Gorilla Glue: A Cautionary Tale

Last Friday I woke up to the insistent beeping of my alarm clock… and a young pit bull covered in Gorilla Glue. He had it all over his face, all over his front paws, across the top of his head, on his scrotum, and all over my carpet.

Not. Good.

Gorilla glue is a great product, but when it contacts moisture, it expands tremendously. Guess what’s nice and moist? The inside of a dog. Even a small amount of ingested glue can expand far enough to cause a blockage, and the only solution is surgery.

So, in went Trek to work.

A quick xray confirmed it (and a belly full of kibble because I was stupid and not awake yet and fed him. Surgeon not amused).

Belly full of glue.

Belly full of glue.

So off to surgery he went. After they scooped out all his breakfast (I’m sorry I really am), they removed several large hard spongy sections of glue. Thankfully the glue doesn’t stick to the stomach and all of it was still in the stomach, so it was a “simple” foreign body removal. With a big incision. For big mistakes.

This dog.

This morning he brought me a knife while I was still in bed. I just don’t even..

This is what they removed.

This is what they removed.

Off he went to recovery where he slept off his drugs. The surgery team was nice enough to scrape all the glue off his tongue and the inside of his mouth, as well as his muzzle. I sat and pulled the glue off his feet. It was like he was wearing casts, it was so hard. It left angry skin underneath, but what are you going to do?

Sleeeeepy pit bull.

Sleeeeepy pit bull.

He did fine after surgery. The surgeon warned me that it was not a sterile surgery because of all the food they had to take out and he might spike a fever and have to deal with some infection, so he went home on antibiotics as well as pain medication, but he never seemed any worse for the wear. The jerk.

We spent the weekend camping out at a flyball tournament and he was as obnoxious as if he had never had major abdominal surgery. And he ate his way out of my tent in the middle of the night.

Oh Trek. You are such an adventure.

How I lost my best friend and found a new one all in one day.

If you follow us on Facebook, you might have seen that I put Luce to sleep last Friday. Luce was my first dog, my first competition dog, and my savior. She taught me so much about dogs, about training, about creativity and patience and forgiveness. And unconditional love.

She was 12 1/2 and it was showing not just in her arthritic body, but in her brain. She wasn’t my dog anymore. She was so senile that she’d bark and bark and nothing could make it better. She didn’t greet me anymore. It just wasn’t my Luce anymore when I looked into her cloudy eyes. I couldn’t watch her like that, so I scheduled her an appointment right before my therapy appointment, and I held her in my arms as she went to sleep. And then I held her in my arms some more while I sobbed in privacy over her empty body.

There will never be another dog like Luce. There will never be another dog who will be able to teach me as much as she did.

My best girl.

My best girl.

I had sworn before she died, for months and months, no new dogs. Three is plenty.
I had especially sworn no more pit bulls. They’re too much trouble. The dog/dog issues complicate things with sports. They all blow out their knees. The social stigma is wearing. The legal crap is always that threat hanging in the background.

But somehow I found myself at the shelter where I adopted Luce. I wandered through their kennels without seeing anything that I liked (lots of cute small dogs there– unusual!)

And then I drove to the shelter in my county, not expecting much. They’re small. Not much to choose from. And who knows if a shelter will even adopt to me with my intact dog and my Steve who I knew would hate any dog at a meet-and-greet and they’d just have to take my word for it that he would settle with time and I could handle it.

So with all of that in my head, I walked into the kennels, and there he was.

Luce put him there. That’s the only way.



45 pounds, the size a pit bull should be. Cute as a button. Young. And more interested in me than in what was going on outside his back kennel door.

So I went up front and asked. Will you adopt to someone who has an intact dog at home? She said all of our dogs and spayed or neutered before they leave, so that is not a problem. Logic! Yes!

So then the next scary question– I know one of my dogs will hate him at the meet and greet but that he will also settle down with time and space. Would you still adopt to me? She said as long as when my dog did his jerk stuff that the dog I was interested in didn’t want to eat him in return, they’d be ok with it.

I said can I meet McLovin?

So I did some paperwork and then they brought him up to one of the getting to know you rooms and this dog is freaking perfect. He’s goofy and floppy. He likes to play ball. He likes to tug. He likes me a really lot. He likes to play but he’s not bouncing off the walls.

They offer to let me take him for a walk outside, so we do that and he’s distracted by all the cool stuff going on, but a “puppy puppy puppy!” from me brings him right back to my side.

What a good dog. And he’s just nice. He’s even-keeled. He likes other dogs (and hopefully will continue to), he’s fine with cats, he loves people of all shapes and sizes.

I put him on hold for 24 hours so I could think about it, but really I didn’t need to. I had already fallen in love. This dog, he’s nothing like Luce but he immediately settled into that pit-bull-shaped hole in my stomach. He’d already taken up residency in my heart.

Saturday I loaded up my three idiots and drove them down to the shelter, where the shelter staff took them from me one at a time and introduced them to McLovin. None of them loved him immediately, but they parallel walked them for a bit and tried again once everybody had settled down. They were good at knowledgeable about what they were doing, and even Steve was tolerant and unworried by the end of his intro.

And so I own another pit bull.

In love all over again

In love all over again

His name is Trek now, and eventually I’ll register him as Siren’s Improbable Journey. I hope that he will play flyball and rally obedience. I hope that he will be a rockin’ hiking companion. He’s already a great cuddle buddy.

It’s amazing to me how he just slipped into my life like he’s always been here. It amazes me that I could fall in love again so quickly.

I never thought of myself as a “breed” person. There are tons of breeds of dogs that I like and would like to own someday. But it looks like I might always have to own a pit bull. It looks like the breed might have chosen me.

The end of the road: contemplating euthanasia.

I’ve been watching my young dog grow old for a while now, and I hate it. Luce was the first young dog I ever owned as an adult. I picked her out of the shelter based on her ridiculous ears and her serious expression. We took her into the “Getting to Know You” room and she dove snorting into my lap and then covered my face with kisses. I did not need to look further– I had found my dog.

She was never an easy dog. She was reactive, dog-aggressive, and incredibly energetic and athletic. If you turned her loose in a fenced yard, the first thing she’d do was check the fence for any sign of weakness, any loose boards. She was extremely smart and she used that power for naughtiness.

Escape artist.

Escape artist.

She was the first dog I ever trained, and she taught me so much. She taught me to think outside the box. She taught me that rewarding is more powerful than punishing. She taught me that even a crazy dog like her could learn to behave in public, even around other dogs.

She was the first dog I ever competed with, starting in Rally Obedience where she was on leash the entire time (and I very clearly remember telling my obedience instructor at the time that they could have my leash when they could pry it from my cold, dead hand). We quickly progressed to off-leash levels, and she kicked butt. She finished her career with a laundry list of titles after her name and a very proud mama.

That was years ago.

Now she’s twelve, arthritic, and senile.

Both of her knees are crunchy with arthritis and it’s hard for her to go up and down the stairs. She needs a boost to get into the car or onto my bed. But arthritis is something we can deal with, you know? There are plenty of medication options. There are joint supplements. And if those aren’t enough, there are things like cold laser therapy and acupuncture that might help. We have so many options for treating pain in dogs, so when our first medication choice didn’t do enough, we were able to switch to a second one that might work better.

But the senile part, that’s what I feel so helpless about. She barks and barks at me and I can’t figure out what she wants. She gets up and pees on the floor with no warning instead of asking to go out (and she doesn’t have an infection). She barks about everything. She never used to bark at all, even when the doorbell rang.

Shouty dog.

Shouty dog.

She goes off by herself when she used to be my shadow. She lays on the couch and doesn’t move all day.

And I question myself about whether she’s happy, about whether this is a good quality of life for her.

I think she is happy, or at least content. She’s old, and snoring the day away on a comfortable couch isn’t a bad deal. She loves her food and is happy to spend her time licking canned dog food out of a Kong. She can’t hear, but she can still snag a french fry out of the air without hesitation. She can’t handle hiking anymore, but she loves to go for car rides. She sits up all proud of herself in the front seat and knows that she’s important.

But I see the decline and it worries me whether or not I’ll be able to let go when it’s time, whatever that means. She’s my best friend and more than anything, I don’t want her to suffer. But nor can I imagine life without her. She has slept next to me in bed for 11 years. She has been my constant.

There are lots of suggestions on the internet on how to determine whether it is time to put your dog to sleep. Pick three things that your dog loves, and when she can’t do those things anymore, it’s time. But the things that Luce used to love to do have simply been replaced by things that she loves to do now. So how does that work? Some suggest that when your dog has more bad days than good days, it’s time. But what’s good and what’s bad and where do they equal out?

It’s so hard. I don’t want to be selfish. I don’t want her to suffer. But I don’t want to let her go before she’s ready.

Snoozing the day away.

Snoozing the day away.

The veterinarian I work for always says “decision of least regret”. And I believe that too early is better than too late. But why does it have to be so complicated?

Why does love have to be this hard?

The word “euthanasia” literally means “good death” and I am so grateful that we are able to give our pets this one last kindness. I am grateful that we can end suffering.

Every path is unique. Everybody’s answer is going to be different.

But we’re all doing it because we love them.

I know I’m not the only one out there who struggles with this– what has been helpful to you in making this hard decision? What are your tips?

Seeking for hidden treasure: Geocaching with dogs

Over the summer, I discovered this delightful game called Geocaching.

Basically, Geocaching is using our fancy GPS technology to search for tupperware in the woods. (Well, and in towns and cities, too. They’re everywhere.)

People, it’s like searching for hidden treasure! It’s fun. It gets you outside. It’s cheap. You can (usually) take your dog. And you never know what you’re going to find.

To get started all you need is a GPS-capable piece of equipment like a smart phone or an actual GPS and a free membership to Geocaching.com and an app for your phone (I use c:geo/ which is free, but there is also an official Geocaching app). You type in the location where you’d like to go searching, and it gives you the GPS coordinates and some details on all the caches in that area. There are traditional caches which are just a container (tiny or large) hidden at the given coordinates.

Large! Google "Raiders of the Lost Cache" for the full awesomeness of this cache.

Large! Google “Raiders of the Lost Cache” for the full awesomeness of this cache.

Or tiny. And tricksy.

Or tiny. And tricksy.

There are multi-caches that include searching for multiple containers, often containing coordinates that lead you to the final find. There are mystery or “game” caches that can involve solving a code. There are even virtual caches which require you to go to the location and report back to the cache owner what you find there. (Some of these are super cool.)

A very traditional tupperware cache.

A very traditional tupperware cache.

Also needed: a curious mind, a sense of adventure, and a little bit of frustration tolerance! Some of these suckers can be hard to find!

This one hadn't been found in a year!

This one hadn’t been found in a year!

That’s it. Simple, right? Yes. But not always easy. You may be at the coordinates, but you’re still looking for something hidden. And that hidden thing may be the size of your thumbnail. Some cache-hiders are absolutely devious and evil. But that’s part of what makes it so much fun. They are so creative! Once you finally “see” and the lightbulb goes off above your head, it’s like a rush of amusement and joy.

This guy was a bit more creative.

This guy was a bit more creative.

Caches are rated on the website both by difficulty of terrain and difficulty of the hide. Obviously, it’s best to start out simple until you get a feel for the game. Another good tip is to always check the log before you head out, especially if you’re having to travel any significant distance, to make sure the thing has been found recently. It can be really annoying to travel half an hour only to get to a cache that nobody’s been able to find in the past 8 months.

Now to bring dogs into it. Safety first! Caches should be marked on the website if they are not dog-friendly but be sure to use common sense as well. Remember, if you are out in the woods, to carry appropriate safety equipment and water both for you and your dog. Personally I find a convertible leash to be super useful because it lets me easily tether my dog to a tree or a post while I search or write in the log of a cache I’ve found. And since many caches are hidden in areas that allow hunting, be sure to wear orange and dress your dog in orange if you’re going to be out! As with any hiking, if you’re going by yourself, always let someone know where you’re going and when you’ll be back. Safety first!

All business, holding down this tree while I search.

All business, holding down this tree while I search.

I hope I can get least a few of you out into the woods searching for hidden treasure. It’s addictive and it’s fun. I think a lot of us need more fun in our lives.

I have found my joy, and his name is Steve.

Years ago, when Steve was young and completely insane and I was new to agility and new to the special kind of insanity that is Border Collies, I had a trainer completely steal my joy. The club where I took obedience and rally also ran an agility program, and the instructors were some pretty accomplished people– multiple championship titles, Nationals, even someone who has been to Worlds. It was natural that I would just start off my agility journey there.

Very bad plan. Very bad. They begin with what they call Foundations, which is exactly the skills that it should be, but the problem is they have six young, green dogs all trying to

Big air Steve

Big air Steve

work, usually offleash, at the same time. Steve, young and overly excited about anything and everything that moved tasked with rear-foot-targeting a small board OVER AND OVER AND OVER again… well… let’s just say that didn’t keep him very occupied.

I did a lot of mat work with him. I did a lot of control unleashed games with him. But what it came down to was that there was no way for me to keep this dog under threshold far enough for him to learn much of anything with the class set up the way it was.

And none of the instructors either could understand that or were able to honor that and help me work around it.

We finally made it out of Foundations after several sessions and moved into Beginner 1. This class involved stringing several jumps together, maybe in a big circle. Stever dropped probably 85% of the jumps. So they found me special jumping instruction. She was going to teach my dog how to jump.

Never did anyone address that my dog was so over threshold that his brain was gone and the only thing his body wanted to do was GO AS FAST AS POSSIBLE.

I left class crying week after week.

I was taken out of the class and set aside and told to work on my relationship problems with my dog.

My heart broke. I got this dog to play agility with him, and I had failed completely before I ever got started.

They missed it. They missed it completely. The problem was not my dog, not at all. It was not me. I was doing everything I knew how to do.

The problem was the setting. The problem was instructors who just didn’t get it. Nowhere along the line did anybody suggest a different class, or private lessons. That was what he needed. No one said anything about thresholds.

Steve masters a different kind of teeter totter

Steve masters a different kind of teeter totter

I quit. I left class crying yet again and I never went back.

Finally after some encouragement from friends, I switched to another training club. I went to meet the instructor to see if my dog was broken. He wasn’t. He ran beautifully alone in her training building. What?

So we joined her classes. One dog in the ring at a time, for the most part. The rest of the dogs crated either in the building or out of it, depending on the dog.

And yeah, he was high at first. WOOHOO AGILITY! He crashed a lot of jumps. But as he learned the game, as he learned the environment, he started to settle.

And we made progress. I stopped crying. My dog learned. I learned.

Somehow, I had an agility dog.

We’re nothing amazing. I don’t like to trial, so he has a couple CPE titles and a couple legs in USDAA Performance 1 Gamblers (and I think 1 in Standard).

Here’s his first USDAA Gamblers run ever. (fast forward to about 50 seconds in)

Now most of the agility we do is on our own, just playing around in the training building, running whatever course is leftover from classes. I like it. He likes it. It works.

Recently I’ve put him back in Rally Obedience classes again. I love the instructor. I love the sport. Steve is a smartypants who pretty much knows all the exercises (he has one Rally Excellent leg, and I just haven’t managed to get out of bed to make it to another trial). But it’s good for him to go brain, and it’s good for me to go play with him in public.

And play we do. Sometimes, our play gets caught on camera, like it did before class last week. We were just warming up, fooling around, getting ready for class. The instructors husband caught us on film.



(and before anyone says it, yes, he forges terribly and no, I don’t care)

And what do you know, my old agility instructor, the one who broke my heart and stole my joy? She saw it and she commented on the “long way” that Steve and I have come and that it was “impressive”. And that would feel good if it were coming from somebody else, coming from someone who supported us and believed in us from the beginning. But she is somebody that we worked hard *despite* of, somebody that broke us down instead of lifting us up.

Steve and I? We didn’t need to work on our relationship. We have that in spades and we always have. We just needed somebody who understood what we needed to help that relationship shine in a particular environment.

I am so lucky to have this amazing dog in my life, and I am so very very grateful to have found people who would build us up, who would work through the hard stuff, who would sing his praises and help me toward achieving what I wanted with him.

That is what everyone trying to train a dog deserves, whether you’re just trying to learn basic manners in a beginner obedience class or you’re trying to learn a complicated game like agility. Respect. Honoring of your special relationship with your dog. Encouragement. Knowledgeable advice appropriate to your situation. We are not all cookie-cutters. We all deserve to be treated and taught as individuals.

What dog breed is right for you?

Unfortunately for dogs (and for people!), one of the most common reasons for dogs being relinquished to shelters or rescues is not because there is anything wrong with the dog (or with the people), but simply because there is a mismatch between dog and human. A busy household that brings home a high energy breed and then doesn’t have the time to exercise it, resulting in a dog who destroys the house while everyone is away for the day is a good example. Or an elderly man whose well-intentioned child buys him a boisterous large breed puppy as a companion only to have the pup turn into a boisterous LARGE puppy, resulting in a dangerous situation for all. Or someone who depends on dog-park play as a way to exercise her dog bringing home a pit bull only to find out she doesn’t play well with other dogs.

All of these situations can end up extremely frustrating and potentially heart-breaking for the owners, and for dogs who get turned over to shelters, possibly life-threatening. And many of them can be avoided by being realistic about the type of dog who will fit into your lifestyle, as well as the traits that certain breeds are prone to.

So how do you avoid them?

1. Start with a list: What traits do you want in a dog? Do you want a couch-potato or do you want a marathon runner? Do you want a dog who is friendly with strangers or who is a one-person dog? Here’s the most important part: BE REALISTIC. Look at what your lifestyle really is. Even if the Border Collie you grew up with on the farm as a kid was the perfect dog, it doesn’t mean one will fit well into your 40-hour-work-week, small-apartment-with-no-yard adult lifestyle.

Do you legitimately have time to exercise that Labrador Retriever? Do you really want a protective dog when you have young children and their friends running through the house? When you say you want a smart dog, do you want a dog whose mind has to be occupied all the time or he’ll get into trouble occupying himself, or do you actually want a dog who is laid back and easy to train? Do you need a dog who plays well with other dogs?

Do you really want this?

Do you really want this?

Or is this a better match?

Or is this a better match?

2. Then make another list: What can you not live with? Again, be unflinchingly honest. Is an alarm bark when the mail drops through the slot ok but a dog who likes to announce every bird who flies past the house more than you can tolerate? How much fur are you willing to vacuum off the couch in an average week? Is it going to aggravate you having to scrub slobber off the walls? Can you afford to pay for a groomer every 6-8 weeks? Do you need a dog who is going to be good with kids and is it a deal-breaker if he is not?

Let me sing you the song of my people.

Let me sing you the song of my people.

3. Try a breed selector. There are a number of them available online, and some are better than others. Animal Planet has a nice one. So does Iams and Dogtime. The results you get are not written in stone, and you may get different results from one quiz to the next, but they can at least give you a jumping-off place and some different breeds to further explore to see if they are a good match for your lifestyle.

It is also important to keep in mind that while breed traits were developed with predictability in mind, all dogs are individuals. If you fell in love with your friend’s German Shepherd who has never met a stranger and loves everyone, keep in mind, that is not typical of the breed and that the pup you pick out may be suspicious and standoffish with strangers. It is really important to do your homework, especially if you are going to be getting a puppy.

Awww puppies!

Awww puppies!

There are some great websites out there that give you the basics on each breed. I really like the one on Vetstreet. But nothing is going to be a better educator than spending some time around dogs of that breed. This can be tricky if you’ve fallen for an unusual or rare breed (like the Cirneco D’Elletna that I’ve recently been eyeballing), so seeking them out at dog shows and talking to people in the breed might be extremely important. What looks good on paper may not translate into a good match in the house.

It might also be important to let go of preconceived notions. Not all Labs make great family dogs. In fact, many of them don’t. Dalmatians look great on the movie screen, but they were bred to run next to a carriage all day long and thus are extremely high energy. Bedlington Terriers might look like cute little lambs, but they can be very serious vermin-hunting terriers. Not all pit bulls are dog-aggressive but it needs to always be in your awareness (and it’s not all in how you raise them.

And not all Border Collies are dog-friendly.

And not all Border Collies are dog-friendly.

To this end, it might be worth considering looking for an adult dog, whether a retired (or failed) show dog from a breeder or a pure or mixed-breed dog from a (breed-specific or all-breed) rescue or shelter. Adult dogs tend to be fairly “what you see is what you get”, and especially if you have a complicated, busy family (multiple dogs, kids, cats, whatever), finding the specific “right” dog for you- regardless of breed- is really what is going to make things work best in the end.

A good match makes all the difference.

A good match makes all the difference.

What to do when your pet is lost.

It’s a terrible feeling– you look out into the backyard where you left your dog just a few minutes ago, and he is not there. Or your kitty escapes while you’re bringing in the groceries and completely disappears. You’ve walked around your neighborhood multiple times calling and calling and still your pet does not appear. What next?

A bunch of clearly tagged dogs

A bunch of clearly tagged dogs

Ideally, before your pet ever goes missing, you’ll have taken some steps to help him get home. A microchip is a great start, but even better is a collar with tags that include your phone number. A rabies tag or a license can get your pet home as well, but there is an extra step involved (contacting the veterinarian or the treasurer’s office which is in charge of dog licensing). If your pet is clearly tagged with your phone number, the people who find him only need to make one call.

The most important thing you can do is get the word out that your pet is missing. Talk to your neighbors. Take a photo with you! Ask them if they’ve seen your pet.

Contact the police, especially if it is a dog who is lost. The first point of contact in many places for a found or loose dog report is the local police department. Let them know when and where your pet went missing, so that if a call comes in, they’ll know someone is looking.

Tags can be stylish and life-saving!

Tags can be stylish and life-saving!

Call the local veterinary hospitals. Many times a person who finds a pet will call their veterinarian to ask what to do next, or if anybody has reported a pet missing. They might also take that pet in to be scanned for a microchip. If we know your pet is missing, we can help connect you up with the people who have found him!

Call the animal shelters in your area, and go there to look in person. Animal shelters can be busy places, and the people who answer the phone might not have accurate information. Many a dog has been found at the shelter when the receptionist told the owner there was no dog there matching that description.

If your pet is microchipped, notify the microchip company (and there are many– Home Again, Avid, AKC ReUnite to name a few) and confirm that your contact information with them is correct. There is nothing more frustrating than finding a pet with a microchip that leads to a disconnected phone number.

Social media has become a tremendously useful tool in reuniting lost pets with their owners. If you have a Facebook account, post a picture and your contact information (make sure it is a public post, not friends only!) and ask your friends to share it. The reach that Facebook can have in just a short time is astonishing. There are also Facebook communities such as Find Toby in PA that are specifically geared toward connecting lost pets and their owners. Let us know and we will post it on our Facebook. Get your pet’s photo and information out there to as wide an audience as possible!

Hang fliers around your neighborhood. Keep in mind that most people will see these posters as they are driving by, so you want to include only the most important information and make it is big as possible. A large LOST DOG/CAT heading, a photo of your pet, and your contact information are the most important things. Offering a reward may entice people to be more attentive to their environment, or might encourage a person who found your pet and is considering keeping him to return him instead.

And last but not least, don’t give up hope. There are many stories of pets being reunited with their families after weeks or even years! It is possible.

When your flyball dog is not a Border Collie.

One of the things I love best about the sport of flyball is that you’ll see all different types, breeds, and mixes of dogs in the lanes. I’ve seen everything from Afghan to Shar Pei to Miniature Dachsund to Labrador Retriever. But Border Collies always seem to make up a large portion of the population at any tournament, and there’s no mystery why– these dogs are fast, focused, willing, and frequently ball-crazy.

Which usually makes training them easy. There are always exceptions, but it almost seemed like my two trained knew how to play flyball coming out of the womb. (I guess there is something to be said for selective breeding?)

This, however, is not a Border Collie:

Hambone is, at best guess, a Treeing Feist out of the Appalachian Woods of North Carolina. He’s a tremendously fun little dog. He is fast, he is funny, he loves to play, he loves his ball (a little too much). But that focus of the Border Collie? We do not have that. And the high motivation to play the game I want to play? Also not in the cards.

Ham is a big fan of the victory lap. WOOHOO I HAVE MY BALL AND YOU CAN’T CATCH ME!!!!

But we’re working on it.

Right now we’re taking a beginner flyball class and making huge strides toward putting all the pieces together. When we teach flyball, we do so in three different parts. One part is the jumps and retrieving, one part is the box turn, and then after that has all been put together, you add distraction, other dogs, and passing.

I taught Steve a box turn in about a week. Bean didn’t take much longer. I think it took me less than a month to teach Bean flyball, beginning to end, and he rarely ever makes a mistake.

Hambone is not such a quick study.

Here is a video from the middle of March.

We’re working on teaching him the idea of turning off of a hit-it board before eventually transferring the turn to an actual flyball box. We started with the board flat on the ground and him following either a food treat or his ball (he likes the ball better). Gradually we raised the angle to what you see here.

In this, Ham is pretty much the same as a flyball-bred dog. He loves his ball. He loves food. He was very timid at first (it took me a long time to convince him that it was ok to step on a flat board on the ground), but once he got the idea, he got the idea and he knows he’ll be highly rewarded for it.

The difference is, once he gets his reward, especially if it’s a ball, he’s very very happy to go make up his own games. Victory laps with a ball in his mouth? Way more fun than anything I have to offer.

My Border Collies have found tugging to be very intrinsically rewarding. Hambone? Has no interest. I try to get him to come back to a tug that is a velcro pouch made of real fur with food inside, but that is only moderately interesting. This is by far our biggest challenge.

The second thing we are working on in the video is retrieving a ball and coming back to me over jumps. This works on a few things– leaving the mama, retrieving, turning and coming back over the jumps, and drive back to the handler.

Again, Ham’s focus is all over the place. He is super aware of everything else going on in the room. And he is also concerned that it might be more interesting than what he’s currently doing. He has no qualms about leaving his game to check something else out.

So different from my BCs, and a real struggle for me. I think if I could run him all by himself in a bubble, I could get him in the lanes pretty quickly. But that’s not what the game is- he needs to be able to run with other dogs in his lane as well as a dog in the other lane. This is going to be HARD.

Here is a second video that includes clips from two classes several weeks later.

Again, the work with the hit-it board. The same idea as before– get a nice comfortable turn off the board. All that repetition builds the muscle memory that the dog will rely on later when his brain is occupied with the high distraction of actually racing. There is a fine line between a good amount of repetition and beating up the dog’s body unnecessarily. The catch is that a nice, safe swimmers turn is going to be much more gentle on the dog’s body over time, so the repetition at the beginning is very important. You want the dog to learn the right way so you don’t have to fix it later.

At the very end of the video, we tried adding a tennis ball to the turn by sticking it to some velcro. Clearly, Ham did not get it. He turned nicely, but couldn’t grasp what the ball was doing there.

At home later that evening, I started him working on this skill on our own hit-it board, but I dropped the angle back down to almost flat. He was able to figure out how to incorporate grabbing the ball into his turn at this lower level, and we were quickly able to raise it back up to steep with him still getting his ball.

There is also some nice work on jumps and retrieving, and drive back to the handler.

In this last video, we’ve skipped over a couple of steps to Ham’s first real box turns including him triggering the box and catching the ball. We’ve been messing around with what kind of ball he likes the best. Tennis balls are just a little too big for his mouth, so he’s playing with small squishy balls here. Regular size balls and small balls are all acceptable in NAFA flyball, as are squishy foam balls, semi-squishy practice tennis balls, and rubber chuck-it balls.

So Hammy has made significant progress in the first two pieces of flyball- jumps and retrieving and boxwork. The next step for him will be to send him to the box from a further distance, and to start adding jumps before the box, one at a time, backchaining until we have a full run.

Flyball is a much more fun and complex sport to train than it looks from the outside. I never expected to enjoy it this much but it is so neat to see my little brown squirrel dog putting things together and making visible progress from session to session. Sometimes things just click, sometimes they don’t, but I think he’s going to be a nice-running little dog (10″ jumps, I think) when we gets the whole game figured out.

It has definitely been interesting for me to train a different breed in this game. Border Collies bring their own challenges to everything, but mine are so gamey that all their focus is on the flyball box and then on the tug, and they really don’t notice much in between.

My little brown dog? He notices. He likes getting his ball, but he doesn’t have that drive to come back for a reward, and it’s just… different. Hard. Frustrating. It feels so out of control.

But it’s an excellent opportunity for me to learn how to become a better trainer. I picked my little Hambone for a lot of reasons– he has excellent ears, he needed a home– but mostly because I wanted a small dog to run as a flyball height dog. The height of the smallest dog sets the height of the jumps that the team runs over. No height dog? You’re running 14″ jumps. Which are freaking BIG.

And I think Ham has so much potential to be a nice little height dog once he learns the game. And so we will continue on our adventure together and he will teach me how to teach a dog who is not a Border Collie and not so motivated by the game itself. And above all, we will always find ways to make it fun.

Not all disabilities are visible: Life with a Service Dog in the real world.

13042453925_38b7ff5eb3I never dreamed I’d ever have a Service Dog. I never dreamed I’d need a Service Dog. But sometimes life happens, and sometimes you fall off the edge of a really big cliff into an ocean of rough, dark, deep water and you have to learn how to swim again.

In December of 2012 I fell. I had three psych hospitalizations, more medications thrown at me than I can even remember now, countless therapist visits. I hit the point where I couldn’t live alone anymore, so my four dogs and I moved into my agility trainer’s home with her and her family and their six dogs. It was a challenge. It was stressful. But they kept me safe.

But that couldn’t last forever. I needed to figure out how to become self-sufficient again. I needed to figure out how to do all the normal “every day” tasks that people have to complete, even the ones that require going out in public. Out in public is hard. I get panicky. I get lost. I get overwhelmed by the noise and the motion and the colors and my brain gets stuck, which is such a scary and vulnerable place to be.

When I had lost a significant part of my hearing in my left ear the year before, I had started to teach my Border Collie Steve to respond to my alarm clock by insistently poking and licking and pawing me. As the meds piled on and piled on, I needed him not because I couldn’t hear my alarm, but because I couldn’t find the energy to respond to it.

He naturally started to alert to my panic attacks and to my episodes of dissociation at home, and so I reinforced and reinforced them to make them dependable.1794690_10202521920382148_975814216_n

I told my therapist how great he is, and she asked about using him as a Service Dog. I thought… my crazy dog could never function in public as a Service Dog! He’ll be over-the-top and embarrass me! But she asked me if I’d start bringing him to sessions to see if it helped, so I did and it did. I bought him a vest and we ventured out into the real world, cautiously, one small step at a time.

My dog did not falter.

My crazy, screaming flyball dog walks calmly next to the cart in the grocery store, ignoring the food on the shelves, ignoring the people who invade his space, who try to pet him, who babytalk him. He lies down while I unload all my groceries at the cash register. He goes under the table in a restaurant and hangs out there while I eat dinner. And he continues to alert me, interrupt me, help me ground myself when I need him to. And having him with me makes me need him less, because I am more confident knowing that I can trust him to have my back, to keep me safe if I need to be interrupted from going out of my mind.

But being out in public with my clearly vested dog has opened my eyes to how utterly ignorant people are around and about service dogs.

A service dog can be large or small. He can be walking by his owner’s side, leading him, or held in his arms. It all depends on what the dog is being used for. There are dogs who help people with a wide variety of disabilities from balance to hearing to seizures to diabetes to PTSD. Just because a person doesn’t look a certain way, doesn’t mean that their dog is not doing important work. Just because we do not meet your stereotypes does not mean we are fakers. Not all disabilities are visible.1662092_10202375352278037_772026057_n

Please do not try to disrupt these dogs while they are working. Do not bark at them, so not try to pet them, do not throw food or toys at them, do not babytalk or make kissy noises at them. Just leave. them. alone. These dogs are very well trained, but they are still just dogs, and their attention wavering at just the wrong time because some dumb person at the mall was barking at him again (why people think this is funny, I will never understand) could end up in disaster for the person depending on him.

Please don’t treat the owner as if she’s not there. There are two members in every service dog team. It’s ok to ask polite questions, but don’t be offended if the handler is not interested in talking or in revealing her personal information or history. General questions are usually ok, but “what do you need a service dog for, you don’t look disabled?” is not an ok question.

Employees may ask two specific questions to verify if the service dog is a “real” one. He may ask whether the dog is a service dog, and he may ask what tasks the dog has been trained to perform. That’s it. He may not ask why the handler needs a service dog, what disability afflicts them.

Employees may ask any dog who is disruptive to leave. This is one that I think employees don’t necessarily know and that they are afraid to use. If the dog truly is a service dog and the dog is being disruptive and is not under the control of the handler, the ADA still gives permission to businesses to ask them to leave. While all service dogs are guaranteed access to any public place under federal law, that federal law does not allow them to abuse the privilege and cause problems.Serviceable Steve

It’s just a service dog, not a unicorn. Service dog teams may be uncommon in your area, but surely you’re aware that they exist, right? Don’t stare, don’t cause a scene, don’t whip out your cell phone to snap a picture. Just let us go about our business. Just let us fit seamlessly into the flow of people on the street or in the aisle. Respect our privacy and our space the way you would that of any other stranger.

And please, stop trying to pet my dog when I’m not looking. He doesn’t like it.

An Embarrassment of Riches: Hambone’s Story

Back in October, I wrote about my sudden loss of my dog Mushroom to cancer. It was a tough blow at a tough time in my life. I had known for awhile that, looking forward, I wanted a smaller dog. Yes, because our flyball team needs height dogs, but also because the idea of having a dog I can pick up, a dog who fits in my lap, is appealing.

I browsed a few shelters, cruised Petfinder repeatedly, and eventually put my name on a waiting list for a litter of sport-mix puppies from someone I know and trust. And then Facebook happened.

(You love these kind of stories, don’t you?)

A friend of a friend found a little dog in the woods of North Carolina. (Actually, I think he found them.) Small and athletic and sweet and big-eared. Underweight and crawling with fleas. A Treeing Feist, the vet said. A year or so old, the vet said. They adored him but he didn’t fit into their lifestyle. They were former dog sport people and knew he needed more stimulation and exercise than they could give him. So when nobody claimed him, they posted his picture on Facebook, looking for somebody who might be interested.

Now come on. Who can say no to ears like that?

But he was in North Carolina and I was in Pennsylvania and is it really a good idea to take a dog, sight unseen, on the word of somebody you don’t know that he is a) a nice dog and b) a good sports prospect? Because good sports prospect is important to me. And nice dog is important to me, especially since I was adding him to a household with three other dogs.

But I held my breath and put it out there– if there was any way to get him transport up here, I would be interested in taking him.

Again, Facebook magic happened. There was a flyball tournament happening in West Virginia that weekend. I wasn’t going, but it was only a couple hours drive. A team from North Carolina just happened to be coming up. And there was someone else that I didn’t know at all who was willing to give a little dog a ride to his new life.

Because dog people are like that. Dog people are amazing. And dog people combined with social media can move mountains. I’m pretty convinced of it.

And so a little brown dog came home to live with me. And I named him Hambone. Because it just seemed to suit him.

He is marvelous. Oh he’s naughty as anything. He chewed up my expensive glasses, he loves to get into the trash, he’s barky barky barky, but he also snuggles up against me every night to sleep, he loves to play, he is super with all of my other dogs, and he’s going to be a quick quick little flyball dog eventually.

I took a picture of him the other day that really made me smile. I’d ordered him a Gentle Leader to help work through his reactiveness to other dogs in obedience class, and a real fur tug food pouch for flyball. I put the Gentle Leader on him and played tug with him and snapped a quick picture with my phone.

And realized that this little dog who came out of the woods with nothing but a flock of parasites is now living the life of luxury. Fido Fleece jacket, Walkeez harness, Paco Collar, Mad Dog Metalworks tag, real fur (buffalo and coyote) tug. Good food, parasite control, plenty of toys and treats and games and love.

Lots and lots of love.

Even if this little dog never amounts to anything as a sport dog, he was one of the best gambles I ever took. He has brought so much light into my life. I have no idea where he came from, where he got the scars that he carries, or what adventure he was on when he was found by that friend-of-a-friend, but he ended up in exactly the right place.