Conversations with River


IMG_1900-2Today, while I was asking my girl River a question for around the 20th time on our ninety minute public outing, I was thinking about how freaking boring our life together would be if we didn’t have an ongoing flow of conversation. Don’t get me wrong, I do not mean that I stand in a park and talk to my dog like some crazy dog lady (I would… never do that… ) but we do indeed have a back and forth stream of communication. Here are a few things I posed to her today; in long written word here, but we worked through them with body language and a few single words only:

1. “Would you like to enter this fenced park to go swimming in the lake? There are other dogs off leash there, and I know that can be uncomfortable for you, so I’ll let you decide.”

She chose to take a short walk around the area first so she could take in the environment and then pulled me towards the entrance. Once off leash, she ran to the lake and waited for the toy to be thrown without even glancing at another dog. Remember folks, this is my “extremely dog reactive” cattle dog bitch I’m talking about.

2. “That five month old puppy is approaching you. You know you have to ability to not react, and if you quietly lay down and wait for me to deal with the situation you can get back to the toy throwing sooner. Oof. She just stole your toy… Please stay there and I will get it back for you and be very, very happy with you.”

She did exactly that. A very sweet but slightly foolish Doodle puppy stole River’s toy less than a foot away from her feet not once but TWICE and River let it happen. She has learned over the last several years that I can help her handle these predicaments; she does not have to use her teeth or other scary displays on strange dogs.

Heel position right next to the water's edge: a very difficult thing to ask a swim-obsessed cowdog!

Heel position right next to the water’s edge: a very difficult thing to ask a swim-obsessed cow dog!

3. “I know it’s hard for you to think while swimming, but I would really like to do some Rally-O proofing exercises with you and reward all of your brilliance with toy throws. Can you work with me this close to the water and new strange stimuli and I’ll promise to make my other criteria lower?”

She responded with near excellent fronts, finishes, and short steps of heeling less than ten feet from the water! Rally exercises are still pretty new to her, so I was asking a lot, but she gave me her best.

You’ll notice that I never gave her a traditional command during these exchanges. In fact, during our actual verbal communication I did not give her a single cue word other than our Rally practice cues. Leaving other dogs alone, down stays while I got her stolen toy back, and her focus on me versus the humans and dogs in the park were all given. I let her choose what she wanted to do every step of the way and each action of mine was directly in response to her. If she hadn’t pulled me towards the entrance of the park, I would have kept walking down the trail and waited to visit the swimming area until others had left with their dogs. If she had made a move to react negatively towards that puppy (which, honestly, would have been warranted!), I would have moved us much further away and possibly left the area. If she hadn’t been able to focus on me enough in that environment to practice Rally moves, I would have abandoned the idea of difficult proofing until another time with fewer distractions.

These are just a couple of examples from one day, but the list goes on and on; I try to make me and my dogs’ time together one of mutual enjoyment whenever possible. I try to give them as many choices about their life as I safely and sanely am able to. Life with dogs is just far more interesting and rewarding when you treat them as a thinking being with thoughts and feelings about the world. Three years ago, I never imagined that my “super reactive” cattle dog could swim in a fenced dog park with other dogs around without having a complete fit every five seconds. But she did indeed play for over an hour today, with! other! dogs! around!, and I have the photos to prove it. All of our hard work towards building our relationship, trust, and teamwork is paying off. I haven’t needed to teach her any new cues lately. I have never used punishment based training methods for her dog reactivity, and I have never forced her to do anything around dogs she absolutely did not want to do. I did not flood her, I did not strap an e-collar on, she never wore a pinch or choke chain, I didn’t have to train a ton of commands and throw away all of her choices to follow them, and yet… I have a dog I can take to a public lake off leash without huge reactions. Her recall is pretty stellar, her focus is lovely, and she is a mostly happy (I won’t lie: there is still some level of stress around strange dogs and sometimes she can still get a snark in if it’s needed!) little dog who once tried to bite the face off every single strange fellow canine she came across. We constantly improve together thanks in large part to the talks we have like the ones we had today.

So: next time you’re out for a walk, try having a conversation with your dog. You might be surprised how much you can communicate and learn from them without ever opening your mouth.

Don’t be a Dull Walking Partner!

photo(2)A common complaint that I hear from friends and clients alike is, “leash walks are SO boring!” Mostly what follows after this exclamation is that they want their dog to have a perfect recall so they can only be exercised off leash and magically have all the fun in the world. Well… ok then! Don’t get me wrong: excellent recalls are vital to living a happy and safe life with your dog, and personally I hike off leash with my guys at least 2-3 times every week. I understand wanting to have the wild adventure of off leash play, but just like anything else in dog training, leashed walks are only as boring as you make them be. So here’s an idea: HAVE FUN!

The first, and I should hope the most obvious, advice I can give is to be engaging. Bring yourself to every walk 100%. Don’t you dare use dog walking time to chat on your cell phone or daydream about how many errands you need to run after this mundane neighborhood stroll. Your dog deserves better than that. Even if you are just on the other end of the leash to toss a few cookies to Fido for maintaining a nice loose leash or smile at him when he checks in with you, that is already a step up. While taking solo walks with each of my dogs, I also use this time to tell them how freaking awesome and beautiful they are. Really. Try it!


Client dog Delilah pauses her training walk for a game of tug.

Leashed walks are also an excellent time to practice heeling and obedience behaviors, as well as your dog’s repertoire of super cool tricks. I frequently take breaks during a walk to do a little heeling pattern or two then bust out a few spins and core challenging tricks. Bring along a tug toy to reward with and get crazy! Break out of that “living room training session” mindset and practice everything while on the go. While working their brain much more than a normal walk, Fido will also get the double benefit of proofing his training and focus on you in a variety of locations with distractions.


Another absolute favorite pastime on walks that I share with my dogs is GETTING ON STUFF! Some people call it urban agility, but I just call it being really darn cool with my dogs. See a park bench? Ask your dog to get on it. Tree stump? Hop up! Fire hydrant? First place the front paws on for an easier trick, then balance all four for an impressive balancing stunt. Encouraging your dog to use their body to jump up or balance on something is an easy peasy way to increase confidence on a huge variety of surfaces, and it makes for great photos as well (general public: please stop taking photos of your dog with the camera pointing straight down at their head. Really. It makes your dog look like a bobble head. Think their eye level or lower!). I proof my dogs’ stays very frequently using the “jump up and pose!” method. They absolutely love it and we have such a great time together figuring out what they can jump on during our walks. Many dogs find jumping self rewarding, and it is another entertaining way to change up a typical walk, but start off slow if your dog is ever unsure.

Owen and friend Marti practice their stays and position changes after jumping up on a picnic table.

Owen and friend Marti practice their stays, release by name, and position changes after jumping up on a picnic table.

Teaching a front paw targeting cue is a great place to start until you can work on getting Fido to jump confidently up onto something. I also always have my dogs wear body harnesses on leashed walks so I can help them jump off of something that might be a bit high off the ground; they are taught to automatically stay on whatever they jump on until released or helped.

Go new places! Don’t stick to the same neighborhood route over and over again. Change it up, choose a different path, or simply take a short drive to somewhere else in town. My dogs often ride along with me to lessons and classes in different cities, so I can easily stop to take a walk in a new places on the way home. You might need to have more planning for that option, but it is well worth it. Novel smells and sights are always stimulating to dogs, and can also help to break you out of the boring leashed walk rut. Many people take their young puppies out to new areas often for socialization and training, then forget about it when their dogs grow up. That IS boring! So go somewhere new this week for a walk, even if it is only a few streets over from your own.


“If you always give you will always have… friendship.” (River agrees… and would like you to give her that flock of ducks over there.)

No matter what kind of fun and games you choose to do on walks with your dog(s), do them often! Don’t fall into the rut of making leashed walks out to be a chore when they can provide the best bonding and training time that you and your best buddy have all day. So get out and be creative, engaging, and most of all: have fun on those walks!

Be prepared II: Making a dog emergency kit for your car

A while back, I wrote a post on making a tiny first aid kit to take along on hikes with your dog. I love that little kit, and I still take it along every time I hike.  However, I recently took a pet first aid and CPR class, and it got me thinking about putting something a little more elaborate to carry in my car in case of emergencies.  ‘Emergencies’, in this case, means a couple of different things to me: first, I wanted to have something on hand for my own dogs in case we run into some kind of crisis when we’re out on adventures, and second, I wanted to have supplies ready if I came across a loose or hurt dog.  Loose dogs are not uncommon in my area, unfortunately, and it’s a terrible feeling to not be able to help a dog get back to safety because you don’t have the right gear on hand.  Now of course, it is possible to go really big with a dog emergency kit: my pet CPR teacher’s kit took up an entire backpack and had everything you might possibly need for any emergency situation.  Since I don’t live completely in the middle of nowhere, however, my goal was to make a small, low-profile kit that would allow me to handle a situation for long enough to get back into a town where I could get help. I decided to divide my supplies up into three categories: first aid, dog wrangling devices and food/water. Here’s what I included in my kit: if there are other things you think might be good to include, please feel free to leave a comment! Here’s my full kit:


First Aid


  • Saline solution: for swishing out wounds. You can find pure saline solution in small, portable, squeezable containers in the eye care section of the pharmacy. Don’t get regular contact solution, which contains a disinfectant that’s not great for open wounds: just get saline.
  • Benadryl (or similar antihistamine): for bee stings, allergic reactions, etc. You don’t want the fancy multi-symptom kind, which contain some ingredients that dogs can’t tolerate: you just want nice cheap plain Benadryl (or the dollar store generic, which is what I got)
  • Vet wrap: I love this stuff. It’s self-sticking, it tears easily, and it can be used to wrap wounds up quickly and on the fly.
  • Little scissors: for cutting away fur to expose wounds, and to cut vet wrap and gauze.
  • Asprin: not the absolute best painkiller for dogs, but regular buffered aspirin is generally considered safe for dogs in small doses, and it’s the kind of thing you can carry around in a first aid kit (much less challenging than, say, Metacam). I got a little cheap-o four pill pack from the gas station.
  • Antibiotic gel in little packets: You can squeeze this right on wounds–it’s generally non-stinging–and then cover them up in gauze and vet wrap. When I’m home and have all my luxurious first aid supplies, I prefer a liquid disinfectant like Betadine, but this works in a pinch and is easier to carry than a big Betadine bottle.
  • Gauze & medical sponges: wound covers. Put some vet wrap over the gauze or sponge to hold it in place and you’re good to go for a while.
  • Heat pack: you can use this for swelling and also to help defrost really cold paws.  I am using a self-heating hand warmer (again, the kind of thing you’d find in a gas station) for my heat pack: they don’t require an external heat source and they heat up quickly but don’t get too hot.

Things I included but randomly forgot to photograph

  • Rubber glove: So handy to have! I have used them as impromptu paw covers before, and if you cut the fingers off, you have a little stretchy water-resistant cover that can go over a bandage. Also, you can use them as regular gloves if you have to handle something especially gross.
  • Styptic powder: I included some small packets of Wound Seal, which can be used to stop bleeding.
  • Tweezers: for getting cactus thorns and other nasties out of paws.

Dog WranglingSONY DSC

  • Cheap leash & collar set: I got this in the dollar bin at PetSmart: it’s just a small adjustable buckle collar and a four-foot leash. I picked this one because the collar adjusts a lot, meaning that I could probably wrangle quite a variety of dogs with it! If the loose dog I’m catching is mellow enough to let me put on a collar and adjust it, I vastly prefer using a real collar to a slip lead: I think they can be easier to get on in a calm way, and because they don’t tighten like a slip lead, dogs tend to panic and flail around less in them.  Also, I wanted to have a spare on hand in case one of my dogs somehow gets out of their collar and loses it: it has happened to me before! [*shakes fist at Lucy]
  • Slip lead: Even though I prefer a regular leash-collar set for actually moving dogs around, a slip lead is still handy to have. You can get it over the head of a really skittish dog, you can use it to make an impromptu harness to help hold an injured dog up, you can use it to elevate an injured leg, and you can make an emergency muzzle out of it.
  • Squeaker: This is a squeaker that I pulled out of one of my dogs’ destroyed toys: it’s really handy to have on hand if you want to get a loose dog to come over and see you. You’d be surprised how many scared, injured dogs still want to come over and check out a fun squeaky thing! Pair it with treats, and boom: you’ve often caught your dog.

Food & Water


  • Portable/disposable food and water bowls: I have a couple of portable bowls that CloudStar makes–they are both cheap and sturdy, and they live in my emergency kit all the time.
  • Sample packs of kibble and treats: both of these were pet store freebies.  Lost dogs can be lured over with the treats, and while there’s not a ton of food in that sample kibble pack, it’s enough that I can feed a hungry dog if I find one.  Also, it’s nice to know that if I break down on the side of the road or something, I’ve got at least a small meal for my dogs to munch on if necessary.
  • Water with electrolytes: Electrolytes help really thirsty dogs get hydrated, and while the efficacy of these infused waters is….up for debate, my feeling on it is a) it’s not expensive and b) it couldn’t hurt.  Pedialyte is also a nice thing to have in an emergency bag, and I am going to pick some up just as soon as I can find a non-flavored one (my town seems to only carry the weird fake grape kind).

Here’s my kit all packed up! I found this neat little Kurgo zip-up bag in the freebee bin at work, and it’s perfect for the kit, but any bag that shuts will do: I’d just recommend a zipping/snapping/velcroing bag, because otherwise, if your dogs are anything like mine, you will look up at a stoplight one day to see them tearing through your emergency bag in search of treats. Not that I know from experience or anything, DOGS!!!


Do you have an emergency kit for your dogs? What are your go-to things to pack in it? Share in the comments!

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 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.

Like a Bully in a China Shop

Three Dog Bakery, home of some of the prettiest and tastiest dog cookies in the Richmond, VA area. Cherry highly recommends the carrot cake.

Have you ever thought about taking your dogs shopping?  Yes, yes, I know, but I mean beyond taking them to Petsmart or Petco once a week so that they can say hi to their favorite cashier while hitting them up for milkbones.  I’m talking about REALLY taking them shopping–like at a mall, or perhaps around a quaint local shopping district that’s filled with boutiques and coffee shops.  With so many dog friendly stores (and websites dedicated to helping you find them), it’s more doable than you think!

There are a couple of rules to follow if you are going to try shopping with your dog, the first and foremost being to make sure the store you are headed to is dog-friendly!  Places that are obviously not going to be dog-friendly include grocery stores and restaurants.  They really don’t have a choice in the matter, so, unless your dog is a service dog, don’t even bother.  That still leaves quite a bit, though, and it just takes a little research to plan a nice afternoon out.

Cherry helped me pick out a new charm for my bracelet at Brighton.

Second, and this is pretty important too, mind your manners!  Shopping with your dog can provide great opportunities to proof behaviors such as heeling, loose leash walking, sits, downs, waits, stays, and anything else you can think of (ok, probably not a good opportunity to practice recalls unless your leash breaks!).  However, it is really not an optimal place to TEACH those behaviors.  Your dog should already know how to be polite before attempting to take your show on the road.  This includes not barking at strangers, or jumping on them, or acting at all aggressively towards them (or their dogs for that matter).  It’s important to remember that not everyone loves your dog as much as you do, and while some of the stores and malls are doing their best to be dog-friendly, all it takes is one bad incident (or too many complaints) to ruin it for everybody.

Which leads me to the third rule–the leash is NOT optional.  I don’t care how well trained your dog is (yes, my dogs have beautiful off-leash heels and great recalls too!), you are out in public, around other dogs, small children, and countless other distractions.  Put that leash back on your dog, Sparky.  And speaking of leashes, that leash should be a 4-6ft leash, and absolutely not a retractable style.  Nothing is more frustrating than encountering a dog that’s twenty feet away from his distracted owner, except perhaps encountering that dog without any leash at all, especially when trying to calmly walk past with your own dog.  Not only that, but those retractable leashes are often almost invisible (yes, even the tape ones), and can cause real injuries.  Keep your dog by your side.

Down stays? In public? Aw, Mom!

Fourth–clean up after your dog.  Accidents happen, even with the best trained dog.  Outings are often full of foods that your dog would not normally get at home.  Perhaps those fries from that stall in the food court that you bought to share with your dog hit his delicate tummy the wrong way.  And your dog, after looking more and more anxious, let loose all over the floor of some lovely boutique that specializes in purses that cost more than the GDP of a third world country.  It happens.  And it’s humiliating, but what’s done is done, and how you react is what really shapes the situation.  Looking suitably embarrassed and apologetic and asking for a roll of paper towels and some spray cleaner is really the best course of action.  It’s your dog, your mess, and your responsibility.  Whatever you do, don’t just leave it in the aisle and keep walking.  This includes shopping at Petsmart, by the way!  Those employees are having a long enough day already without having to endlessly clean up after your dog.  Aside from the occasional, and hopefully rare, incident of gastrointestinal distress, your dog should be reliably house trained before you subject anyone else’s floors to him.

Finally, but not the least in importance, is the last rule.  When it comes to merchandise, if your dog breaks it, you’ve bought it.  The same rule applies to young children, or even yourself.  This might affect your decision of which stores to enter.  Personally, I would not take a golden retriever with a coffee table sweeper of a tail into the Waterford-Wedgewood store unless I really wanted to see how quickly I could max out my  VISA card!  Cherry thought about testing the display bed at Anthropologie, but I quickly headed that off, much as I would have loved the very pretty display linens.  Know your dog, and know your dog’s limitations (or, at least, your limitations when it comes to paying for any damage caused by your dog!).

“I would like one stuffed bear with 16 squeakers and extra stuffing please!”

All of that said, if you are lucky enough to have a dog-friendly shopping center near you, I highly recommend the experience.  Cherry and I love to spend a nice afternoon at Stony Point in Richmond, and she often has far better taste in clothing than I do!  By the way, Cherry’s favorite stores are the Coach Store (so much tasty leather!), Three Dog Bakery (om nom nom nom), and Build-A-Bear Workshop (the magical place where stuffies are made!  I’ve wisely never allowed her to actually enter, but she does peer in the windows longingly.).

Some links to help you find dog-friendly places to shop:

Bring Fido

Pet Friendly Travel

Fido Factor


That’ll do, puppy: Widget takes the herding instinct test

A week or two after I got Widget, it seemed to click on in her little puppy brain that she was, in fact, a baby herding dog.  The results of this were threefold:  1) She started getting very bossy about motion (me, the other dogs, random strangers on the street), 2) when we would take walks, she developed a delightful new habit of waiting for my feet to start moving and then pouncing on them and biting on them with her sharp little puppy teeth, and 3) when she wanted everyone to be together, she would do these little baby outruns and bark obnoxiously to try to get us to move.   Luckily, thanks to my first dog, Lucy, I had a sense that something was going on with her beyond general puppy brattiness.  Lucy, who I always describe as my North American Muppet Dog and who is registered as an Airedale mix (hey, anybody’s guess), looks nothing like a herding dog, and so it never occurred to me to attribute her ridiculous sensitivity to moving things and general pushiness to herding instincts.  What made me finally get it was the day at our old dog park where she spent the whole afternoon moving the cows that grazed in the pasture next door up and down the fence line. It was only then that I was like, “Oh. OH! Wait, really? Huh!”; after that, I started doing some herding training with her and all was well(ish.)

So when Widget started getting all herdy with me, I knew what I was looking at, and I eagerly called up a local trainer to see if I could get her herding instinct tested. And it turned out I could! But not until she was six months old.  So I spent several weeks metaphorically tapping my feet as the puppy got more and more interested in All Things Moving. I circled her official half birthday on my calendar, ticked off the days, and the minute June 30th came, I called up the trainer again and scheduled Widge for her instinct test.  She was officially tested the following Saturday, and you guys, it was awesome.

But before I brag about my puppy, let me try to make this post a tiny bit useful and explain what the herding instinct test actually IS.  In the broadest terms, the point of a herding instinct test is to see if a) a dog is interested in livestock in the first place, b) to separate dogs who want to herd from dogs who just want to chase sheep around and c) to gauge the herdy dogs’ innate talents for balance, distance and pressure and to get a sense of how they instinctively want to herd (do they give the stock the spooky eye, common in border collies? Do they get in front of the handler and attempt to drive the stock forward or do they pull back and collect the stock? Are they barkers or nippers?) If you decide you’d like to take your dog to an instinct test, no matter where you go, this will be the core of what you do.

Beyond that, it gets a little more specific. Like many dog sports, there are a whole bunch of certifying organizations that administer trials and instinct tests; in the US, the big ones are the AKC, AHBA (the American Herding Breed Association), ASCA (the Australian Shepherd breed club) and USBCHA (the US Border Collie Handlers Association) [note, herding people: let me know if I've forgotten something. This is new stuff for me!]  The rules for the instinct test are a little different based on which organization is administering the test.  The AKC for example, only allows specific breeds to test and does not allow mixed breeds (even mixes of herding breeds) or dogs with any kind of physical irregularity (oh AKC, you keep giving me more and more reasons to hate you.) Their test (*note: PDF) requires the dog to be on a 6-15 foot long line and requires that the dog demonstrate a stop, sit, down and recall while in the pen with the livestock prior to engaging with the animals; beyond that, they just have to show “sustained” interest in the stock. The other organizations tend to be a good bit looser with their eligibility requirements, but also, they tend to be a little more specific about what ‘sustained interest’ in stock means.

As both Lucy and Widget are shelter mutts, all of my experience has been with AHBA; AHBA restricts the official herding instinct test to certain breeds of dogs and their mixes, though they allow any dog to compete for titles (and the list of who’s eligible to take the instinct test is broader than you’d expect: it includes poodles, Dobes, Rotties and several terrier breeds). ASCA does the same (I have no experience with USBCHA, and their website is not forthcoming). Unlike the AKC, AHBA has no obedience requirements for the first part of their two-part instinct test, though they do recommend that dogs who take the test have some good foundational recalls and a down-at-a-distance; especially for young dogs who’ve never met stock before, it’s nice to have a little bit of control before you go in, just to help ensure nobody gets kicked or eaten. The first part of the test primarily gauges how the dog moves with the stock and makes a strong distinction between dogs who are actually trying to herd and dogs who are chasing or playing with the stock (the former passes, the latter does not). Following a brief “Hey dog, these are sheep!” introduction period, the dog also needs to attempt to work the stock for between 6-8 minutes. In the second part of the test, dogs are asked to move the stock in a particular direction or along an assigned course. They begin on a long line and must demonstrate a drop and recall before the line is removed; this helps gauge whether or not they are able to keep their brains in their heads around livestock. The dog needs to test for two different judges and pass both tests to officially be awarded their instinct title.

In practice, here’s what the test looked like for us when Widget and I showed up at our tester’s beautiful ranch this weekend. What Widget knew prior to taking the test was….not much. As part of my slightly manic attempt to socialize her during her first few weeks home, I’d introduced her to horses and cows; however, we were going to be testing on sheep, and she’d never met sheep. Strike one! As far as obedience-style stuff, in the week before the test, I spent a lot of time imagining her tearing around the arena attempting to swallow the sheep whole, and to make myself feel better, I started working on her distance downs. We also worked on the moving down, which I figured she’ll need for Rally anyway, and I tried to fade my hand signal and get her responding to only a verbal. When we worked on things alone together in a nice boring environment, this went very well; I got her doing downs about 15 feet away from me, she thought the moving down was awesome, and I got the hand signal pretty well faded. However, add in simple distractions like a bird landing on the feeder or–gasp!–my other dogs barking from inside the house and a lot of our work went out the window. This did not, shall we say, inspire much confidence that she would be able to keep her head together in the presence of Exciting! Sheepies! Strike two! She also had nothing like a stop, which is to say an immediate stand-stay at a distance in the presence of lots of running sheep; this is a really hard skill to teach, and all I’d managed to really solidify with Widget were the outlines of a down-stay and a cued stand. Strike three! Needless to say, my heart was thumping pretty hard as I drove up to the gate of the ranch as I mentally calculated how many sheep my bad baby cattlejack could eat before I went broke.

When we got inside, we met the tester, who chatted with me for a while about the kinds of herding I wanted to do with Widget. Once he’d reassured himself that my interest was purely recreational and I didn’t have any sheep at home that desperately needed herding, he got down on the floor and interacted with Widget a little bit (“that is a weird mix!” and “she’s a cute little shit, though, ain’t she?”) Widget mercifully managed not to pull out her favorite greeting maneuver (peeing all over the new person) and after they’d hung out a little bit, the trainer removed her fancy new harness (which he deemed silly), clipped a lightweight long line (maybe 10-12 feet) to her collar and walked her into a medium-sized round pen which contained three mellow, dog-savvy sheep. For the first 30 seconds or so, Widget was mostly like, “Yay, sheep poop!”; from the outside of the pen, I said, apologetically, “If she doesn’t have anything, it’s no big deal.” Right as I was saying that, however, Widget spotted the sheep at the edge of the pen, and then, like a miracle, for the next few minutes, my goofy little maniac of a puppy turned into a calm, focused, attentive Real Dog. The first thing she did upon seeing the sheep was to do a long, looping circle that put her behind the sheep, at which point she attempted to drive them forward a little bit. She stayed at least a few feet from the sheep at all times, which the tester later told me was a very nice respectful distance; she did not bark, she did not attempt to bite anyone. I’m so used to seeing the border collie crouch ‘n stare that I actually am not sure what she did to get the sheep to move; the sheep, nevertheless, moved. As they pulled ahead, Widget did another big looping run out in the other direction, caught up to the sheep and again, from about four feet away, managed to stop the running sheep and move them back to the part of the pen where they’d started. As she was doing this, the tester was simultaneously moving around to see her work and talking to me about what she was doing. “You see the way she’s moving along with the sheep; that right there is balance.” “She’s not spooking them, but she’s making sure they go where she wants them to be, see that?” “Oh, and that right there, where she took off in the same direction as them, that’s just inexperience talking. Oh, see, there she goes, she corrected it. Goooooood girl.”

After a few minutes of this, he dropped her long line and interjected himself between her and the sheep. He spoke very softly to her, so softly that I couldn’t hear what he said, and Widget immediately dropped into a down. Then he put the point of his stick on the ground and verrrrry subtlety turned his shoulder in to block the space; Widget quickly pulled off in the opposite direction of the stick, ran around the pen to where the sheep were, picked them up and brought them up to the point of the stick. And then, either by chance or by a cue from the trainer, one of the sheep peeled off from the group and took off into the middle of the pen. At that point, Widget–who acted like she knew exactly what she was doing, no big deal–pivoted around, circled out around the runaway sheep and moved her back to the rest of the flock. The tester turned to me and said, “Welp, if you want to know whether she’s got instinct….I guess there’s your answer.” At that point, he said, “That’ll do” to her, and Widget immediately left the sheep and went off to lay in the shade and eat more sheep poop. Had I not seen it with my own eyes, I would have never believed it.

I was pretty blown away by this whole thing. I really need to stress how little of it had to do with my own training; besides the whole…sheep thing, we’d never gotten a distance down that quick and that good, our work with “run out to the left” and “run out to the right” had been hurried, sloppy and had depended a lot on my new Manners Minder, and she definitely, to my knowledge, did not know what “that’ll do” means. Widget’s a six month old puppy; she spends a lot of the day biting things and stealing my shoes, she is (real talk!) not even reliably house trained yet, and I have certainly never seen that level of immediate and precise responsiveness from her. But put her in a pen with some sheep and a guy who knows how to very subtly use pressure and a whole other dog emerges. I have three mixed breed dogs and consequently don’t spend much time thinking about what any of them are ‘supposed’ to do or be like.  Because of that, I generally underplay the power of basic, conditioned-for-centuries instinct, so when I see it in full-blown action like I did at the herding test, it kind of blows my mind.

After Widget’s first go-round with the sheep, we gave her a good long breather while we talked about what he had seen in the test. After that, he asked if I’d like to have her go out again so she could practice moving on his cue. I said Yes Of Course and asked if I might be able to take a picture of the two of them working. He grimaced like I’d asked to steal his soul, let me take one lousy picture (where she’s actually hanging back away from the action) and then had me come in the pen with them to practice my own movement vis a vis the sheep. So there is basically no photographic evidence of this amazingness, to my deep sadness.

I’m going to go back next Saturday and try to get a repeat performance for another judge, and after that, the tester–who’s also an instructor–is going to teach me how I can get her moving in some specific directions (required for Phase II of the AHBA test); hopefully after that, Baby Cattlejack will bag her first title. Beyond that, I am not sure. The responsible part of me wants to wait until she’s a year old: less psychologically impressionable, joints more fully developed. The less responsible part of me, the part that wants to Herd All The Things, wants to start lessons like yesterday (“Hey, it’s just running around on dirt! She does that all the time anyway!”). So we’ll see. For now, I am basking in the knowledge that my puppy is OBVIOUSLY some kind of a sheep savant and trying to read up on as much about herding as I can, just so I know I can hold up my end of the bargain. I loved herding when I did it with Lucy and am loving it even more with Widget, so I’m really excited about this fun new pursuit.  Even more important, though, is that I know that my baby puppy had a great time.

Here’s my one bad picture–I promise to get some better ones next week! What is happening here is that Widget has just lined up the sheep and is hanging back making sure they don’t go anywhere. The trainer is going in front of the sheep to see if he can get Widget to come around behind them and drive them forward (which she did, right after I snapped the shot).

ETA: This post went up later than I thought, so have some more pictures from Day Two of herding!


She’s cutting in too close here–see how that one sheep is breaking off from the group? It’s just lack of experience talking.

But here at least she’s able to correct herself and go out to pick up the errant sheep.

Itty bitty drive

And here she is attempting to climb into the sheep’s water bucket to cool off, but failing, as she is extremely short. I just put this picture up to embarrass her.

Nature’s Sleepover

“Keep close to Nature’s heart… and break clear away, once in awhile, and climb a mountain or spend a week in the woods. Wash your spirit clean.”  - John Muir

Weverton Cliffs, MD

Weverton Cliffs, MD

I love hiking.  I am nomadic.  I will go into snow or rain to hike.  The hottest days.  Days so cold that my sinuses freeze solid inside my head.  I seek waterfalls with a passion, feel calm walking alongside of wild rivers, and I climb straight up rocky mountains until I am panting at the top and looking out over the land below.  Over and over and over again.  I will go anywhere, and do so with great joy.  Yes, I am passionate about hiking to a fault.  Being in nature centers me.  It gives me time to think, to breathe.  In a chaotic world, I treasure my times on the trail the most.  One foot in front of the other, it’s just that simple.

And of course, by my side has always been my little corgi, Ein.  Ein was with me when I became rabidly interested in hiking.  We conquered the local county park together, and proceeded on to the secluded river trails in the area.  We climbed mountains together and ate snacks on top of them and let the wind blow over us.  Pure silence, pure peace.  Just a girl and her dog.  Perfect.

What this post is about is backpacking with dogs.  Much like hiking, I am entirely in love with backpacking.  And why?  Backpacking is a sleepover with hiking.  You hike all day, sleep in the woods, and then hike more the next day.  Hey, it’s not for everybody.  But it is for me.  And I love to have a dog or two along with me.

Double ended leashes loop easily around my hip belt for hands-free leashing.

Double ended leashes loop easily around my hip belt for hands-free leashing.


Leashes.  I am a big fan of off leash hikes for dogs.  A solid recall and leashing up when other hikers are in sight is a given, however.  Other hikers or not, when I am in it for the long haul, I like to keep my dogs leashed.  My Molly, for example, tends to run circles around me until she is dragging and exhausted.  My most recent trip was 31 miles, and keeping Molly leashed is a way to “help” her conserve her energy.  Keeping my dogs leashed also keeps them from finding things to roll in.  There are no showers in the woods, and if my dog rolls in a dead possum…that dog and all of her disgusting aromas will be coming in my tent with me at night.  No way.


Perri is tethered to a tree with the Ultimate Leash while I set up my tent.


My leash of choice is The Ultimate Leash.  The leash is adjustable to three different lengths.  I can have my dog at one, three or six feet.  There are clips on both ends of the leash, so I can either hook the leash to both the harness and collar at once, or I can hook one leash to two dogs.

After a day of hiking, when camp needs to be set up, I like to tether my dogs to a tree.  Again, I do love to let my dogs be off of their leashes when the situation is appropriate.  But in respect to other hikers, it is best to have my dogs under control – and while I am concentrating on putting up my tent and getting dinner cooked, I cannot keep a close eye on my dogs.

Water.  Water is the lifeblood of backpacking.  It is necessary for staying hydrated, cooking food, making coffee…all of those human essentials.  Whenever I go out backpacking, I plan my campsite for the night around a reliable water source.

Water is heavy.  Water weighs roughly eight pounds per gallon, and carrying enough to stay hydrated can add up fast.  Adding thirsty dogs to the equation means one simple thing: MORE water must be carried and therefore your pack will weigh MORE.

Ein Soaking in a Stream

Ein Soaking in a Stream

When I plan a backpacking trip, I find a trail guide for the area that I will be hiking in.  This trail guide will let me know every spring, river, lake or stream that I will pass along the way – as well as how many miles will come between those water sources.  The greater the amount of miles, the more water I will have to carry.  If my dogs drink up at a great stream and the next water source is only a few miles down the trail, then I will not carry a large amount of water for them – I know that they will be able to drink at the next water source.

To maximize the enjoyment of backpacking with dogs, it is best to plan ahead and find a hike with plentiful water sources.  You will keep your pack weight down and your trail dog will stay hydrated and maybe enjoy a good swim all at the same time.

Doggie Pack?  Absolutely!  I have walked and hiked Molly with a pack on since she was old enough to safely carry the weight.  It is good exercise and whittles down her energy.  So when the time came for our first backpacking trip, Molly was more than able to carry her own food and bowl.

Molly rests easy with her pack on her back.

Molly rests easy with her pack on her back.

I feel that it is kind to get a dog used to wearing a pack before asking her to walk long distances with any amount of weight.  I started Molly off on a few walks with an entirely empty pack.  Add a few more walks with a small bottle of water on either side of the pack.  Weight can be increased from there – with respect to the dog’s size, stamina and age.  It can be a juggling act to keep each side of the pack at equal weight – if the pack is lopsided then it can be uncomfortable for the dog.

Heading out to the trail with pack on back is simple enough.  I measure out enough food with two extra servings and divide the amount into ziploc bags.  Molly handles her pack well.  I always have an extra carabiner clipped to my pack, so that if Molly is struggling up a steep hill or seems tired, I can clip her pack onto mine.  My golden rule is that my dog did not ask to go backpacking, I took her along with me.  She may enjoy it, but it is my job to keep her as happy and comfortable as possible. (and sometimes that may mean carrying her pack as well as my own.)

All The Comforts of Home.

A dog bowl goes without saying – I prefer a collapsible fabric bowl because it is small and

Pro Sleeping Bag Thief

Pro Sleeping Bag Thief

lightweight. (I stash this in Molly’s pack.)  It is much easier to pour water into a bowl than to have a dog drink out of a water bottle.  This goes the same for when it is dinner time for your dog.  A dog bowl is not a deal breaker for a comfortable hike-with-dogs, but it certainly makes everything go more smoothly.

Bed Time.  My tent weighs an absurd eight pounds and is easily the heaviest single item that I carry with me on overnight hikes.  I specifically selected my four man tent from REI so that there would be plenty of room for myself, my husband and any dogs that we may bring along with us.  I also wanted a tent that was sturdy and able to stand up to dog paws and claws.

I am admittedly clueless when it comes to Dog Comfort in the tent at night.  Molly and I have sleeping bag wars since I am not willing to carry and extra bed for her.  Ein and Perri are willing to just lay on the tent floor.  You learn something new every time you backpack, and I am still learning when it comes to bed time.

Deanna being doctored trailside after slicing her carpal pad.

Deanna being doctored trailside after slicing her carpal pad.

Be Prepared.  A first aid kit is an absolute must for human and dog alike.  I will refer back to Kelsey’s post on creating a first aid kit for dogs, Be Prepared.  Kelsey absolutely covers all items that I consider a must when backpacking with dogs.

The photo to the left is my sister’s beagle, Deanna.  This photo was taken on my last hike without a first aid kid.  Deanna somehow sliced her carpal pad and it was bleeding, badly.  I had absolutely nothing in the way of supplies.  Thankfully my husband had a knife with him.  He took his sock off and cut it into strips.  We rinsed her paw with water and wrapped the wrist tight in order to stop the bleeding.  Everything would have been easier with a first aid kit (and my husband would have one more sock to his name!)

It’s Not For Everybody.  Being a good overnight “trail dog” is a talent that I do not feel that all dogs are blessed with.  Many good dogs are just not suited for roughing it out in nature – and that is not a bad thing.

My corgi, Ein, is eight years old.  He is fast becoming too old for the long miles.  But in his day, he was a hell of a trail dog.  Ein conserves his energy at a steady trot out ahead of me.  He drinks liberally whenever opportunity presents and cools off by laying down in streams.  Ein’s shaggy fur cools him in the heat, and keeps him warm when temps drop.  Ein will lay down on rocks, dirt, leaves, or dirty socks in the corner of a tent.  He is not picky.  He will alert bark when he hears something or sees somebody approach.  Ein knows how to “go with the flow” when he is out in nature.

My pitbull Molly, is not such a good trail dog.  Molly’s short fur leaves her shivering at the slightest chill.  Molly despises being tethered and screams and digs if she is left unattended for any period of time.  Molly does not drink up at every water source, she may only take a few laps at a time.  And at night in the tent, Molly WILL muscle me off of my sleeping pad and monopolize my sleeping bag.  No hard feelings, a girl’s got to be comfortable.  Molly is best suited for a great day hike, with her cozy couch waiting for her at the end of the day.

Hiking twenty to thirty miles at a stretch can be fun for a dog.  On the other hand, at the end of the day when it is time to sleep out in nature, it can be confusing and strange.  Many dogs are creatures of routine, and backpacking will certainly turn their schedule upside down.  Some dogs are more resilient than otherssome dogs find it difficult to adapt when their predictable routine is altered.  This is an important consideration.


Backpacking is not easy, you have to work hard for your food, drink and rest – having dogs along increases that work.  For me, a little bit of extra planning and pack weight is completely worth having my dogs along with me on my “vacation” out in the woods.  Exploring the beauty and peace of nature on foot is one of my greatest joys, and having my best friends by my side makes that experience all the more priceless.

Lucy At The Fair: LAT in Action

My dog Lucy was recently diagnosed with degenerative joint disease in one hip. It’s a bummer, but we’re doing a series of cold laser treatments, changing up her supplements and doing a lot of conditioning work, and all of that seems to be helping tremendously. During the active phase of her treatment, I’ve been doing my best to keep her active, engaged and happy while minimizing the hip-reouchifying things she likes to do (namely, tearing around fenced areas like a maniac, twisting around awkwardly to catch balls and frisbees, leaping onto everything). This, plus my new resolution to start trusting my dogs more, means that we’re starting to do more stuff that’s outside our comfort zone. And all of this is how, on a recent sunny afternoon, Lucy and I found ourselves at my town’s annual Pecan Festival.

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Dog Shaming (or, you know, not.)

I just discovered the blog Dog Shaming a few days ago; I’ve now read it cover-to-cover (or whatever the blog equivalent of that is) and as I was reading it, there were couple of times when I laughed so hard I practically cried. As a person with, uh, ‘quirky’ dogs (and I know a lot of you out there can relate), there’s something so cathartic about seeing other dogs who do the same dumb stuff that your dumb dogs do. We all know there’s nothing worse than the moment when you come home to, say, a couch that now has a bunch of suspicious holes in it; you look at your dog, and you think about the money, and you start feeling this terrible combination of despair and sadness about your total failure as a trainer and slight anger at your dog, even though you know it’s irrational, and a little shock that somehow you let this couch-eating monster into your house, you thought your life was going to be so different, you never got that apartment in Paris, and now look at you, you can’t even keep a dumb couch in one piece….so anyway, it’s probably better for all of us that we can now go look at a bunch of Dachshunds next to overturned trash cans and laugh our heads off instead.

We’ve got a lot of different viewpoints on a lot of different things here at Team Unruly. However, there are a few key points that we can all agree on. The first is that you’ve got to know your dog: you’ve got to have a good sense of your dog’s likes and dislikes, you need to know what his triggers are, what scares him, what annoys him, how much of any given thing he’ll tolerate, what he loves, etc.  And that’s your specific dog: not the breed, not all-the-dogs-you’ve-had-before, the actual animal sitting in front of you (possibly with couch pieces in his mouth.)  The second is that it’s really important to be your dog’s advocate: it’s your job to know your dog well enough that you can keep her out of harm’s way, that you can manage situations that might stress her or freak her out, that you can get her the food and the treatment and the special squeaky balls that she needs regardless of what anybody says, and most importantly, that you can prevent problems before they happen and set your dog up for success. (The third point, incidentally, is that Ella’s Lead makes awesome collars.)

I believe in these principles. They are at the heart of any advice I’ve ever given anyone about their dogs, and they’re in the back of my mind every time my dogs and I are in a new situation together.  I’ve also been thinking a lot because lately, I have been beginning to fear that I’m using them as a crutch.

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