“May I Pet Your Dog?”

My corgi Ein is cute.   Super cute.  I’m not bragging, it’s just a fact.   And when we go out in public, people can’t resist that cute.   Ein has a handsome teddy bear face, a perpetual smile and that bunny-butt strut that all corgis have and people need to get their hands on him.

But here’s the thing - not every dog likes to be petted.  Ein is in this category, and he is not alone.   Do you have a dog like that?   What does your dog do when strangers approach on a walking trail or at the park?  Maybe her tail is low or tucked under her legs, rather than wagging or swaying.  She might try to hide behind you as people approach.   She might crouch low to the ground and avert her eyes away from the situation.  These are all signs that your dog would rather not be petted by a stranger.

Ein at a picnic with me.   He is in between my legs with head turned away from a person off-camera.   Look at his lips and the tension on his face.   He says "No thank you!"

Ein at a picnic with me. He is in between my legs with head turned away from a person off-camera. Look at his lips and the tension on his face, his ears are beginning to fold back. He says “No thank you!”

I knew nothing when Ein came to live with me.   He is the dog who taught me about dogs.  When people approached us and asked me, “He’s so cute!   May I pet him?” I said that they could.  If someone couldn’t pet my dog, didn’t that mean that he was a Bad Dog?  Didn’t that mean that he wasn’t friendly, that there was something wrong with him?.   It meant embarrassing me, and the other people.  For some reason, that mattered.   And it was at my dog’s expense.

The years went by.  Two more dogs were added to my family, dogs who loved to be petted.   It was easier now.   I could just tell people, “You can pet the big dog, the little one is shy.”  That was a compromise.   I could take one of my larger, people-loving dogs to social situations and leave Ein at home, happy.   Ein did come to love rally obedience trials, and the people there.   No one wanted to pet Ein, but they might give him a treat.   He learned to stare and smile and charm other competitors into giving him a tidbit without the compromise of petting.   These were Dog People.   They understood dogs.   This was Ein’s great gift to me, all I had to do was watch him and pay attention.   And I learned to understand dogs, too.   They don’t speak with words, they speak with body language.

No touchy!

No touchy!

Fast forward to now.   Ein is 11.   We were at a boat launch getting ready to go out on our kayak together.   Senior though he is, Ein is a head turner with his handsome face and adorable little orange lifejacket.   A group of teenage girls were gasping and squealing over him, you would have thought he was Elvis.   “May we pet your dog??”   It had literally been years since I had been asked that question of Ein.   Years.   And it caught me off guard.  But without hesitation and for the first time in his entire life I said the correct answer: “I’m sorry.   My dog is afraid of people and does not like to be petted.”   They seemed surprised and a little embarrassed.   That’s okay.   I was standing up for my dog.   Like I always should have.  And honestly, it felt great.

It is okay to stand up for your dog.   It is okay to say, “No.” People will get over it.   They will find another soppy bouncy dog to love on, possibly within the next hour or less.  It does not mean that your dog is a Bad Dog if she does not want to be petted or touched.  Your dog is a Good Dog, an awesome dog.  Your dog is not public property, she is your friend and she is counting on you to make decisions in her best interests.   Watch her, learn to read her body language and say “No.” when you can see that your dog would rather not be petted.  Your pup will thank you for it, I guarantee!  And you might even feel super proud of yourself!

Online Class Review – “Foundation Weaves, Love Them and Flaunt Them”

My dog Molly hated weave poles in the game of dog agility.   Hated.  Whenever we saw them in training or competition, she blew by them as though they were invisible.   When I recalled her to me and helped her enter them, she would stress down, sniff, sneeze and shake her head – oozing stress.   And if she weaved any slower, she would be moving backwards.

I knew when I saw Julie Daniels’ “Foundation Weaves - Love Them and Flaunt Them” class on Fenzi Dog Sports Academy, that we needed to enroll.  Straight away, I liked that the class material was available for dogs at all levels.   Beginners, in-progress or retraining.  As the class progressed, this was very much true.  The teams enrolled in a working (Gold Level) spot with Julie were from all walks of their agility life and she guided every single one of them with skill.

I also liked how versatile Julie is with the equipment required.   A set of weaves is very spendy, even if you make your own.  The downside of an online classroom is that you need to have more equipment at home, or wherever you will be training.  However, Julie has a wide variety of inexpensive equipment options that teams working in this class can use.   That is a big plus for those on a tight budget!

Molly and I enrolled in a working spot and I was very upfront about our major “weave baggage”.  Not only did Molly have a dramatic stress reaction to the weave poles, so did I.  But the course material made weaves…fun!  Yes, fun!  If I haven’t made it clear yet, this class is very versatile and so are the course materials.  There are many different ways of training weave poles and Julie brings them together, blends them, adds things of her own and then helps teams choose which path will make them most successful.   I love that!   There is nothing I love more than seeing an instructor that can rise to the challenge of acknowledging that different dogs learn in different ways.

Julie brings a lot of enthusiasm and great energy to the class, she wants her students to be successful.   She loves the subject (weave poles!) and it shows in her interaction with her students!  You can’t help but feel happy about weave poles during this class!  The course was 6 weeks long and by the end of it, Molly and I had made significant progress in our attitude about weave poles as well as Molly’s general knowledge of what her job was.   I had a dog who was really loving the obstacle, for the first time in her career.  So if you want to teach weave poles, are struggling to teach weave poles, if you need to re-train weave poles, or if you are like me and hate weave poles with every ounce of your being – check out Julie’s class.  You are going to have a wonderful experience!  (Class information as well as session scheduling can be found here.)

Happy Weaver! credit - Rich Knecht Photography

Happy Weaver! credit – Rich Knecht Photography

The Big Squeeze: Let’s Talk About Anal Glands

I love dogs and (almost) all things dog, but one thing I did not want to become an expert on is anal glands.  I think most any dog owner is vaguely aware of anal glands.   If your dog is licking their hind end more than usual, or scooting their butt all over your freshly cleaned floor, or smelling like a 10 day dead fish marinated in liquid poop…the culprit is probably their anal glands.

If you have not heard of anal glands (lucky you!), they are at the rear end of the dog.  The smelly end.  They are two little kidney bean sized glands seated just inside of the rectum, at “5 and 7 o’clock around the anus.”  The normal order of things is that these little glands fill up with foul smelling fluid and they then empty themselves out when your dog poops, leaving behind a nice reek for other dogs to sniff.  Except, sometimes they don’t empty themselves.  Sometimes things go terribly wrong.   That’s where the butt-rubbing on your carpet comes in.

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Why, dear God, why?!
The stools need to be firm enough to squeeze those glands into emptying themselves.  Firm poop, you want your dog to have it!  If the dog’s diet is too low in fiber, they can suffer chronically from too-full anal glands.  If the dog goes through a bout of diarrhea for any reason, it can leave the glands full and uncomfortable.  Dogs with chronic tummy upset and the resulting soft stools are also at risk.  Obese dogs or dogs who are not exercised frequently can also be prone to poor rear end muscle tone and that can result in the glands not emptying properly.  Some dog’s glands are simply situated “deeper” and “lower” than they should be, and this unfortunately means that when the stool passes out of the dog’s rectum – the full pressure of the bowel movement is not pressing on the glands and they are left with fluid inside.

What can be done?
Prevention!  The dog’s poop needs to be firmer.  This can mean a total diet change, either to a different kibble formula or even to a raw food diet.  It can mean supplementing the existing diet with more fiber.  Pumpkin is touted as the go to diet additive to introduce more fiber into the dog’s diet.   Always use pure pumpkin, never pumpkin pie filling.  Diggin’ Your Dog makes an easy to use pumpkin fiber supplement.  My dog and I are extremely happy with a powdered fiber supplement called Glandex.  The most important thing to remember is that every dog is different, and while it can be frustrating to find the right solution to keep your dog’s anal glands happy, it is worth the trial and error.

When your dog is scooting, licking/chewing and cannot get those glands empty…someone has to manually empty them.   This means a trip to the veterinarian’s office where the staff can express your dog’s glands, and teach you how to do so at home if you so choose.   Some groomers express the anal glands.  If you do learn how to express your dog’s glands, remember to be patient, use plenty of praise and treats (especially peanut butter or squeeze cheese that takes focus to consume.)  Have a gentle assistant help you to restrain your dog and feed him treats while you do the expression.
However! If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it!  Expressing a dog’s glands if they are not showing symptoms of discomfort/fullness is extremely unnecessary.  If your dog’s anal glands are working as they should be, just leave them do their job be happy about that.  Manual emptying of the glands can cause tissue trauma and swelling and there is no reason to do so unless it is truly necessary.
This will not be considered a how-to on how to express a dog’s anal glands!   I highly recommend getting an experienced veterinarian, technician or skilled groomer to show you how to express your dog’s anal glands if it is necessary.  The glands can be expressed externally or internally.  External expression is exactly what it sounds like: pressure is placed on either side of anus until the fluid expresses (if the glands are very full you can actually feel them).   It is less invasive, but in my experience, less effective – external expression does not always completely empty the glands.  Internal expression is also exactly what it sounds like: straight to the source!  Finger inside of the dog’s rectum while the thumb places opposing pressure on the gland externally with slight pressure applied until the gland expresses the fluid.

I don’t have to tell you: Manual expression is not fun for man or beast.   Most dogs are not likely to take the finger probing without a struggle.   When the fluid expresses it often shoots straight out of the rear end and it is best to stay out of the way! (TU’s Katie’s wise words: Make sure your mouth is closed when you express anal glands!)  It takes some practice to learn to express a dog’s glands, and it helps if you can grow four extra hands.

And sometimes, things go extra terribly wrong.
My dog Molly is a poster child for bad anal glands.   She came to me as a very young shelter puppy, a stray on the streets of a big city.  She always had a difficult tummy.   We tried a lot of different foods and she still had chronically soft stools as a pup, often diarrhea.  She often licked her hind end and was able to relieve her full glands this way.  She was rather tidy and efficient about it even if she was smelly - we called it “busting a gland.”  We have visited the vet or groomers countless times for manual expressions.  The vet tried to teach me how to express them myself one time and it was a miserable failure.  I DIY just about every aspect of dog care and grooming, but anal gland expression was the one thing I said “No!” to.

Molly is the perfect storm.   She continues to be very prone to stomach upset and gets soft stools rather easily from dietary changes or too many treats and she also has very deep set, recessed anal glands.  She is a challenge to manually express, even for the experienced.  It is amazing that we went 6 years without a major issue.

A few months ago my husband chose to share three chicken skins with Molly.   (Sigh.)  She had a few days of diarrhea followed by soft stools and then she was busy “bustin’ a gland” like nobody’s business.  Then she started….leaking.   Gland fluid on my couch covers, blankets, bathrobe, floor, crate padding.  On my pillow.  One night I woke up and my pajama pants had a big smelly wet spot on them from where Molly had her butt cozied up to me.   Yuck!   This was excessive, but it just felt like another chapter of Molly being kind of gross and having butt trouble.   I took her to the vet and had her glands expressed and was dismayed that the very next day she continued leaking.  This went on for about two weeks before Molly woke me up at 3am with her licking and when I turned on the light, her tail and hind end were covered in blood.   Whoah.

Back to the vet office and this time we made an appointment to see the vet rather than to just have her glands expressed.   The vet on duty that night told me he had never expressed more difficult glands on a dog, and he told me that Molly’s right anal gland was badly infected.  And let me just tell you, an infected anal gland is a pain in the butt, literally.  There is a lot of bacteria in the area, the dog is licking at it and irritating the tissue even further.  If an infection progresses without treatment, the gland can actually abscess and rupture externally.   Ouch.

The treatment for Molly’s infected anal gland began with several courses of different oral antibiotics and warm compresses to the anus.  I soaked a washcloth with hot water, wrung it out and placed it right underneath Molly’s tail and applied gentle pressure for 5-10 minutes each evening.  We visited the vet weekly for manual anal gland expression to evaluate Molly’s progress.   I groaned every time I saw blood fly out onto the exam table – that meant the infection was not going away.  When the first two rounds of (different) oral drugs did not work, we moved on to direct “infusions”.   Infusing the anal gland involves using a small catheter to access the anal gland’s emptying duct and packing the gland full of antibiotics directly.  The rectum has to be pulled out slightly in order for the vet or tech to be able to access this duct – not very fun for the dog at all.  Molly’s infection took two rounds of infusions before the fluid that was expressed was a mixture of blood and regular fluid.   It was the first sign of improvement!  Another infusion, and the next week, all regular fluid.  It took nearly two months to resolve.  I did not think it would ever resolve.

For the first month after the infection cleared up, I was instructed to express the glands weekly.  By now I had gotten over my shyness of doing Molly’s gland expressions myself.  I wanted to be able to keep an close eye on that gland fluid to be certain that the infection was not returning.  Weekly expressions are definitely not necessary anymore – if I notice Molly “bustin’ a gland” I take her into the bathroom and express her glands for her now.  And if she is not fussing at her hind end, we leave well enough alone.   Less manipulation to the tissue back there is best.

If infections or abscesses become a recurrent issue, it is possible to surgically remove the anal glands.  This was very much a Last Resort decision as far as I was concerned.  The anal glands are uncomfortably close to the nerves that control the anal sphincter.  In other words…if there is a complication your dog could become unable to control their bowel movements.  I am hopeful that Molly and I will never have to face that sort of decision, and that her anal glands stay happy and empty for many years to come!

DIY Grooming: Getting Started!

The decision to groom your non-shedding dog at home instead of taking her to a professional groomer can be very rewarding.  You will save money, spend more time bonding with your dog, and enjoy a new skill that will improve will time.  The downside is that you have to learn how to clip, shave, scissor, trim and make your pup look beautiful and there can certainly be “growing pains” along the way.

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Make a game plan.  Think of how you would like your dog to look.  Google some images and print them out.  It is surprisingly helpful to just have a photo of your end goal to reference.  Watch videos on YouTube.  Find a book on how to groom your specific dog’s breed (or mix of breeds.)  Avoid being overwhelmed by not just knowing how you want your dog to look, but by also knowing how to get there.

Make grooming time rewarding for your dog. Try to remember your dog’s point of view.  Dogs don’t naturally adore standing on a grooming table and being clipped or scissored, especially if you are slow and learning how to do a new skill.  Get your dog used to being on the table by just putting her on there and giving her some delicious treats and scratching that favorite spot behind her ears.  Get your dog used to the equipment that you will be using before simply turning on a noisy clipper and getting to work (scary!).  Turn the clipper on, snip the scissors in the air beside your dog, run the dremel and share some treats with him.  It is good to know how your pup will react to the tools you will need to use before putting them into practice.

Be patient!  Take a moment and imagine a time that you were trying to learn to do something new.  Maybe you were a natural?  Or maybe you struggled and felt a little frustrated, but after some practice and determination, you got the hang of it.  Now: you are not only working to learn a new skill…but you are in partnership with your living and feeling best buddy.  You two are a team, working on a cute haircut together.  If you are trying to clip your dog’s foot and she keeps yanking her foot away, or he will not stand still while you are trying to concentrate and you feel yourself get frustrated…just stop!  Take a break, you and your dog probably both need one, and try again when you both feel a little more relaxed.

Pace Yourself.  You don’t have to groom the entire dog in one sitting.  Not only will it take practice and time for your skills to improve (and therefore, your speed to increase.), but it will take your dog some time to grow used to remaining on the grooming table for a long period of time.  I groom my standard poodle regularly, and when we first started out I would do only one body part at a time.  One paw a day.  The face on a different day.  Over time we have built our stamina up to being able to do everything at once, but it took time.

Respect your equipment. Understand what your clipper blades are designed to do (the length of hair they will leave on the dog.)  Remember that the blades can grow extremely hot with use, feel them often while you work and be sure to give them time to cool, or switch to a different blade.  Grooming shears are extremely sharp, make sure that your dog is holding still when you use them and be cautious when you are trimming near the skin.  A sudden movement from your dog could result in an injury.

It grows back!  Take it easy on yourself, learn to smile.  Your dog probably won’t look perfect on your first few attempts, friends may tease you about that “homegrown haircut” that your pup is sporting.  Just keep practicing, you will be surprised how over time the whole procedure will feel more natural to you.  Just because your dog looked like a walking haystack the first time you gave him a haircut is no reason to be discouraged!  It definitely grows back, your dog forgives you for making him look silly, and the best way to improve is to keep practicing!

Class Clown to Champion – Molly’s Agility Story

My pitbull Molly and I started our agility trialing journey in February 2013.  I was going to write a post on this blog about that.  About my very first agility trial with my very first agility dog.  That post probably would have been, “Molly ran circles around me, the judge probably needs rotator cuff repair surgery for all of the faults that he had overwork his shoulders to signal, and all of my classmate’s dogs behaved normally and got qualifying rounds.  The end.”  I was supposed to write a post about our second agility trial but that post probably would have been, “Molly NQ’d all eight runs, made another judge eligible for rotator cuff repair surgery, helped me understand that “contact fly off” was more than just a term I had heard, and all of my classmate’s dogs behaved normally and got qualifying rounds.”

From the very beginning, Molly and I were behind other teams at our experience level.  Woefully, painfully, embarrassingly behind.  I knew two things: it was surely all my fault and Molly was a maniac.  After all, I adopted Molly from a shelter that she landed in first as a stray at only 2 months old, and then adopted and returned back to the shelter in only one week for being “too much.”  In agility class, Molly humped me and nipped my arms for the crimes of confusing or frustrating her.  Molly was not a dog who was going to make a green, inept handler look good.  There are dogs like that, and I have watched plenty of them.  But that was not Molly.  Molly was a fast running dog, she needed a handler who could work and think even faster.  I was not that handler.  Molly was moderately reactive.  She could be around other dogs in many situations, but at agility trials she fluttered over and under threshold throughout the day and the result was usually a stressed up dog and our time in the ring suffered for it.  We had so many problems.  It felt like we had every problem.  “Too Much”, indeed.

credit – pooch smooch photography.

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Online Class Review – “Get Focused!”

I will level with you, I totally suck at “review” posts.  But this past August I was lucky enough to score a Gold Level (working spot) in a Fenzi Dog Sports Academy class called “Get Focused” with instructors Deborah Jones and Judy Keller, and I loved it so much that I really wanted to try to write some words about how much the class meant to me.  (A new session of this class opens for registration on January 22nd, by the way.  Hint, hint!)

I, like many other people, jumped right in on the training of skills with my dogs: the straight sits, the pivot work, the targeting, etc…but overlooked the simple act of actually building handler focus. (Never mind understanding how to do so!)  When I saw that low confidence was actually listed as a reason that a dog might lose focus (among many others), I felt like the class might have actually been created for Perri and I.  It felt like where we needed to be.

The class is billed as a foundation level class, best taken early in a dog’s “career”.  It might have been easy for many teams to feel that they were advanced beyond the work offered in the class, or that the exercises were simple.  The exercises are simple ,that is the beauty of them.  They are the building blocks of an incredible foundation for a human and dog team, all we had to do was pick them up and start building at our own rate of speed.  It was beyond tempting to rush through the exercises.  I fell into that trap myself before my dog told me she was not willing to rush along with me.

At the Gold Level we were guided to do a lot of introspection about our dogs and ourselves.  Since I am a deep thinker and analyzer, probably to a fault, I really enjoyed this aspect of the class and found it to be very valuable.  The questions being asked helped me to answer a lot of my own questions and think about my roadblocks, not to mention the attention of two experienced and skilled instructors to guide me through.

Was the class a magic trick to “fix” Perri spacing out when she became nervous or worried about being wrong in a class or trial situation?  No.  Nothing works like that.  But Perri and I were dedicated students that worked hard on the exercises at our own level and speed.  I went into the class feeling like I knew why Perri loses focus: she has no confidence and shuts down and cannot focus.  But with “focus” in the spotlight, I was encouraged to do a lot of thinking on the subject and to think beyond the obvious.  I won’t say that this class and this class alone “fixed Perri”.  Perri is indeed blossoming and taking this class and everything that it had to offer us was definitely a part of that.

Fighting SAD – how my dogs help me to survive wintertime

Every year when the days grow shorter and the air gets colder I am reminded of the reason that I pursued becoming involved in agility.  The reasons that people get involved in dog sports are varied far and wide, from those raised from childhood on up and those becoming involved later on in their lives.  When I started agility it was something that I had wanted to do with my corgi Ein for a very long time.  But what finally made me reach out of my comfort zone and enroll in a Foundations Agility training class was that I needed something to cling to during winter time



“Seasonal Affective Disorder”
or SAD is a variety of depression that is directly related to the changes of season.  It can strike as fall and winter set in and even when spring arrives.  Many of the range of classic depression symptoms can show up.  I am a person fortunate to not be subjected to depression regularly, so it can be scary and upsetting to experience the intense apathy and gloom that settles over me when the days get shorter.  I feel desperate to cling onto the last rays of sunshine that escape far too early on winter days and when they are gone I feel at a loss for how to fill the long hours between sundown and bedtime.  That is not sensible, but depression is not a sensible disorder by any means.

Ein’s Foundation Agility class provided an amazing change for me in the winter of 2012.  One night a week we would drive through the darkness to training class and I could enjoy a whole hour of fun with my dog.  There were nights when I truly felt too gloomy to even go.  But having that scheduled training class each week pushed me to attend and sure enough, as soon as I was there, I was always glad that I went.  Since Ein and I had never done any training beyond home taught basic manners when he was younger, a whole new world was opened up to me.  Our class fluctuated between obedience and rally obedience lessons, and foundation agility skills.  Ein and I not only had our weekly class, but plenty of “homework” to focus on during the rest of the week, and it opened up a whole new world and hobby for me.

For me, anything related to my dogs is fun so they are truly my rock and focus when I feel seasonal depression taking its grip on me.  Below are some of the things that I (try to force myself to) do each winter to fight off those apathetic feelings that creep their way in.

Training Classes
I love to take my dogs to training classes, and I tend to increase on the amount during the winter time.  There are so many types of dog training classes out there from basic obedience, to tricks and manners classes, to the more focused dog sport classes.  Currently I attend two agility classes per week and may add something else in there during the most depressing and cold of the winter months.  It is so valuable to me to be able to escape the cold and darkness into a bright training building to work and play with my dog.

Tricks, Tricks, Tricks!
I don’t think enough can ever be said about how relaxing and bonding trick training can be.  The benefit of those good feelings is doubled for me during winter time.  If you are goal focused, as I tend to be, you can even work on Trick Dog Titles!  More than a few Team Unruly dogs have enjoyed achieving them and it can keep you in good ideas of what trick to work on next.  I have been pulled out of many a gloomy mood by forcing myself to pick up the clicker and play around with shaping a trick with one of my dogs.

Therapy Visits
I have mentioned that Perri is a registered therapy dog and taking her to visit senior citizens in nursing homes has as much benefit for me as it does for them.  Perri and I make her visits year-round, usually one time per week.  I love our visits always, but in the winter time it is more special and heart warming than usual for me to enjoy the happiness that my dog can bring to people.

Dog Projects
I love to make things for my dogs, even if I do find some projects to be a little overwhelming.  We have a whole range of posts on dog projects that you can enjoy doing, and your dog will appreciate whatever you make for him!  Baking dog treats is also very relaxing for me in the winter time – it makes the house warm, it smells good, and my dogs never turn their noses up at a tasty home baked treat.

Conditioning
Part of the reason I get so downcast in winter is because I am cut off from my walks in the woods, and that means that the amount of exercise that my dogs and I get is reduced also.  Keeping my dogs in good shape is very important to me, and conditioning indoors is just as fun for us as trick training is.  Sarah wrote an excellent post in July about some conditioning exercises and tools, and FitPaws is a great resource for equipment and training advice.

Got Poodle?
I certainly never added Perri to my family to fight my SAD, but her ever growing coat does keep me busy.  I can easily burn away two to three hours on a total bath, blow out and groom on Perri.  I enjoy spending the time with her and trying new ideas with her coat and keeping her as nice looking as a “tomboy woodland poodle” can manage.
Each winter the transition is difficult for me.  I am losing my outdoor training sessions, my quickie evening hikes, my dog swimming time and just the simple enjoyment of being outside without my nose hurting.  I hate it, it sucks.  But my dogs motivate me to do some things that make it suck a little bit less, and I am so grateful to have them.

Continuing Education – Capturing mistakes on video

I am very new to the sport of agility (like, 2012 new.)  So when I saw that the topic for today’s blogging event was “Continuing Education” I thought, “My education is nowhere near to being complete, let alone moving into the phase of “continuing!”  I also thought over the many ways that an agility enthusiast can pursue learning our sport: classes both live and online, books, videos, seminars, workshops.  Team Unruly writer Michelle wrote a great post last February about Continuing Education through seminars.  (Go check it out!)

But for somebody so green as myself, I would have to say that a lot of my education comes straight from watching my three dogs.  Over the last three years I have learned all about “it is never the dog’s fault” and how true those words are.  If my honest dog does something, or does not do something, I respect them as the mirror of my own errors.  It took me a while to learn to think this way, every time, but it is the truth.  I like to maximize the “lessons” that my dogs have to teach me, so for me a very important tool in my education is to video my training sessions and runs at trials.

A lot of people don’t like to video themselves, the reasons are numerous. It can be tricky to wrangle in a helper to take videos for you, or to set up a device to capture your training sessions.  It adds additional work to our training session structure to set up the camera and have it positioned correctly.  Knowing that we are being video’d can make us feel additional pressure, even if there is not another person present to run the camera.  And quite honestly, it can be humbling and embarrassing to watch ourselves make mistakes.  It is not a whole lot of fun to see ourselves messing up an agility sequence or confusing our dogs, so maybe we prefer to not capture that on video.

I am a person who constantly asks “Why did that happen?”.  That train of thought can spiral into obsession and over thinking (I cannot help myself!), so having a video of exactly what did happen is very helpful to me.  If I feel like a training session was unsuccessful, reviewing a video can teach me Why.  I can watch everything that I do, I can watch my dog respond to my actions, I can better review the quality of the behaviors that I am training.  There are many times that I am making subtle mistakes that I truly do not remember making.  Having a video allows me to become aware of those mistakes.  It allows me to pinpoint specific weak areas.  It teaches me how to better structure my training sessions, moving forward.

Capturing my runs at a trial on video are just as valuable.  My own stress and excitement jacks up at a trial and clouds my memory, and my reactive girl Molly can become very high on the environment.  We are quite a pair and my biggest mistakes at trials can come from overhandling Molly.  I was not even aware that I was doing this until I started to consistently get my runs on video.  I started to watch myself panic, overhandle and stress her out.  If I video what I am doing out there at an agility trial, and I can pick out the same mistakes over and over again and be honest about myself with that information, I can learn and improve.  When I walk a course I am far more mindful to identify the areas where I might overhandle Molly, so that when we are actually running the course I am less likely to fall into the trap of doing so.

“Eventually people will realize that mistakes are meant for learning, not repeating.”

I don’t think there is a more constant way to learn from our own mistakes than to be able to watch them in all of their glory.  To be able to see what we are doing with our dogs and not just recall it whisper-down-the-lane style form memory.  And if we do not understand what exactly went wrong, we can take a bite of humble pie and show it to somebody with more experience who can help us learn.  Agility moves so quickly.  I say things that I don’t remember saying, (“Did I really say tunnel and not jump?!”), I move my hands and body in a way I do not remember (“Did I really overhandle there?!”) but a video helps me to be aware of these things and move towards being a better partner to my dog in the future.

[Check out other great blog posts on the topic of Continuing Education here at the Dog Blog Action Day page!]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

Say Goodbye to Old Dog Blues

I have had my dog Ein since he was four months old.  He is nine years and four months old now.  If you are reading this blog you must be no stranger to the ways that dogs lodge themselves into our daily routines, our hearts and souls.  The ways that they grow with us, the ways that they change us and the ways that they support us as we go through life.  Ein is no exception.  Ein was a bundle of anxiety when I got him and I was in college and stressed out about life.  I always loved animals and nature but I was never what you would call an “active person.”  Ein changed all of that.  We started exploring the local county park and the rest is a tale I have told before.  Hiking trails were a place that we could escape life together, and we did.  What started with casual 30 minute strolls led us to the mountains jutting up around the local wild river.  We would stay there for hours swimming, hiking and gazing out over every new place that we explored.  And so it has been for years.  Six feet, two heartbeats.  Paradise.   Peace.

Until the middle of April this year.  Perri and Molly tornado’d into Ein and he started limping on his front leg.  It would not go away.  We went to the vet and tried medication but the limp persisted.  When the vet examined Ein she asked me if he had any problems with his hips.  I was surprised.  Of course not.  We took x-rays.  Ein’s hips took my breath away.  To say they are dysplastic and arthritic is an understatement.  And it did not just happen overnight.  And if that was not enough, the vet showed me the bone spurs growing in his spine.  Rear leg paralysis is a possibility if that condition persists.  I was gutted.  I started Ein on joint supplements, pain medication and some at-home PT exercises to help strengthen his rear legs.  The front leg limp would go away, and come back again.  I could see his right rear leg, his most dysplastic hip, being held stiffly and never with weight on it.  I had to cancel an agility trial and a rally trial that I had been looking forwards to participating in with Ein.  Long hikes were certainly out of the question.  I felt like everything that we loved to do together was over.

A few months later in June, Ein and I attended our annual Corgi Group picnic.   The corgi picnic is one of the highlights of my year, every year.  There is the hot dog bobbing contest, there is the musical hoops contest, there is the silent auction of doggie and corgi items, there are baby pools for wading in, agility equipment to play on and there is lots of food and lots of corgis!  Ein and I never do the hot dog contest, because he has always been afraid to nose into the water for the hot dogs.  And the competition is stiff!  We have never stood a chance.  Musical hoops was always our game.  It is like musical chairs, except that everyone walks around a ring of hula hoops and when the music stops, you get your dog to sit in a hoop.   For Ein, who has always been good at heeling and auto-sitting when I stop walking, this game was a cakewalk!  We have won it probably four times.

This year Ein had a hard time getting his rear end into the baby pool.  He woke up limping on his front leg and stiff in his rear, so I didn’t think musical hoops was something that we should be doing.  All those years of going to our picnic and enjoying those two things above all else, and suddenly his hip dysplasia is sticking its ugly face in there, reminding me that my dog is not who he used to be.

I went back over to Ein’s x-pen by myself and really felt like crying.  It might seem stupid to some.  But nine years of this dog, nine years of my little badass that nothing could stop.  My little scrapper who was picking fights with german shepherds at the dog park “just yesterday.”  And suddenly he is old.  I was still figuring out how to deal with that.  My dog who could hike 12 miles over a boulder field is having trouble stepping into a baby pool.  Through some twist of fate my x-pen was next to a corgi and owner that I have seen coming to the picnic every year that I have been going.  Except this year, her dog’s entire rear end was paralyzed because of degenerative myelopathy, a condition common in corgis.  He was her agility dog.  I have always noticed corgis on wheels, corgis in strollers, or corgis who were half lame at the picnic.  But not until this year, when my own dog was going lame, did I become hyper aware of what causes these wonderful dogs to be confined to a wheel cart or a stroller.

The end result was that while I enjoyed the picnic, it was a bittersweet day for me.  I enjoyed being my normal shutterbug self and taking 84 photos of all the picnic-goers (Click here to see the Flickr Album).  I enjoyed the food.  I enjoyed spending a day out with Ein.  But I allowed his mortality to make me feel sad.  I became worried that he may likely have degenerative myelopathy as well.  A friend of mine who recently lost her beloved doberman at only 7 years old to osteosarcoma told me that she regrets missing out on her dog’s “old dog years.”  That I would regret it if I continue to mourn Ein before he was even gone.  And she was right.

I am a busybody going in a million directions with training, agility trials, therapy visits and hey! also a full time job.  I felt I had no time for Ein.  But a lot of that had been because Ein’s recent grouping of diagnoses made me feel so sad that every time I looked at him, it was all that I could think about.  I allowed myself to shut down on him, because I was so overwhelmed by the shock and pain of my dog growing old.

No more.  It had to stop.

Kelsey sent me an Ein-sized exercise peanut and it had been sitting around for a week or two.  Since I decided to stop moping, I inflated it and we got to work and Ein had so much fun.  It is a new game, and it can be an every day thing.  So what if we are doing it to strengthen his wrecked hips.  He is having fun, and so I am having fun.

I must embrace this time.  I must enjoy it.  The last dog that I had pass away was 9 years old when he died.  He was fine one day and died overnight.  No warning, no old dog years.  He was just gone one morning when I woke up, he died in his sleep.  No exercise peanuts, no supplements, no cozy orthopedic dog beds and shorter walks.  He was just gone.  I haven’t lost Ein to cancer, or a heart failure, or a tragic accident – I still have him.  He is still here and happy and he is still my boy, and just because his body is starting to deteriorate doesn’t mean that we can’t find new ways to enjoy our relationship.

I bought him a lifejacket.  Swimming his fantastic exercise for the hips.  The dog is working his joints in the water, but there isn’t any impact.  Ein has always loved swimming for his ball, but he tires easily and starts sinking into the water and coughing.  I have always chuckled a little over doggie life jackets.  My dogs can swim just fine, they don’t need that stuff.   I used to think the same thing about training classes though, and look at me now.  When I watched my dog be able to swim out after his tennis balls for … I don’t even know how long, I lost track of time, I regretted not doing this sooner!

And if Ein can’t be the musical hoops champion every year at the Corgi Picnic anymore, we are going to have to start training towards being the hot dog bobbing champions!  I think that he will be a fast learner.

It has been since that picnic in June that I decided to stop feeling sorry for myself and Ein.  We have worked harder on our PT together, we have been taking short walks together, I have been making time to take him swimming and the supplements and medication are doing their job.  I have committed myself to enjoying this part of our life, whatever that may mean.  We went camping in late July and I did something that I was afraid to do since April.  I took Ein on a swim and a semi-long hike around the lake where we were camping.  Just the two of us.  He stayed sound.  He was amazing.  He was happy.  And so was I.

IMG_8270

Stop worrying. Let’s hike!