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All Posts by Roxanne Hawn

Snowflakes falling on my working dog head

The snowflakes came in big and fast. Biscuit Eaters, the agility field where we often train in Boulder, looked like a Hollywood set, with oversized, impossibly fluffy flakes sweeping in. Other than our voices and the chug of panting dogs, the air rang with winter’s silence. I ran the sequence – jump, jump, tire … with a hard left before the tire. Except after I made the turn, I realized Lilly wasn’t with me. Instead, she crouched between jump #2 and the tire. The huge snowflakes stuck to her from head to tail. She looked forlorn, as if God was pelting her with rocks. Our trainer shook her head in dismay and said, “You have a working dog who’s afraid of snow.”

Mind you, we live above 8,000 feet in the Rocky Mountains. Lilly knows snow, plays in it all the time, but something about working and thinking and running a short agility sequence loomed heavy. She simply couldn’t think straight with those big flakes popping her on the nose.

I just laughed. My sensitive, smart working dog. 

This is my life with a “soft” dog. That’s dog training lingo for sensitive, shy, fearful dogs.

Yes, wild, out of control dogs make for great reading – a la “Marley & Me,” but having a soft dog generates its own brand of humor. The next weekend as I regaled my friends with the tale of Lilly’s reaction to snow, some said, “I heard.”

So, you know, great [eyeroll] to be famous for training a working dog with flaws.

Word got around. We were somewhat the butt of jokes, but that’s OK with me. The laughter came with sympathy attached — most of the time. [There will always be people who suck and gossip.]

I guess working dog and dogs at work kinda similar in that way.

working dog graphic - stack of file folders

It’s not just snow that shuts Lilly down. Planes or geese flying overhead cause her to glaze over too. Dry leaves rustling in the wind, whining dogs on the sidelines, big trucks or buses rumbling set her on edge.

When we began learning the chute (a collapsed fabric tunnel the dog must push through), I learned quickly that the command “chute” caused her to slink off course.

It sounded like “shoot,” which Lilly knows as a cuss word. I didn’t realize how much I “shoot” my way through a typical day of writing until Lilly pointed out this flaw. Since she practically lives in the knee hole of my desk while I write, she’s learned “shoot” means something bad. (I realize it’s also tone of voice, but with her vocab, I’m pretty sure she recognizes the word too.)

So, for us, the chute is called “Push,” as in push-push-push your way through – not a simple task for a shy dog.

It’s not all bad, though. Some fears subside.

Lilly no longer cowers under the bed when I vacuum. She no longer flees in terror if I accidentally squeak the Styrofoam egg carton when I’m putting it back in the fridge. She’s stopped giving me stink eye, when I ride my mountain bike on the stationary trainer. At first, the zzz-zzz-zzz of my wheels made her crabby.

Yet, other things don’t faze her at all. We did early obedience proofing at the fire station up the road, and the noise fire trucks did not bother her. She thinks nothing of the motorcycle noise, when my husband rides in the pasture. In fact, they’ve devised a game, where he rides very slowly and lets her herd him.

Heck, neighbors saw Lilly jump on a coyote’s back and ride it out of the creek bed (with our big dog Ginko, chasing from behind). And, I once had a huge elk buck running straight for me, with Lilly hot on his tail.

A thousand-pound elk? No problem.

A stack of papers falling off my desk … holy terror.

My fetching monster

My rotator cuff hurts. Shooting pains when I work out. Razor-thin stabs when I sleep. I blamed a mistake during a workout, until the real cause crept to mind. My shoulder hurts because I play so much fetch with Lilly. And, here’s the thing … As a pup, Lilly hated fetching. So, it’s entirely my fault.

At first, she simply didn’t understand the game.

With the disdain only a smart dog can muster, Lilly looked at me like I was a complete idiot. I swear she thought, “I just brought that back. Why did you throw it again?”

When our first obedience trainer recommended fetch as the perfect way to burn off an active dog’s excess energy, he conceded that some of us quietly thought, “Great. My dog won’t play fetch.”

Add in a few expletives, and that’s pretty much defines my inner dialogue that day.

Fetching Food

His solution? Play fetch with food. No, the dog doesn’t actually bring back the food. But throwing it sets up the pattern of running back and forth. Over time, you introduce the ball (or whatever) and trade it for food on the return.

The process, he reminded us, also introduced the chance to train several commands:
– Fetch
– Come
– Drop it

It worked. So, if your dog won’t fetch, I highly recommend it.

Granted, the category of item Lilly deigns to fetch is limited to a very special foam-filled ball, certain stuffed toys, and (I kid you not) sticks, including kindling she steals from the wood pile.

My girl, who once turned her small black nose sneered at even the idea of fetch, now simply won’t stop. She’s relentless in ways beyond enumeration.

I’m lucky in one respect. While she waits me out, staring intently in hopes I might throw the toy, she is mostly silent. (Like right now, she’s quietly fixated on my every move.) My husband, however, isn’t so fortunate. She’s figured out how to bark until Daddy gives in. And, he always does.

He’s Captain Chaos to her General Disarray (full credit to “South Park” for those hilarious puns).

But, I too throw the ball. I throw, and throw, and throw.

We even play fetch with snowballs sometimes.

fetching - happy dog face

Lilly, after paintball poisoning day 8

Fetching – Applied Math

Lilly drove me to applied math theory to our fetching efforts. Using fetch to tame Lilly’s bottomless energy requires intricate calculations:

12 tosses x hilly terrain = 1 hour of peace

25 tosses x flat pasture =  1, maybe 2, hours of quiet

50 tosses x any surface = an evening off

Now … if only I could teach her to throw the ball herself. (My shoulder needs a rest.) The person who invented flyball must have had the same thought about making crazy fetching dogs happier.

What kind of dog is that? Smooth coat border collie

People stop me all the time to ask what kind of dog Lilly is. Some have guessed Canaan dog. Others think Kelpie. Both of which are not common at all. Those without a guess usually say, “What kind of dog is that? She looks like a fox.” And, when I say, she’s a smooth coat border collie, countless people (including those who work in pet businesses) say “border collie mix”? or “Really?” … like I’m making it up.

Yes, really.

While border collies with smooth coats, rather than rough ones, are not as common nor as familiar, they are well known in border collie circles. They simply have smoother coats and more angular features.

And, here’s a shocker, not all smooth coat border collies are black and white. Some are even tri-colored.

Smooth coat border collie

Yes, Lilly came from a shelter without any pedigree papers. However, thanks to the AKC’s ILP (indefinite listing privilege) program — now called PAL (purebred alternative listing), she’s recognized as a purebred smooth coat border collie. That means she can compete in AKC events like agility or herding, but not conformation. That’s the formal name of what regular folks call a “dog show.”

To receive an ILP, I had to prove she is spayed. I also completed a detailed application that included information about her height at the withers, her weight, her build, and her instincts to show how she met the breed standard. I sent photos, and I included a letter of recommendation from the Rocky Mountain Border Collie Rescue volunteer who evaluated Lilly before she was put up for adoption. She essentially wrote … “Yep, that’s a border collie.” And, Lilly was approved.

Now, it honestly doesn’t matter to me if my dogs are pure-bred or mixed breeds. The only reason it’s important for Lilly to have this designation is so that she can compete in AKC agility events when (if ever) she’s ready. There are other agility venues who allow dogs of all breeds and mixes, but in Colorado there is a preponderance of AKC events. So, if you want to do this a lot (and not have to travel out of state), there you go.

smooth coat border collie dog blog champion of my heart

Answers to common questions

So, to recap my answers to the most common questions:

Yes, she’s a border collie.

No, she’s not particularly small. She’s dead-on the breed standard for size.

No, they are not all this shy, but (as I’ve mentioned before) they each have their own brand of crazy.

Yes, she’s very smart and very active.

Yes, she really can jump (as high as my head) and does it all the time when she’s happy. In fact, if I don’t see it coming, she’s given me bloody noses, a fat lip, and broken sunglasses.

Thank you. Yes, she’s the Champion of my Heart.

From scared to scholar

Once I got Lilly out of the car at her first official obedience class, I had a hard time convincing her to get up off the ground. Once I got her off the ground, she didn’t want to go into the building. Once I got her in the building, she hid under my chair and bared her teeth (in fear) at anything that moved. She was about 9 months old, and things looked dismal. Any kind of dog training win seemed impossible. 

Teaching myself as much or more than Lilly

Contrary to popular thought, obedience classes teach people as much or more than the dogs. I wasn’t there to teach Lilly how to be a good girl. I was there to learn how to communicate with my new pal, who was nervous but anxious to please.

Accustomed to my requests being ignored, after 14+ years with a beautiful-but-ornery dalmatian named Penelope Grace, Lilly came as a revelation. She really listens to me. She has potential for maybe a dog training win or two.

I quickly learned to give her space from the other pups so that she wouldn’t fixate on them with the classic border collie “eye” used to control sheep. With some personal space and rewards for focusing on me, Lilly shined in class.

She loved training at home each day. And, week after week in class, she worked her heart out. We’d found the key to teamwork.

Oh, yeah!

My favorite moment came in about week six. With all the dogs in down-stays and us across the room, the trainer taunted them with noisy toys as he paced the line. It’s called “proofing.” In other words, will the dogs stay steady amid distraction?

Lilly didn’t budge. Even when the trainer came by with a rubber chicken that made an ungodly noise, my sound-reactive girl held strong.

dog training win graphic - chicken icon

Then, a large, young yellow lab next to her lost it. He simply couldn’t stay one … more … second. He leapt to his feet and displayed a textbook case of “the zoomies.” That’s when a young, playful dog ricochets around the room. It set off a chain reaction of broken stays, as dogs couldn’t resist the invitation to play.

Lilly calmly took in the scene, never breaking her stay, despite the other pups doing their best impression of popcorn. Pop … golden retriever. Pop … black lab. Pop … sheltie.

Gibraltar in a sea of motion, Lilly stayed – even when the pup that started it all soaked her with sloppy kisses from tip to tail.

I watched my Einstein in a room full of class clowns, and I was proud.

We took a final exam in week 8. Set up like a rally obedience ring, like a car rally, we took turns heeling our dogs through a course. Various stops required different maneuvers – sit, down, standing stay and such. We heeled quickly and slowly. We made right turns and left turns. We stopped and started in unison.

The exam also required long, group sit-stays and down-stays as well as at least one individual trick. The trainer had and ribbons for all that passed, but I knew we had a shot at the top spot.

First, big dog training win

There was one dog in the room that could have beaten us, a German shepherd, but he fell apart in the ring and blew off several commands from his handler. At that point, I leaned over to my pal Crystal, who came to support me since my hubby was in training all weekend, and said, “We’re going to win.”

I was right (first overall, second in tricks). Lilly was nearly flawless. She scored 196 out of 200, only docked points for lagging a bit, heeling a little wide in a turn, and sniffing the ground.

Her stand for exam nearly made me cry. It’s a big deal for a shy dog to stand still while a stranger touched her. I think someone actually gasped in awe when I said “Freeze,” used our hand signal for it, and walked away without doubt or hesitation. She didn’t move a muscle.

Remember the yellow lab? Well, he went into the ring next, and I’ll never forget his mother’s voice as she headed to the start line, “Oh, great! We get to follow Lilly.”

(To his credit, that pup earned a trophy for most improved, and he did graduate.)

An expanded version of this dog training win post appears in a book called My Dog is My Hero.

dog is my hero book cover

Enter “Typhoid Lil”

Canine medical drama stalks me, including having a parvo puppy. I’ve spent many thousands of dollars on veterinary care for every dog I’ve ever had. As a pup, Lilly was no different.

Parvo puppy in the house!

Just 24 hours after she arrived at home, doctors admitted Lilly into intensive care. She’d become feverish, lethargic, and all around sick to her stomach. I knew it was parvovirus, a much-dreaded, highly contagious killer of puppies that swept onto the scene in the mid-1970s.

I knew because we’d been through it with our big boy Ginko when he was a pup. Parvo dogs have a certain look to them. And, not to be gross, but they also smell. It’s something you never forget.

I called ahead to warn the 24-hour emergency hospital we were coming. After a parvo quick-test, kind of like a strep test, except you swab the rear, the veterinarian and nurse returned, gowned for serious germ warfare, and took Lilly straight to the isolation ward.

I was right.

parvo puppy graphic -- three arrows stuck in a bullseye target

They gave our parvo puppy medications to control vomiting and such. They gave her IV fluids and hyper-immune plasma transfusions. They gave her antibiotics to control any secondary bacterial infections that can crop up when a pup’s immune system is under such attack (intestines, bone marrow, lymph nodes).

Parvo puppy outcomes

There is no cure for parvovirus – only supportive care. There is, of course, a vaccination for it. Lilly had been vaccinated at the shelter, but she was likely exposed before that. The virus can live in contaminated environments for a year. Even when symptoms subside, puppies shed the virus for a month.

In 2006, I interviewed a veterinary immunologist for an article on a new distemper vaccine. He explained that each parvo puppy either does or does not survive parvo based on their own strength.

I credited doctors. He credited Lilly.

(He also told me that the parvo scare in the 1970s is what led to what many today consider “over-vaccination.” Essentially, this virus was wiping out puppies in droves. Once a vaccine was found, veterinarians developed aggressive booster protocols … just to be sure.)

And, then more medical worries

After the parvo, however, she caught kennel cough, which she shared with Ginko. Then, she got pneumonia – requiring chest X-rays, tons of antibiotics, etc. It took weeks of treatment, including – I kid you not – prescription cough syrup, to wipe out.

Lest we relax too much, we soon noticed that Ginko’s muzzle, his snout, didn’t look quite right. It seemed lumpy and puffy. Allergies? We wondered. Irritation? We thought.

Our veterinarian was stumped too, until I joked, “Maybe it’s Toxic Lilly Lips … you know, she does kiss and nibble on him.”

Turns out, Lilly accidentally bit Ginko’s face. The injury had healed from the outside, sealing the infection inside. My handsome boy had become overstuffed in the nose area. His snout ultimately swelled to three times its normal size. (Sorry, I don’t have photos of that.)

More antibiotics … plus, we had to scrub his nose twice a day with peroxide to make sure the infection healed from the inside out. And, it did.

I’m happy to say since then Lilly has been the picture of health (knock on wood), but in fall of 2004 my dreams of a new laptop faded as the money went instead to veterinary care … just as it had when Ginko blew out both knees and needed massive knee surgery.

***

Alas, my early optimism turned out to be wrong. Read more about the rare medical drama that ultimately killed our amazing Lilly. 

From Whence She Came: shy dog

The harvest moon rises as a young border collie — a shy dog —  follows a scent through a field, recently picked clean of its haul. Thinking, sniffing, poking along … she makes her way over the furrows, not realizing how far she’s wandered from home. As darkness settles, a growing chill shakes her focus. She can’t see or hear anything familiar. She spends a long, cold night alone and waits.

shy dog - lilly a b/w border collie in a field of purple wildflowers and green grassEvents that unfold next and in the coming days do little to assuage her fears. Strange man. Truck. Cage. Concrete floors. Barking dogs. Too much noise. Then, strange house. Nice people. Long car ride. Another strange place. Doctors, shots, surgery.

Fate?

And, then she met me. I named her Lilly.

I honestly don’t know much about Lilly’s life before we adopted her from the shelter. This musing comes from an imagined scenario based on what the shelter staff told me and what I now know about how Lilly perceives her world – a shy dog much like an autistic child, easily overwhelmed by noise, movement, and new situations.

Lilly spent time in an old-fashioned, dog-pound-type shelter in rural, Eastern Colorado. She also lived with a foster family in the local border collie rescue network for a bit. (I have them to thank for her impeccable housetraining.) Through a transfer, she ended up at a modern humane society near me.

Lilly passed her evaluations, got spayed, then I adopted her the very next day.

Questions

People often ask why Lilly is a shy dog, so fearful. It’s easy to assume it had something to do with her life before us.

She’s absolutely terrified of paper rustling. The first time I tore a page from a notepad, I thought she would jump out of her skin. Did someone swat her with a newspaper for piddling on the carpet?

Lilly hates to be pursued and picked up, cowering and shuffling along the ground like a little black-and-white hovercraft. Does that mean she was beaten?

Guesses

Such skittishness is frowned upon in true working dogs. Was she cast aside, unwanted?

Lilly can jump higher than my head without even trying. Is she merely an accomplished escape artist who gets bored?

Honestly, I do not know.

Then, again, what do we really know about the dogs in our lives? People with well-bred and pampered border collies joke about their dogs’ random fears – scotch tape, newspaper ads with animals on them, umbrellas … you name it.

Tell certain folks you live with a border collie, and be prepared for mock sympathy: “I’m so sorry.” People who know them know they can be a touch past crazy.

Simply herself

So, maybe Lilly simply is as she is.

An animal communicator talked to Lilly a while back. She asked about Lilly’s life pre-me. Her take was that perhaps Lilly’s first home included a young boy, who loved her but was not allowed to keep her.

The transcript of the session goes on to say: “Lilly has found her home, and rather than looking back, she looks to the future. She holds no grudge, no bad feelings. It appears she was happy in the shelter (to a point) and always knew that you would pick her up!”

And: “Your energy is good for her. She feels as though she has found her place … She really knows her role and embraces it fully. She feels that it will lead to greater messages for others along the way. Do not be surprised when she brings new things your way.”

Living with a brilliant, fearful dog brings life itself to a new level. There is the story and the story. Lilly is both. That, in part, is why I still hold a glimmer of hope about what’s possible. Surely, Lilly isn’t here to teach me about failure. I get plenty of that in my life as a writer.

Why Champion of My Heart? Dog Training Realities

When we adopted Lilly from the Humane Society of Boulder Valley in October 2004, I harbored no visions of canine championships of any sort. Honestly, I didn’t know such options existed for dog training. Other than “show dogs.” I joke that before Lilly my dog training experience was of the Petsmart variety. No offense.

On the advice of a shelter volunteer, who also works with a local border collie rescue, we looked into formal obedience training. Then we added agility training for Lilly. Such a high-energy girl, even at 6 months old, needed an outlet for all that brain power and pent up speed.

Dog training successes

Lilly thrived in her classes. She learned. She mastered. She worked hard.

I met great people, amazing dogs, and learned about the competitive options open to dogs of all kinds – in obedience, in rally, in agility, and other areas. And, I bought into the dream.

There’s even a Yahoo group (ha ha … remember those?) for people who do agility (the doggie obstacle course sport) with issue-prone rescued dogs. Titles, titles … everywhere.

I’ll admit that I mist up as I watch friends and their dogs earn championship titles. It’s an emotional moment. The crowd goes dead quiet as the handler-dog team step to the start line. People know it could be their final run to earn the championship title. Everyone holds their breath as the dog speeds over jumps, through tunnels, and across teeter-totters. Waiting. Hoping for perfection (because at that level zero mistakes allowed). The goal? Clean run.

We watch the dog, but we also watch the judge, hoping her hands don’t fly into the air signaling a mistake.

It’s over in less than a minute.

Often the final obstacle is a jump with PVC bars, marking the height. As the dog clears that final bar, without knocking it down, the crowd erupts in cheers. Then, the handler grabs the final bar (often painted gold for the occasion). The pair then turns to run a victory lap around the course with dog flying high.

Typically dogs go straight to their leashes after an agility run, so they get this funny, confused look on their faces when mommy or daddy turns and runs the other way back onto the course. But, they love the sport so much that they happily oblige with an encore.

Training mishaps

In tales I will soon share, I’ll explain why I’ve (nearly) accepted that Lilly and I may never experience such victory, despite her early promise in training. Ultimately, I hope to deliver a bigger story of redemption, of a literal underdog who makes good, but only time (and hard work) will tell.

Until then, I’ve bestowed Lilly with the dog training championship title CHOMH (champion of my heart).

Next up … From whence she came.

In the beginning … creating a dog blog

It’s Friday, April 13, perhaps not the most auspicious day to launch a dog blog, to start a new venture. Then again, trusting the power of passion works for me, and today, I felt exponentially compelled (after months of pondering) to begin telling the tale of my life with the beautiful, brilliant, and always challenging Lilly Elizabeth, a rescued border collie with whom I share every minute (since I’m a writer who works at home).

Lest you think my life overly dog-centric, I’ll add that my lively little family includes my darling husband Tom and his amazingly sweet lab/greyhound mix Ginko Cornelius. That is how it works here at 8,000 feet in the Rocky Mountains — 2 boys (Tom & Ginko), 2 girls (Rox & Lilly). The end.

We live in a high mountain valley in Colorado and joke that it’s a gated community since many folks lock their cattle gates. It’s scenic and quiet, and to brag just a bit, I cannot see a single man-made thing from my office window.

My intention is not so much to diary-style dog blog as it is to play with the personal essay as storytelling vehicle, where the is the story … and THE story.

We will see how it goes.

Next up — why I called it Champion of My Heart.

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