On Practice, and Keeping Track

20151010-botc-ob-0100-lrA couple of months ago, we were enjoying a little streak of moderate success. Under conditions I had previously not thought tolerable to Thomas — live gophers popping up about the ring, for instance — we at long last broke into the 90s in Utility. Thomas had begun hitting every sit, every front and finish like he hasn’t since he was a good little Novice dog. He was holding his mouth still on his retrieves, and resisting the urge to bat his articles around as if they were sleeping prey he hoped to wake up and chase.

Most important, we earned another UDX leg, the first one since May of 2014, to bring us to a total of four.

Nobody actually asked me what I’d been doing differently, which did not stop me from offering my secret, loudly, to anyone within earshot: We’d been practicing more. Yes, yes, I know — I was meaning to be funny. News flash! Practice makes perfect. (Except in our case, not perfect. But at least better than before.)

The streak was not to last, which doesn’t mean it wasn’t real, but does mean that maybe there have been holes in my plan that took a bit of time to manifest. I had noticed with both of my dogs that directed jumping was our weakest exercise, and not surprisingly, because I don’t have room to practice it at home; I wasn’t getting out in the park often enough to teach them confidence about the go-out and to reinforce the notion that, yes, my small friends, you must observe my hand signal before you take a jump. I had taken stand-for-exam for granted, a fact of which I was rudely reminded when Thomas stretched up into the lap of a judge he particularly likes.

This past weekend Thomas and I set up in the ring for the directed retrieve, which was the first exercise in Utility B that day, when it struck me that we really hadn’t practiced gloves much in the past week. Still, I sent Thomas with the most positive expectations, and I was shocked when he refused to move off his spot, as if he had forgotten how to follow my signal to retrieve his glove.

He hadn’t forgotten, I’m sure. He could have done it just fine outside the pressure of the ring. But the judge and my nerves and the people and the foul smell of the pee-soaked grass and the noise of banging crates somewhere over in Building 4 overwhelmed what he knew; it all got in the way of his ongoing calculus about what might be safe or successful or even worth doing. I hadn’t charged up his glove retrieve with toys and food and triumphs, and so when he heard the word “fetch!” he simply couldn’t muster the nerve to comply.

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The Purpose-Driven Dog

Thomas heelingAlmost as soon as I learned that the three masses the veterinarian had found on Thomas’s spleen last spring were not cancer, not hemangiosarcoma or lymphoma, or any of the other horrid diseases that take our dogs from the appearance of perfect health to death in hours or days or months, I entered him in an obedience trial. On the day of his surgery, I had not thought I would do this, ever again; I thought I would retire him, let him live for as long as he had left without the demands of training or the stress of the ring.

It only took a few days for me to drop that notion. Thomas, as if to goad me back into working with him, started bringing me things, rolled-up socks, random toys, shoes, plastic bottles. He delivered each one of them with obedience-ring formality, held firmly in his mouth while sitting at my feet. His message was clear: The unstructured life is not worth living. Not for a human, and not for a dog.

So we went back. Why not? Thomas still tries to concentrate on his tasks and make the right decisions; I still work to make my signals clear and my handling clean and calm. We are without goals: Although we’ve had some decent Utility scores and even more impressive Open runs — not long ago he held his long sit in the heat, while all the dogs around him, some of them obedience champions, folded — we have not added to the three UDX legs we’ve accrued since May of last year. I don’t honestly expect to get more, and I toy with quitting. But the very thought breaks my heart. I suspect it would break his, too.

I am, however, devoting more time to my talented little pit bull, Tabitha, she who, one year ago this month, earned her UD in three straight trials and then promptly ripped her cranial cruciate ligament — one of the tiny bands in the knee that keeps the femur from slipping off the tibia. (In humans, the same ligament is called the anterior cruciate ligament, the one closest to the front. Dogs being quadrupeds, the ligament is identified as the one nearest the head.) In December, Tabitha underwent a tibial-plateau leveling osteotomy on her right leg, an operation in which the surgeon (in this case, Dr. Scott Anderson at ASEC), saws off the top of the tibia to alter its angle, obviating the need for a ligament. She then spent two months in a crate doped up on a tramadol, and two more under severe leash restrictions.

Then, one month after she’d been cleared for normal activities, she sprung the same ligament on the opposite leg, and we started all over again.

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Competition obedience and the meaning of life

“Where is the meaning? Where is the meaning?” My friend Phoebe is pacing around the room, apoplectic, demanding justification for my obsession with dogs. I understand her dismay: I used to have time for other activities. I used to be able to pack up with 48 hours notice and disappear for a couple of weeks on a canoe trip; I used to lead full-moon hikes. I traveled, I went to yoga class, I could spend a weekend in the desert staring at sand and be perfectly content.

Everyone I know in the performance dog world has their version of this: “Before dogs,” one woman told me, “I was a great skier.” Or, “before dogs, we went to Europe every year.” Before dogs I had more friends, more work, a fuller life among humans. Before dogs, I stayed out late.

It’s not that I didn’t have hobbies before; I did, big ones, involving outrigger canoes and static trapezes. But the old pursuits all tapered off within four or five years. Training dogs has been different. I’ve been working with Thomas now going on eight years, competing in the ring with him for six. Five years ago I took on Tabitha, then a gangly three-month-old pit bull, and I’m now showing her in Utility, too, where her excessive enthusiasm compensates, with the crowd if not the judge, for her lack of accuracy.

Seeing no end to any of this, my friend puts her foot down. “It’s time,” she declares soundly, “for you to be doing something else.” Continue reading

A terrier, seriously

“I would avoid any kind of terrier if you are seriously considering dog obedience competition.”

This bit of wisdom came to me from woman who trains silky terriers, and ran across it in a 1994 book by neuropsychologist Stanley Coren, The Intelligence of Dogs: Canine Consciousness and Capabilities. We repeat it now and then while we’re practicing, and run up against some crazy problem. I don’t really believe it, though, and neither does Coren, who didn’t say it himself, but overheard it at a seminar, from a trainer “whose videos show only border collies and German shepherds at work.” He uses the remark in his book as an example of how trainers have long recognized differences among breeds in learning capacity and work ethic: Poodles are easier to train than Italian greyhounds; golden retrievers learn faster than bulldogs.

Terriers, the conventional wisdom holds, are the hardest and least willing of the dog-breed groups. Stubborn is the word that comes up most often.

Good hold glove 3Certainly I know people think this — twice in as many weeks different judges have disclaimed “He’s a terrier!” about Thomas — once in the obedience ring when he appeared to be vigorously subjecting his scent articles to various scientific hypotheses, once in the agility ring when he launched off the A-frame (as if a dog has to be a terrier to do that). They say these things despite the existence of exceedingly biddable terriers — rat terriers, Parson Russells, Airedales —  that in the right hands get high-in-trials and high-combineds and win national competitions with reassuring frequency. As I said to the agility judge who uttered those words last Sunday, being a terrier is not an excuse.

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The Do-Over Dog

Abandon your sad history; meet me in the fire.
–Jackson Browne, “Under the Falling Sky”

___________________________________________Seamus only

I don’t remember the age at which my birthday became a day to stop and gape at the size of the number that represents my age and ask the proverbial question:

“What have I done with my life?”

The question first popped up on some birthday in my late 30s or 40s, and has returned on schedule every year since.

The answer requires a whole day of brooding, all of it difficult and pained and full of regret; a meditation on blown chances, squandered friendships, waste-of-time relationships and roads less traveled that I blithely chose only to find out why no one else had chosen them before: They were rocky and dusty and left me with bloody feet. Plus, they were dead-ends.

Somebody asked me a few weeks ago how I got into this mess with dogs. It has nothing to do with not having children, though that always ranks high on my regret list. It does, however, have a lot to do with the annual birthday regret party of 2006. It was three days after I turned 47 that I made the decision to call the vet and end of the life of my 17-year-old cairn terrier, Seamus, who was by then completely deaf and almost blind; incontinent and slow and growing an apparently malignant tumor on his tongue. People around me — neighbors, a boyfriend at the time — scolded me for not making the call sooner. “You prolonged his pain to postpone your own,” chided one particularly sensitive dog expert next door. I disagree to this day: I knew Seamus and he knew me, and he let me know when he was done.

I knew Seamus and he knew me. He was born on my 30th birthday.

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Among the 86 percent

One evening a couple of weeks ago, I shouted to a psychotherapist friend of mine across the field at obedience practice, “Hey, what is that thing that happens to you when you fail over and over and over again? When you don’t get rewarded for behavior you think is right and you stop trying?”

“Learned helplessness,” she shouted back. “All-too common in obedience dogs.”

Working the pileRight. Learned helplessness. It refers to a discovery psycho-behaviorist Martin Seligman made in the late 1960s while messing with the minds of dogs; dogs exposed to electric shocks and offered no way out stoppedtrying to escape even when a solution became clear. A less dismal version of a similar phenomenon is what Ur-clicker-trainer Karen Pryor calls “extinction”: You,
the rat, hit the lever over and over and no little piece of food comes out. You, the dog, scratch on the box where the scent is and yet never hear the click and get the Charlie Bear. You, the human, venture into the competition ring over and over again and yet never get to stand with the judge and other qualifying teams and receive that little green ribbon that says success. You get anxious. Depressed. Eventually you stop trying.

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