come up with something more practical, reasonable, and affordable. Winter investigations proved that for many, the first choice of defense was electric fencing, using a high-voltage, low-amp charger to deliver intermittent pulses to keep out the pests. For several reasons, this was not a solution that appealed to me.

Fortunately, I discovered that there are simpler, less expensive alternatives. These range from battery-operated sprinklers, to solar-powered “predator control” lights, to the simplest of all, a portable radio, set to a talk radio station. (Which leads me to wonder whether a station dedicated to “discussion” of the current Presidential candidate debates would not only drive animal pests away, but perhaps kill the plants.)

Spring 2016 has just arrived and while I haven’t yet decided on all of my vegetable plantings for this year, I feel much more confident about my choices, knowing that I have a number of good possible solutions for my raccoon rivals….provided they aren’t politicians.

 

The Restful Bench

the restful bench 9.19.15

To rescue means to save from danger or distress. As a noun, it means the act of saving or of being saved from such situations.

For many years, my boss and friend, a veterinarian, operated an animal rescue, saving from danger and death countless puppies, kittens, cats, and dogs. Eventually, the intensity of the work began to take a toll upon her family life, so she closed the rescue.

Over the years, she garnered much support from the community, including a local Girl Scout troop. During the summer before the rescue closed, the troop presented us with a handsome brown wooden bench, decorated with hand painted paw prints, dog bones, the name of the rescue, and the troop’s number. The girls and the troop leader created a lovely spot for the bench, complete with flowers and several rescue-themed, homemade stepping stones. It was a wonderful place for visitors to enjoy, often spending some time there with a newly adopted dog.

After the rescue closed, Dr. K kindly gifted me the bench. My co-worker Katie helped me bring it home, the two of us easily stowing it into her great old green Ford truck, “Dino.”  We put it in my backyard, in front of the spot where a grand old maple had once stood. Until the weather got too cold, I often enjoyed sitting on the rescue bench, enjoying the yard’s transition from fall to winter. The bench overwintered outdoors, bearing up very well.

After the springtime breezeway renovation, I moved the bench inside. Being a wood slatted bench, it was a scosh uncomfortable, even for well-padded me. A comfortable bench pad, made with several colorful blankets and a squishy, homemade pillow transformed the rescue bench into the Restful Bench.

Here, I’ve enjoyed a summer of creativity, writing and reading, meditation, garden planning, and, most often, a restive enjoyment of simply being still, as my backyard nature plays out, and my dogs and cat play on.

Monarchs Rule


 9.18.15 monarch on mexican torch 2

Monarch visiting Mexican Torch sunflower

September 19, 2015

Today, for the first time in years, I am seeing Monarch butterflies in my yard.

First, this morning, one landed on the sedum in front of the evergreen bushes by the front door, then flew on to the Mexican Torch sunflowers at the other end of the porch. That single Monarch lingered on the sunflower while I ran an errand, tarrying there for nearly 20 minutes.

Later, as I relaxed with Melanie, Tank, and Donal on the breezeway, I watched a micro-band of Monarchs swarming the backyard sunflower patch. Four individuals flittered and danced from flower to flower, preferring the fiery red-orange Mexican Torches to the sedate pale yellow Italian Whites.

The sunflower patch can now be called a sunflower bush. Although beginning as several individual plants, they’ve grown so closely together, to over six feet tall and wide, taking on the proportions of a giant, multi-branched individual.

Between the critters and me on the breezeway and the sunflowers is a wide expanse of overgrown lawn. Grass and weed seed-heads sway in the breeze and pairs of tiny brown and orange butterflies swirl up from the blades, twirling and cavorting around each other before disappearing into the low-leaved limbs of the maple tree.

Although the grassy savannah closest to the house will become a vegetable garden next spring, I think the space just beyond, between the two pear trees will be set aside for a butterfly kingdom, a space where monarchs may rule again.

 

Life Woo Woo Woo!

9.18.15 Tank in the Subaru

Lately, I’ve been expressing my satisfaction, happiness, and even amusement with a little cheer: “woo woo woo!” I’m aware of the webstreet use of this phrase as a surreptitious code phrase for sex, but I’m not sure who these users think they are fooling.

Non-verbal exaltations are Nature’s regular expressions, parlayed by all who walk, run, hide, flitter, fly, and flee. These expressions, spontaneously uttered, whispered, sung, and shouted, are true elucidations of love, lust, happiness, fear, bluff, and triumph. And in many situations, signals of satisfied completion.

A few things I’ve recently woo woo woo’d life about…

  • My older dog, Melanie, being cancer-free
  • Teaching a student how to teach her highly distracted dog how to pay attention
  • My younger dog, Tank, doing well on the glove retrieve target exercise
  • Getting all the Day Care dogs’ kennels cleaned after they went home
  • Seeing all of the good buggy activity in the compost pile
  • Getting great photographs of boarding and day care dogs
  • Seeing Monarchs on my sunflowers

What life moments have you been woo-woo-wooing lately?

The Five Reiki Principles

Just for today, I will not be angry.

Just for today, I will not worry.

Just for today, I will be grateful.

Just for today, I will do my work honestly.

Just for today, I will be kind to every living thing.