Ticked Off!

The title of this post — Ticked Off! — is probably the only joke I’ll make about ticks for the foreseeable future. It is no longer a joking matter in my household!

We recently moved from Lansing, Michigan, to a “country” town in Massachusetts. I say “country” because Massachusetts country is still pretty developed and not much at all like rural Michigan! But we lived in the city of Lansing back then, with almost no yard to speak of, and we exercised our dogs by walking on sidewalks or going to the park to let them run around. Now that we live in Massachusetts, we have an enormous yard ringed by a forest and the pups can spend a lot more time burning off their energy outside.

This is probably a really good way to get covered in ticks.

This is probably a really good way to get covered in ticks.

Heavenly, right?

It would be, if our yard were not infested with deer ticks! We didn’t notice it when we moved here because it was the middle of summer, but now that we are deep into Fall, we are at peak adult deer tick activity. See, nymph activity peaks in mid-summer, larvae activity peaks in August-September, and now it’s the adults’ turn to hog the limelight. They should fall off around the end of December, but they survive the harsh Massachusetts winters pretty well and, of course, once we get to February the whole cycle will begin again – adults feeding, reproducing, and contributing to the summer spikes of nymphs and larvae. Gross!

Graph by the American Lyme Disease Foundation.

Graph by the American Lyme Disease Foundation.

Even though our dogs don’t romp in the woods, they pick up ticks in the grass, from fallen leaves, and from brushing up against bushes. Every time Cerberus comes in from the yard, he has a tick or two crawling on his fur – adult deer ticks, about the size of a sesame seed, darkly colored, and practically indestructible! (Or so it feels when I’m trying to crush their tiny horrible terrible bodies. HULK SMASH!) For some reason they don’t seem to like Fly as much, even though her fur is much shorter and sparser than Cerb’s plushiness. She must taste bad.

Of course, we use a topical flea and tick treatment on both dogs (Frontline Plus), so although we frequently see ticks crawling on the dogs, we’re yet to find one that has actually attached and fed. That should be relief, but the problem is that the dogs bring the ticks inside and then they get on us, and there’s no such thing as human Frontline – or any sort of medication that is going to make me feel okay about BUGS IN MY HOUSE.

So what to do? Well, I talked it over with my vet and she had a few ideas, although part of it will just be accepted that we live in the wilderness now (er, the thickly-settled New England wilderness) and ticks are part of life. We’re going to keep up with topical treatments, of course, although my vet recommended Advantix over Frontline. We also vaccinated both dogs for Lyme disease. We did not vaccinate for Lyme in Michigan because we lived in a low-risk area and had low-risk lifestyles, but now vaccination makes much more sense – if you’re considering this route, consult your vet and see if it makes sense for your dog. Between the vaccine and the topical treatment, I’m fairly confident both dogs are protected, but I’ll keep up with yearly blood tests to make sure we’re still good (both dogs had clean blood tests last week – hurrah!).

As for the yard and the house? That’s a little bit more difficult. We’re going to look into having the yard treated, because we feel like the number of ticks we’re seeing on the dogs is higher than normal. It’s possible our yard is infested and needs to be treated by a professional pest company. There are also commercially-available yard sprays and powders we could try, although reviews on retail websites are mixed.

As humans, our options are limited. We don’t get to use Frontline or Advantix, and there’s currently no approved Lyme vaccine for humans – bummer, right? So we’re stuck being careful to check ourselves over when we come inside, checking the dogs and ourselves for ticks whenever we come inside, and…. er, crossing our fingers, I guess. Wish us luck!

Book Review: Animal Madness, by Laurel Braitman

Here at TU, we often joke (or, you know, “joke”) about living with our respective assortments of crazy dogs, nutball cats, and — in my case, a few years back — a series of probably-psychopathic, undoubtedly-homicidal hamsters. (Having lived with more than my fair share of the hilarious little monsters, I will always believe that golden hamsters are nature’s Scary Clowns. Oh, sure, they look adorable. But not-so-secretly they are babyeating cannibal menaces who can’t even tolerate a single roommate in a huge cage without murdering one another. Hamsters hate you and want you dead.)

ANYWAY.

When I saw the cover of Laurel Braitman’s book Animal Madness on the front page of an issue of Whole Dog Journal, I thought: that is a book that I need to read. Crazy dogs! That is exactly what we do here! The TU readership must hear about this book.

AnimalMadnessCoverAnd now that I have actually read it, I feel even more strongly about this. If you have any interest in the mental and emotional wellbeing of animals — not just our companion dogs and pet parrots, but the intelligent and sensitive wild birds and mammals who suffer heartbreaking fates in what Braitman refers to as “the animal captivity industry” (i.e., Sea World, Ringling Bros. Circus, and an awful lot of zoos) — then this is a book you can’t afford to miss. Animal Madness is packed full of fascinating anecdotes, glimpses into the strange, sad, and frequently hilarious history of how people interpreted animals’ aberrant behavior, and thoughtful reflections on how our current choices can help or harm the animals who share our world.

It’s also smart, funny, and written with such an effortlessly conversational tone that you might be tempted to forget just how solidly researched the whole thing is. According to my Kindle’s page tracker, fully 40% of the book’s length is comprised of citations; the main text only takes up 60% of the book. That is by far the highest ratio of citations-to-text that I’ve encountered outside the formal academic context, and a good measure of how seriously Braitman has studied her subject. Animal Madness is breezy enough to have landed on quite a few recommended “summer reading” lists, but this book is anything but lightweight. It is, in fact, a stealth bomb aimed directly at your brain.

The story begins when Braitman acquires a Bernese Mountain Dog named Oliver, who suffers from a variety of behavioral problems including severe separation anxiety (which drove him to jump out of a fourth-floor window, fifty feet from the ground), pica, and compulsive paw-licking that gave him recurrent, oozy sores on his feet. Her efforts to understand and help Oliver launched her down a road that took her to visit the elephant handlers of Thailand, browse the archives of Victorian writers’ musings on suicidal lions and heartbroken geese, and research the strange/sad/funny history of animal experimentation in psychopharmaceutical development.

(Yes, that’s right, “funny,” albeit in a horrible way. There is, for example, the pure black comedy of the Executive Monkey experiment. There is also a long list of Women Types Who Need Tranquilizers, which in the ’50s included both “loose” and “frigid” women. Valium: appropriate for aaaaallll the ladies in your life!)

There are so many incredible anecdotes in Animal Madness that I fear to mention any of them for spoilers (really: you have to read them as they’re described in the text), and yet I can’t seem to stop myself from mentioning a few of these amazingly peculiar tales. Braitman introduces her readers to John Daniel, the first gorilla to survive more than a few months in captivity, who lived in apparent contentment with his wealthy human caretakers in a house in London. John Daniel rode on the train like an ordinary person, slept in a bed in his own bedroom, and loved to take guests by the hand so that he could show them around his home. He liked fresh lemon jelly, milk warmed on the stove, and roses — the more beautiful the better, as “he would never eat faded ones.” Taken from his home under false pretenses, he effectively died of loneliness.

Then there’s Charlie the parrot, who may or may not have committed suicide from heartbreak, Mosha, a young elephant who suffered from PTSD after losing a leg to a land mine, and Brian the bonobo, who endured sexual abuse from his father and exhibited a list of self-harming behaviors and developmental deficiencies that strikingly mirror some of the human cases I’ve seen come out of similar situations.

Between and throughout the case studies is a reasoned, thoughtful argument about the responsibility that we share for the emotional disturbances of these animals. In almost all cases, the animals’ mental health is thrown out of balance because of some human impact on their lives. Animals are yanked out of their familiar home environments and thrust into strange, often horribly cold and barren new places. Animals are subjected to godawful abuses in the name of “training.” Animals are poisoned by chemical runoffs in their water supplies. Animals are reared in stimulus-deprived, frequently overcrowded facilities to fill the quotas of pet stores and factory farms, and are taken away from their mothers far too young and so routinely that some of their pathological behaviors (such as pet-store hamsters obsessively chewing the bars of their cages) were things that I, for one, had just accepted as “normal,” because every animal of that species I ever saw did those things.

But they’re not normal. And it is our collective human actions that cause so much suffering to these animals.

It’s not all bad, though. For every heartbreaking story Braitman relates, there’s another to heal it — case studies where compassionate, knowledgeable, and committed people were able to rebuild animals’ trust, restore some semblance of the emotional and social relationships they’d lost, and bring them back to a happier, healthier place. There is a lot of harm that we commit thoughtlessly, but there is also a tremendous amount of good that we can do when we act thoughtfully.

It sounds pretty sappy to say it, I know, but there actually is a great healing power in love, at least when it comes to restoring the mental health of social animals. Over and over, the author shows it at work. By the end of the book, she’d even made a believer out of cynical, jaded ol’ me.

That’s a powerful message, and it’s far from the only one to be found in Animal Madness. This is an important book. It’s worth reading. More than that: it’s worth thinking about.

On foster failing, or not

Exactly 10 days ago today, I called my mom after work, and without even saying hello, I said, “Mom, I have to tell you: I have fallen in love.”

There was a pause, and then an audible sigh.

“It’s with a dog, isn’t it?”

Sometimes your mom can know you a little too well.

The object of my affection, and the source of the consternation that lead to this post is this handsome young gentleman:

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Hi there!

Meet Shine. He is a cute, twoish-year old little dude who Sarah says looks like a McNab collie and Jen says just looks like a Heinz 57: Herding Flavor. Either way, he showed up in admissions at my shelter, and pretty much the instant I met him, I was all, “GIMME THAT POINTY DOG!” He was doing poorly in admissions–classic ‘dog who is stressed out by a shelter environment and turns into a monster because of it’–and I volunteered to bring him home for a little while, assuming he could work with my group of animals. I knew full well that I kind of secretly totally wanted him and that he would be a dangerous guy to bring home, given that it is not my objective to acquire any more dogs. However, I assumed that he would bomb out at some point in the introduction process and then I wouldn’t have to worry about it anymore. To my massive surprise, however, he passed his cat test and all of my dogs thought he was swell (Lucy, my old dog who hates basically everyone, play bowed at him and then got the zoomies, and I will have to plead the Fifth on whether or not that made me burst into happy tears.) So, because I had no built-in excuses left, he is now curled up in a ball with Nellie on my couch, and I have spent the last several days Hamlet-ing around about whether or not to keep him.

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Duh, you have to keep me. Nellie thinks I’m great!

[Shine, by the way, is not his official name. Pretty much immediately on arrival, I decided his shelter name was non-euphonious and too difficult to call (plus, he didn't know it), so I decided that he seemed like a Shine and that was now his name. Step one in not adopting your foster dog: DO NOT RENAME HIM! Sigh.]

I have fostered a fair bit, and I am proud to say that I have only ‘foster failed’ (adopted a foster dog) once. That foster fail was Nellie, and the difference between her and my other fosters was that a) I was actively looking for a second dog when I agreed to foster her, and b) I mostly wanted to foster instead of adopt because I thought there was a good chance Lucy might want to murder her, and I wanted to have an ‘out’ just in case. I have had a couple of fosters that I was glad to see go, but I have been lucky in that I have mostly had foster dogs that I’ve adored. There were a couple that I desperately wanted to keep and did not; all of those dogs are in terrific homes and are thriving, and I know now that my decision to let them go was the right one. The stakes on both sides are pretty obvious: of course, if you keep your foster, you get an awesome dog and they get an awesome home. However, if you keep your foster, you also give up your ‘foster slot’, either temporarily (as New Dog adjusts) or permanently (because you are now full up on dogs). Keeping a foster dog means, theoretically anyway, that all of the potential foster dogs you could have taken in will now either need alternate placement or will not be rescued at all. So the decision to keep a foster isn’t tiny, and it’s not even necessarily about just you and the dog.

However, if you, like me, have a foster dog that is currently making your heart go pitter-pat, I thought I’d talk through some of the things I’m thinking about as I agonize over whether or not to keep Shine. If you’ve had to make the To Keep Or Not To Keep decision and had other criteria that you considered, please feel free to share those in the comments! Help me, help your fellow dog nerds.

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Working Like a Dog – Agility Trials Don’t Run Themselves!

Recently a post cropped up on one of the agility Facebook groups that I am a part of regarding a most popular unpopular topic: volunteering at agility trials.  And how to get more volunteers.  In 2011 the Very Popular Agility Blog, Agility Nerd, organized a group blogging event on the topic of trial volunteering – and there were many participants.  There are a Lot of Feelings! about trial volunteering.

Agility is a whole lot of fun.  It is also heavy. (seriously, have you ever moved an A-frame?)  Agility requires a lot of organization.  It requires a lot of work.  It takes a lot of time and people to keep an agility trial moving smoothly.  And somebody has to do it.  A lot of sombodies.

In the realm of agility competitor tenure, I have a whole year and a half of trialing experience.  (So, not a whole lot!)  At my first trial there was a frazzled looking woman begging in a hoarse voice for workers.  It is a scene I have witnessed at every single agility trial that I have gone to since.  This person is the ‘volunteer coordinator’ and it is her job to round up competitors to volunteer to be part of the agility trial machine.  The day of that first trial I was a clueless newbie, but I volunteered to work as “ring crew” because hey, those bars aren’t going to set themselves.  It took me one day to realize a few things: that February trial was in a barn and it was cold but the ring crew chair out in the dusty sidelines of that ring had a propane heater next to it – it was officially the warmest seat in the house.  It was also a front row seat to the action – I was able to be up close and personal to watch experienced competitors and how they chose to handle sequences.  It was a learning experience for me.  It was the beginning of my passion for volunteering.  In fact, now I am that frazzled woman with the hoarse voice begging people to work – I am a volunteer coordinator.

What does it take to keep an agility trial running smoothly?
The list of jobs at an agility trial is more extensive than I ever realized.  No – the hosting club cannot do it all.  The trial committee is comprised of a small handful of very busy individuals who are trying to keep everything afloat and get the results out in a timely fashion – somebody else is going to have to set the bars in the ring.

Chief Course Builder and Course Builders take those course maps that we receive and make them come alive.  They move all of the heavy equipment around, they assemble the contact equipment, they make sure everything matches up to the map.  They create the playground!
The Gate Steward is an excuse to be loud and bossy!  The trial run order is posted on a board mounted on a stand outside of the ring entrance.  The gate steward makes sure that the competitors and their dogs are entering the ring in a timely manner, as well as shouting out for the next two to three dogs to be ready and close to the ring.
The Scribe is in charge of recording faults signaled by the judge and for writing the course time down on the score sheet.  The Scribe has to watch and listen to the judge for these faults, or for points called during game classes.  This is no job for the daydreamers!
Timer does just that – they time the runs!  Depending on what club is hosting the trial, the timer could be using a stopwatch (yikes!), or more commonly an electronic timing device will be used.  The timer must focus on the run and the equipment, and make sure that nothing malfunctions – if it does they need to restart or adjust the timer so that the team in the ring receives an accurate time.
Leash Runner spends the entire class walking leashes from the entrance end of the ring (where the competitor will remove it from the dog and drop it or fling it behind them…) and moving those leashes to the exit end of the ring so that it is waiting to be put back onto the dog after his run.
Score Runner spends the entire class accepting score sheets from the scribe, and bringing them to the score table so that they can be recorded into the results.
Ring Crew involves sitting in a chair out in the ring and: fixing displaced bars, “fluffing” the chute (or collapsed tunnel.), changing: jump, tire, and Aframe heights.  There are single bar jumps and then there are more complicated “double”, “triple”, and “viaduct” jumps.  There is the broad jump, a series of flat boards laying on the ground.  Sometimes there are electronic timing devices on either side of the start and finish obstacles, and depending on what variety they are – these devices need to be adjusted to match the jump height as well.  All of the adjustments of these obstacles fall onto the ring crew.

Things get a little hairy when it comes to filling all of these positions because the fact is: Agility trials cannot run without volunteers, but nobody can force people to volunteer.  Trials are literally halted in their tracks if the key positions are not filled.  This is perceived by some as bullying competitors into volunteering, but the truth of halting a trial in need of volunteers is that: somebody has to do it, “the show cannot go on” until there is proper support in the ring.  Turning over the ring or changing a jump height can take two or three times as long without enough workers.  And while that does not seem like a big deal, the wasted time adds up.  Trials lacking in volunteers can easily run hours longer than trials that are properly “staffed.”  This sounds like an absurd “old wives tale” created by evil volunteer coordinators to coerce errant competitors into volunteering at a trial, but it is absolutely true!

I have seen hosting clubs offer any of the following to volunteers: free meals, free drinks or coffee, free candy or other food, coupons for reduction in future trial entries and raffle tickets for cool dog gear.  I am in the “you had me at free coffee” camp, but I know many others are not so easily persuaded.

There are many reasons that people do not like to volunteer at agility trials and I have never known it to be “laziness”:

Somebody was mean to me when I volunteered.
This happens.  A lot more than it should.  A new competitor offers to volunteer and they are thrown in over their head with a job that needs to be filled, but that nobody bothers to explain to them.  And then when the ring is running and they make a mistake, somebody snaps at them and hurts their feelings.  If you are a new competitor and you volunteer, thank you.  So much.  If you are a volunteer coordinator, please try very hard to not dump new volunteers in over their head.  It is important.  And if you are a seasoned competitor and you feel frustrated with somebody who isn’t doing their ring job perfectly, take a deep breath and bite your tongue.  Nothing disgusts me more than a competitor being mean to a volunteer.  There is no excuse for it.  Nobody comes to an agility show to be belittled for doing a job they have volunteered to do for free.  Be nice to each other.  Take time to explain agility jobs.  Nothing in the ring is terribly difficult, but some jobs take a little more time and understanding of the sport to master than others.

I paid a lot for my entry fees, I should not need to volunteer.
This seems like a valid reason!  Agility is an expensive hobby.  We spend a lot of money on training classes, equipment, education, trial gear and our entry fees.  It all adds up to a sum that we might like to pretend doesn’t exist and it is hard to understand why we should have to go to a trial and not just relax and enjoy ourselves and our dogs.  After all, it is our weekend, our hobby, our fun – not our job!  The cold hard fact is: this is the reality of this sport.  Our trials need staffing, and lots of it.  Some dog sports don’t need quite so many hands on deck, but if you are going to go to agility trials, there is a lot of work that needs to be done.  That is not going to change.  Your entry fees do not support buying workers for agility trials – if that happened, entry fees would simply go up.  And nobody wants that!

I have done my time.
I don’t have a great grasp on this reason, since I am a fairly new competitor.  But truly, I can respect it.  If you are 10 plus years into agility trialing, and have spent those years working your tail off at trial after trial, it is understandable to feel like the new blood should shoulder a heavier work load.  Many older competitors are not physically able to do a high demand job like leash running or ring crew.  But…the job still needs to be done.  New competitors need seasoned pros to show them the ropes.  Please, if you only pick up the timer for one short class or jump height a day, it is such a huge help.  And all of your hard work in years past was much appreciated, and is unfortunately still needed as you continue to compete.

I just want to relax in between runs.
This goes hand in hand with my second ‘reason’.  And I get it.  I love to read books and hang out with my dogs, and the gaping amount of time that I wait in between agility runs is nice to catch up on my reading.  But again.  Our sport needs workers.  Period.  This is the way things are.  So please, work a class or two per day – everything and anything is an enormous help.  It might mean that somebody gets to have the only break that they might get during the entire trial to enjoy lunch and sitting down with their dog.

 

There may well be many many more reasons, but these are the reasons that so often reach my ears.  I personally love to volunteer at trials.  I love to have a front row seat on the action, it makes my day go faster, it helps me to understand the sport better and it helps me make friends with my fellow competitors.  We are a team with our dog in the ring, but we are a team with our fellow competitors when it comes to making an agility trial run smoothly – like it or not.  Some may not love volunteering as much as I do, but somebody must do this work.  A lot of somebodies.  Imagine if you walked into the ring late because nobody reminded you that your dog was next on the line, and the course was not set up according to the course map, all of the bars were the wrong height, nobody moved your leash to the exit gate, nobody recorded your score or time.  Really, imagine that.  Volunteers do all of these things for you.  Please, help to return the favor.  Our sport needs you.

The almighty Tuggo Ball!

Not too long ago at a Pet Expo, I came across a vendor selling a ball I’d never seen or heard of. The Tuggo Ball. The concept seemed simple, it was a hard plastic ball, hollow, with a plug, and a rope running through the center of it. They come in two sizes, a 7ion mini, and a 10 inch regular. The ball was constructed in such a way as to allow you to fill it with water or gravel to add weight to it. After a brief discussion with the two owners about Raiden, my 110 pound destructo-shepherd, I decided to purchase one of the 10 inch ones. The $25 expo price seemed reasonable, and Raiden is a ball loving dog, if nothing else. I was excited to get it home and see what he thought of it.

Tuggo-blue

Because of his size, I decided to fill it with water straight off, and after I capped the plug I pitched the sloshing ball out on the driveway for him. he immediately ran after it, barking his head off. He loves to play soccer with balls, and kicked them around, batting at them with his front paws and kicking it behind him. He immediately grabbed the rope and drug the ball around, and it offered a tiny bit of resistance to him filled with water. It bounced along the driveway and into the grass as he towed it along behind him, stopping to bark at it every so often.

Raiden decided playing with a bee was more fun.. for 1.3 seconds:

He had quite a bit of fun with it, until he tried to grab it. While this probably wouldn’t have been such a problem for most other dogs, at 110 pounds, Raiden has quite a large mouth. He likes to try and chew on things, and after many attempts at the ball, he was finally able to get purchase on it and chomped down hard… and popped it! He pierced it with two of his teeth, and instantly it sprouted two streams of water.

Slightly dejected it at the 30 minute lifespan, we hopped back into the car and drove back to the pet expo, where I showed them the punctured ball. They were quite surprised, and while they offered to refund my money, I didn’t want them to have to do that simply because my dog has an unusually large mouth. So instead they gave me a fresh one, and let me take the damaged one home as well. The damaged one I later turned into a tether ball for the same dog, and the fresh one I let Dierdre the yellow lab play with instead. She was unable to pop it, and loved the ball, dragging it all over the yard. After weeks of play time she finally managed to chew the rope off, but I was happy to see they sell replacement ropes on their website. With her small mouth, she’s been unable to inflict any serious damage upon the ball.

Tuggo Tetehrball. You can see the holes where Raiden punctured it.

Tuggo Tetherball. You can see the holes where Raiden punctured it.

Unfortunately one day we left it in the front yard when we let Raiden out of the back yard, and he instantly charge it, and chased it into the pond, where it floated 20 feet out into the middle of the pond. That was about 6 weeks ago, and we’ve so far been unable to retrieve the ball, so it currently floats around the center of the pond, where the lily pads prevent it from floating close enough to the edge for us to gab. We made an attempt at rescue with a 15 foot pool pole and net, but we were still at least 5-6 feet short, so until we can borrow a canoe… we have a pond ornament. The ball is holding up quite well floating in the pond and being exposed to the elements, however, so another plus for it!

All in all, it was a great toy, and I recommend it for all but the very largest of dogs. Extra large mouths and dogs 90+ pounds probably would be able to damage it too quickly to make it worth the money, but for small dogs, the mini works great, and for medium to largish dogs, the 10 inch ball is a great toy that can bring lot of fun and even some exercise if filled with sand, gravel, or water.

If you’d like to order one for yourself, the website is: http://www.tuggodogtoy.com

The Problem of the Force-Free OTCH

One of the evergreen topics in competition obedience discussion (at least for now — I remain hopeful that in another ten to fifteen years we’ll finally have killed this one off) is whether it is possible to achieve an AKC Obedience Trial Championship (OTCh) via force-free training.

The simple answer is “yes.” It has been done. It will be done again — in the very near future, probably, since I know of at least two prominent R+ trainers who are closing in on theirs.

The complicated answer is “yes, but.”

The truth is, nobody who asks this question — which is, in fact, not usually phrased as a question but as an assertion that “you can’t get an OTCh without using forcible compulsion” — really cares whether someone else has done it. If they actually cared, they would already know the answer. We live in the age of Google. The answer is not hard to find.

But the people who ask this question don’t want that answer. What they want is to confirm their own belief that it is necessary to use force in pursuit of those titles, or at least that it is necessary for their own personal circumstances. Instead of saying “this is what I choose to do,” many of them will say “this is what I have to do.” They don’t want it to be a choice. A choice implies moral agency. Not a lot of people have the honesty to admit that they chose to use pain compliance when another option was available.

That’s why you’ll see so much goalpost shifting: “okay, fine, so that one trainer did it, but she was only able to do it because she had herding dogs.” Or: “okay, she did it, but it took her a really long time.” Or: “okay, so she got an OTCh, but she didn’t win the National Obedience Championship.” The line has to be moved to wherever it might make force “necessary” again.

This problem is not limited to competition obedience, by the way. You’ll see the same pseudo-innocent question being asked about IPO titles and regional/national/international competitions. You’ll see it asked about field trials. In any area of seriously competitive dog sports where R+ training is not already the prevailing norm among top trainers (i.e., in any sport other than agility and canine musical freestyle), some version of this discussion will pop up.

And arguing with people who ask that question is a waste of time. It is a huge waste of time.

The reason it’s a huge waste of time is that naysayers do not actually want to be persuaded that it’s possible. As a result, they’re right. If you don’t want to do it — and you don’t want to do it badly enough to first develop the necessary skills and then put in the long, long hours of work on top of that, then hey, guess what? It’s not possible. Not for you. Correspondingly, saying that it’s possible for Person A does not mean that it’s possible for Person B. You can never prove that it’s possible for Person B until that person actually does it.

(Corollary: do not claim that you could do it unless you have done it. Just don’t. This is, thankfully, a rare occurrence, but it makes me gnash my teeth on the infrequent occasions that I see someone saying that it would be “easy” to achieve that level of training with R+ methods. Saying that just shows a profound ignorance of how difficult it actually is to achieve an OTCh. Getting that title is not easy. Not with any method. Claim otherwise and you will be dismissed as delusional, and rightly so.)

Crooky doing his best impression of an armchair OTCh. Reality behind the keyboard: he barely got an RL1 and his scores sucked.

Now, having noted that it is possible to get an OTCh with force-free training, the obvious follow-up question is “well then, why haven’t more people done it?”

That’s a fair question. It is also one that’s impossible to answer, because each person has their own reasons and unless you actually survey each and every one of them individually (and they all answer you honestly!), we’ll never know what they’d say.

But here’s my guess.

1. The structure of the championship favors longtime competitors.

To earn an OTCh, you must beat all the other teams in your field and finish in first place at least once in Utility B, once in Open B, and then a third time in either of those classes. On top of that, you must also earn 100 points by beating other dogs on a schedule that varies depending on the number of other dogs you’re competing against.

Your absolute score doesn’t matter. The only thing that matters for the OTCh is whether you beat the other teams in the class.

In my opinion this is a pretty sociopathic way to structure a championship in a dog sport, but the AKC didn’t ask me for any input, so that’s how it is. You beat other dogs and handlers, and you beat them a lot, or you go home empty-handed.

One of the effects of this championship structure is that somebody who’s been doing competition obedience for 30 years has a pretty sizable advantage over somebody who’s been doing it for 3 years. More experienced competitors tend to have more refined training skills, more ring experience, and often more carefully selected dogs. This translates to a considerable advantage in head-to-head competition, which is what the OTCh is all about.

Most R+ competitors I know of, and I definitely include myself in this number, are fairly new to the sport (or, at the very least, are new to doing it this way). Their training mechanics often aren’t that sophisticated, in large part because they haven’t been doing it long enough to develop their skills to that level. Most people who have been doing it for 30 years, meanwhile, have been doing so with some degree of force. They have had a long, long time to practice, hone, and perfect their skills. In a purely mechanical sense, setting aside all value judgments, they’re better trainers. Consequently — and unsurprisingly — they beat the pants off the newbies.

It doesn’t mean their methods are better. It means they’re better at using those methods.

If you look at a compulsion trainer and an R+ trainer who have the same amount of experience and the same skill level and the same dogs, my personal experience has been that the R+ trained dogs are not at all handicapped in their performances. In fact, what I have personally seen is that the R+ dogs tend to be better. But there are not that many trainers out there with 30 years of experience doing it this way, and that makes a big difference at the OTCh level.

2. It is often difficult to find extremely skilled R+ trainers in a sport where that is not the norm.

If I want to train with an OTCh-level handler who uses compulsion-based methods, I’ve got my pick of two or three within decent driving distance of my home. If I lower the bar to UD/UDX handlers, I’ve got even more.

If I want to train with an OTCh-level handler who trains force-free, I have to train online, because the one and only R+ OTCh handler who used to teach classes in my area retired and moved to another state last year. There are other R+ obedience instructors in my area, to be sure, but they’re not OTCh handlers. Only maybe one or two are at UD/UDX level, and those are about two hours away — too far to drive for regular instruction.

And this is in an area with a strong, solidly entrenched culture of R+ training for other sports (for example: if I want to train with world-class handlers in agility, I’ve got no end of awesome choices within 90 minutes of home). I can only imagine how much worse it is for people who live in regions where there isn’t such a vibrant R+ dog sport culture.

If you want to compete seriously in a sport, you have to learn from the best. R+ handlers who want to compete at the top levels in obedience and don’t have a force-free OTCh instructor nearby have a couple of choices: (1) learn from the most motivational and least forceful of the mixed-method trainers in their area, then try to invent their own solutions to problems that their teachers would normally solve with force; (2) learn on their own (or online) and, to some degree, make stuff up as they go; or (3) switch over to mixed methods.

Options #1 and #2 impose some real, practical disadvantages. The Fenzi Dog Sport Academy is starting to fill in the gaps and make #2 much more feasible (and it’s beginning to build an impressive record of student successes to prove it), but there are still some things that are best learned (or discovered) via in-person classes. Thus, people who stick to their guns regarding training methods will likely be at a disadvantage not because their methods are inherently flawed, but because they don’t have mentors who can help them through the inevitable bobbles and weak spots that will pop up during a dog’s sport career. They’re slowed down by having to constantly problem-solve along the way (with the trial and error that unavoidably entails), instead of just taking someone else’s established solutions and implementing them.

Option #3, therefore, may seem like the only viable choice for a Seriously Serious competitor who would like to be force-free, in a perfect world, but doesn’t know how to make that happen and isn’t willing to risk failing in public as they learn to invent their own solutions.

The net effect here is that some of the Seriously Serious competitors, believing that force is necessary to win as a practical matter even if they don’t like it and accept that it’s not theoretically necessary, switch to alternative camps. This leaves a disproportionate number of less serious competitors in the R+ bucket. These people, who may be perfectly happy to continue playing for fun and who never wanted to chase after OTChs in the first place, may then be perceived as the best possible outcomes with R+ methods, simply because they’re the only ones left trying to do it.

3. Some R+ handlers get driven out of the sport by a hostile environment.

I think this is changing in obedience — either because the sport culture is finally starting to shift or because obedience entries have dropped to the point where nobody wants to chase away interested newbies anymore — but it’s definitely very much still true in bitesports (and possibly in field training, although I don’t do gun dog stuff so I am 100% speculating on that front) that there is a lot of entrenched hostility toward “cookie trainers” in some quarters. And that is still at least a little bit of a Thing in competition obedience, too. I’ve gotten the snarky comments on the sidelines at trials myself (and I wasn’t even competing!).

Some of this is a self-created problem: waltzing in and blithely making idiot mistakes while lecturing everybody else about how they abuse their dogs is not going to win a whole lot of friends in any endeavor. Don’t add to the problem, I implore you, dear reader. If you go into a new sport where you don’t actually know anything and don’t have any accomplishments (or, really, even where you do), please please please do not pull that crap.

But even if you are polite and respectful and humble, there’s going to be some hostility. Some people are threatened by the idea that it’s possible to succeed without inflicting pain on their partners. Some people legitimately don’t believe that you’ll get anywhere and don’t care to have you waste their time while you figure this out. Not everyone is gentle in expressing those opinions.

And sometimes that makes R+ handlers give up on the sports that are most hostile to them, because pretty much all of us are doing this for fun as a hobby, and it is not actually a whole lot of fun to have people constantly being dicks in your face about not putting a prong collar on your dog. Dog sports are hard. There’s plenty of disaster and demoralization to go around without your fellow club members adding to your woes. Everybody needs encouragement and support sometimes, and the people who don’t get it are likely to drop out. In some sports, those people are primarily the “cookie trainers.”

So they leave, and the perception becomes “lol those guys can’t hack it,” and the myth lives on another day. The more you have to be a pioneer for unpopular and under-explored techniques in a given environment, the fewer people are going to have the fortitude to stick it out.

4. It’s a numbers game.

How many people who start out in competitive obedience go on to get an OTCh?

I have no idea what the actual number is, but let’s say the answer is 1 in 100. Let’s pretend that one person out of every hundred people who takes a basic competition obedience class will go on to compete, and will keep doing it long and successfully enough to get an OTCh.

The other 99 people drop out because they lose interest or life gets in the way or their dog doesn’t have the capacity or they don’t have the capacity. Or maybe their first-ever Novice A run is a disaster and they get all humiliated and demoralized and nobody bothers reaching out to pull them back into the game, so they quit on the spot and never go back. Whatever. Something happens and they don’t make it to the top.

Now, how many of those people train force-free? Let’s say that the number is 15% (again, I’m totally making this up out of thin air, but we’ll just pretend that’s the number and run with it). So 15 out of those 100 people are R+ handlers, and the other 85 are not.

What are the odds that the one person in a hundred who gets an OTCh is also going to be one of the 15 people who trains without force? Not great! Especially not great in light of all the other disadvantages we’ve talked about!

If the numbers were swapped, and it was 85% force-free and 15% not, then R+ OTChs would soon become so commonplace that they wouldn’t be remarkable anymore — which is more or less where agility already is. (When was the last time you heard anyone ask whether it was possible to get a MACH without a prong?)

But instead, in this sport, the non-compulsion handlers are the minority, and they’re also a minority made up disproportionately of newbies with dogs who weren’t specifically bred or chosen for success in this venue (crazy pound mutt holla!), and so, not surprisingly, there are not a whole lot of them getting OTChs or winning NOC. There are not a whole lot of people doing those things period.

If there are only 15 people trying to do X without compulsion, and it would be no surprise if a randomly selected group of 15 people with identical skill levels, experience, resources, and dogs would not be able to do X with compulsion, then that is not exactly a fair benchmark. The fact that none of the 15 R+ people succeeded might not tell you anything other than that it’s unlikely that any group of 15 similarly situated people would do it.

 

I could go on — I do think there are some other things that factor in here — but if you ask me, those four points cover most of the big reasons that you don’t see more force-free OTChs. As the requisite knowledge spreads, access to excellent instruction improves, the sport culture changes, and the numbers shift, I expect that R+ OTChs will start to seem less noteworthy. They’ll still be awesome, because any OTCh is awesome, but it’ll become unremarkable in the same way that an R+ MACH is unremarkable. It’s a great achievement for dog and trainer, but it’s not like throwing the first bomb in the revolution.

So what are you to do, if you are an advocate of force-free dog training and firmly believe that it’s possible to achieve the highest levels of obedience without compulsion?

Simple. Not easy, but simple. Prove it.

That’s it. That is the whole thing. Do the work. Develop the skills. Campaign your dog. Show people that it can be done, because talking about it convinces no one.

Even if you don’t make it to an OTCh — as Pongu and I will never make it, because after some 18 months of training in competition obedience I’ve finally been forced to admit that my fearful dog’s mental problems prevent us from ever approaching that level — it is worth making the attempt.

Pongu will never have an OTCh. He will probably never have a CD in AKC obedience, for that matter. He’s a scaredy dog. Obedience, or at least obedience with the scores I’d like to see, is just plain too hard for him. Admitting this caused me a fair amount of heartburn, because I wanted so badly to go out there and prove that we could do it, and it was a bitter pill to swallow that we couldn’t.

But I don’t regret the training, because I did learn the skills and I did show my dog to top levels of competition (albeit in Rally, not obedience), and I did at least get to demonstrate that this approach works to push a pathologically fearful dog far beyond what any other method could have done. A lot of dogs like Pongu never even get to live semi-normal pet lives. Pongu went far beyond that. So we did get a success story. Not exactly the one I was aiming for, but a success story nonetheless.

And I learned enough to convince myself that yes, this can be done. I might not have convinced anyone else. Yet. But I’ll keep on learning, and I’ll keep on practicing, and someday, it’ll happen.

Because that is what we have to do, all of us, if we want to change the world.

Go Forth and Encourage

Just for a minute, I want you to think about who inspires you. It can be one person, it can be multiple people, it can be a group of people. Who inspires you to get up every day? Who inspires you to do better, to be better?

More importantly, who are YOU encouraging – who are YOU inspiring?

encouragers

The dog world is complicated, even if your dog is “just a pet.” What do you feed them when there are so many options on the shelves, so many colorful bags promising that each one is better than the last? Which vet do you go to when each person has the best one in the entire area? Which trainer? Which collar? It can be dizzying.

This is why controversial trainers like Caesar Millan are so popular with the general public: they relate to the owner first instead of berating them how horrible they are for using prong collars, or how stupid they are for feeding Science Diet. They are charming, they validate the owner, their problems, and their feelings. You can be the best dog trainer on the planet, but if you’re rude to the people you’ll lose the dogs.

Now, imagine how you felt as a new competitor, before you knew everything – the world of specialized dog training and competing is even more dizzying. It’s downright cut-throat. People are cruel to their competition, often treating new people who have questions as if they are worse than stupid, they are in they way. They are a waste of time. It’s a wonder that anyone gets involved at all, much less stays involved.

I am still wholly new to the competition world. I started approximately six years ago with a backyard bred pit bull, and he and I were going to conquer the world. It was tough figuring out the world of dog competition, and I thought I had what was a good group of people – until I became a real competitor. It wasn’t until I felt like I hit rock bottom (or rather, I felt like I was the rock on the bottom of someone’s shoe) and was ready to leave that I met people worth knowing.

In many of my social networking groups, I see discussions about clubs seeing less and less entries at shows, and I also see how some of these “newbies” are treated on the same discussion board. They are greeted with rude comments, they are mocked, and they are made to feel horrible for simply asking a question. Then I see how they are treated at shows – and it’s just about the same way.

Why are seasoned exhibitors treating new exhibitors like idiots? Why are we not stepping up to help them, to inspire them? Experienced exhibitors need to be ringside and be there to jump in and help a new exhibitor who is clearly struggling. We need to be there to be cheerleaders, to be a guide, to be encouragers. Even more so, experienced dog people need to be there to encourage the common “pet person,” even if they do not want to compete. We need to empower them to do better, instead of belittling them for getting a well-bred purebred instead of a rescue dog.

My group of people are not only my direct competitors, meaning that we are both in the ring chasing after that blue ribbon, but they are my greatest friends and my biggest cheerleaders. We give each other high fives for high obedience scores, and we cheer for each other when the other’s dog win best of breed. We celebrate the big wins, and we encourage the small victories.

These are the kind of dog people the dog world needs. We need to empower, we need to encourage, we need to befriend.

So, as you reflect on the people who encourage and inspire you, ask yourself, who is it that you encourage and inspire?

inspire