Citizen’s arrest

The first time I heard people announce the reproductive status of their dogs, I thought, “Who cares?” It sounded to me like Gomer in that episode of The Andy Griffith Show, where he makes a citizen’s arrest. When people come in repeating, “Intact male,” all I hear is Gomer saying, “Citizen’s arrest.”

After spending a few weeks at rally obedience classes, however, I realized just what a big deal that can be. These dogs present with a certain attitide, a certain presence, a certain I don’t know what. It’s no wonder Lilly responded … in this case, negatively.

You see, most of my friends live with rescued dogs who are altered. Lilly never had a problem with them. But, we already know that she’s super sensitive, super soft, bordering on autistic when it comes to noise and motion and high-strung energy.

In early 2007, after more than a year of shutting down at agility, she began snarking at any dog in the building at rally.

Along with rally, there were CGC classes, conformation classes, and competitive obedience classes, so the whole place was brimming with intact dogs who were trained to carry themselves in a way Lilly found intimidating. She even told our animal communicator that she felt the dogs “mocked” her.

Sadly, even though I pulled her after just a few weeks, she transferred her new fear of other dogs to all other training venues — even her favorite work-and-play class with Gigi Moss (our big-picture trainer). I was crushed. It had always been the one place Lilly showed continued progress. It was the one place she seemed like her real self (the confident, smart, most excellent girl I know and love).

It’s taken me 5+ months to unravel the behavior pattern that started at rally, which we tried as a way to build ring confidence. The goal was succeed there in hopes it would carry over into agility. Instead, it added to our training challenges in a most unwelcome way.

I’m not necessarily saying there is a cause-and-effect relationship here. In my quest to solve the mysteries of Lilly, I simply spend a lot of time looking for correlations, for changes that match our timeline of behavioral reactions. And, the pattern of fear-aggression toward other dogs started at rally, where there were a whole lot of intact dogs.

Attempted fixes

As Lilly’s agility meltdown worsened, and transferred to other venues, I assembled a vast team of people and suggestions in hopes of solving the issue. Here’s a recap of what I’ve tried, with limited success and innumerable setbacks.

What I have tried:

Changing trainers and training locations

Trying socialization work to agility environments

Taking easier group classes, several clicks below Lilly’s known skill level

Allowing Lilly to interact with other dogs she really liked as lures and rewards during class

Letting Lilly just run around and relax with other dogs before and after class

Taking her for walks around the nearby ponds before and after class so that she associates more fun things with the agility location

Breaking myself of habits that Lilly perceived as corrections and using much bigger rewards (like jackpots) for breakthroughs

Incorporating more play into training (great idea, except Lilly rarely lets loose and plays anymore if other dogs are around … even when I have the best ball (or toy) that normally turns her into a wild monkey girl)

Allowing a longer time span between vaccination boosters (She had a bad reaction to vaccinations in early 2005, which preceded the early meltdown stages. I’m not saying cause and effect. I’m just pointing to a link in the timeline.)

Ignoring her fear behavior (with the idea, I now know is totally wrong, that interacting with her at all only reinforced the fear)

Climbing onto equipment myself to show it’s safe (used after we lost our dog walk due to teeter fear since they look alike on approach)

Using the bang-treat method of teeter training

Trying to desensitize her to recorded teeter noise

Regularly using many nutritional supplements, including strong multivitamin/mineral, essential fatty acids, and Chinese herbs (2 different kinds)

Using Nutracalm (a prescription-type herbal tranquilizer of sorts), both as a daily maintenance dose and/or before class

Using homeopathic solutions, including Rescue Remedy and a confab of 5 different things, both regular use and in the moment

Asking an animal communicator to ask Lilly what’s wrong, what I can do to help, etc.

Using accupressure points, used in the moment to help calm her down

Taking up an outdoor, low-key, work-and-play class (drop in) to keep her working when taking a break from agility

Taking up Rally Obedience training as a way to build ring confidence

Taking long breaks from ALL classes

Using Click-to-Calm behavior modification strategies

Using of DAP (dog appeasing pheromone) to help keep her calm during class (sprayed in her crate for the drive to class and on a bandana she wears at class)

What I have not tried (yet):

As of yet, I have NOT tried having detailed thyroid testing done because both our family veterinarian and our holistic veterinarian did not think the tests were necessary.

I also have NOT tried thulia (not sure on spelling), which I’m told is used to treat vaccinosis. Again, our holistic veterinarian did not suggest this as an option.

I’ve NOT yet caved into suggestions from our veterinarian and others that we try anti-depressants because I fear negative side-effects and the trauma of coming off them, should they not work.

Tell me your story!
I’d love to hear your story, if you have one, especially if the solution wasn’t a simple one. Sure, it’s nice to meet people who say things like, “Oh, my dog used to be shy like that, but once I did (insert painfully simple thing here), he was just fine.” But, I’d also love to know of examples, where it took years of hard work to turn a shy dog around.

I’ll chip away at the problem bit by bit, but once in a while my faith that there’s really a diamond beneath the crud needs a boost.

The expected and the unexpected

This weekend, Lilly added a new caveat to her pantheon of peccadilloes. The rule – she won’t run agility at the training field unless no one else is there – morphed into she won’t run agility unless no one is there when we arrive AND the entire time we’re there. I thought if we just waited until everyone left she would be fine. I was wrong.

She watched the final two dogs leave. I even walked her around the field on leash to prove we were alone, but it did not matter. There were dogs there when we arrived, and she refused to work.

As you can see from this photo, her body and face seem relaxed. Her ears are up. Her head is up. When I looked closely, however, I could see that she was shaking a little sometimes. Like shivering, through her smiles.

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It could have been worse. She could have reacted badly to the dogs. Instead, she just retreated. She even stayed calm with another dog came over to hang out and share her shade. He was laying right there with her, playing with his rubber chicken, and she was totally fine.

Maybe this had something to do with it.

No praise for you

Being a full-time freelance writer means working from an internal stash of motivation and drive (and lots of chocolate) because there certainly isn’t anyone popping by my home office giving me pats on the back. In fact, most of the feedback I get from day to day, week to week, is about what needs improvement. That *is* editing, after all. So, it’s not like I’m the kind of gal who needs a lot of hand-holding. Yet, early in our agility career, derision felt like the norm in training. And, it wore me down.

I’ve mentioned before going months as a very green handler without ever hearing a single word of praise for my efforts. Not one.

When I accidentally did a blind cross (where you turn your back and assume your dog is coming up behind you), I got lectured on how only “show-off” handlers did blind crosses. Newbies like me were more likely to end up with a snout right in the caboose.

Let’s be clear: I didn’t even know what a blind cross was. I couldn’t feel or see the difference between what I was asked to do and what I was really doing. Turns out, I’m spatially challenged, but that’s a story for later.

When we first learned contacts, I heard all about the la-di-da  handlers who taught dogs to stop with two feet on the contact and two feet on the ground. Trust me the tone of this soliloquy was entirely negative.

(For what it’s worth, a lot of people are going away from this contact method due to shoulder injuries in dogs as a result of stopping from a full sprint down a steep slope.)

I don’t mind strong opinions, but I do mind when they are not balanced with at least a little bit of concession that others believe otherwise. Tell me opinions vary. Tell me there are debates on the topic. But don’t tell me or imply that everyone else is an idiot and you know everything.

Sorry, but the journalist, the skeptic I am, automatically thinks you are full of beans.

Happily, I got myself and Lilly out of Dodge quickly and found more supportive and constructive trainers, who can point out exactly what’s going wrong without making me feel like a chump. Even when they do laugh with me (or even at me), it’s totally fine because I’m making the kinds of mistakes that most new handlers make, and it is kind of funny.

I once tripped and landed face first, after Lilly shot out of a tunnel, and we headed for the A-frame. C’mon that’s funny. I was totally fine. It happens.

I have made friends, and there are social aspects to agility. But, I realize now that dog training can be a lonely endeavor, especially if you have a dog with any issues.

It’s hard, solitary work sometimes. It’s just me and Lilly and our collective challenges. I need better body awareness because she notices everything. She needs my support to build confidence.

I often wish I had someone to follow me around and click/treat me with chocolate for my efforts. Or, at least to say, “Good try.”

Tricks – Roll It

Sure, Lilly knows all kinds of regular tricks like shake, high-five, and rollover. In addition to all the agility things she later learned, Lilly originally jumped through a hoola-hoop and snuck across the floor on her belly. But, I’m always looking for ways to up the ante. So, I got out my exercise ball last summer and came up with something new.

It’s called Roll It, where Lilly pushes the ball in front of her, while walking behind it. She can go straight for long distances. She can make turns. It’s pretty funny. We do this up and down the driveway. People stare.

Once upon a teeter

The one and only time Lilly did the competition-sized teeter I nearly cried with joy. It was a fluke that’s yet to be repeated. So, months of endless frustration followed those brief moments of happiness. Here’s how it happened …

We popped by Biscuit Eaters, the training field we use in Boulder, for a quick drop-in practice. Alone on the course, Lilly played with abandon. (Remember, she’s fine alone but slow or totally shut down if other people and dogs are around. It’s like training Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.)

So, we ran a few short sequences, then played. Work, play. Work, play.

We rounded a turn, and I called “weave.” My body must have told her something different because she blew off the weave poles and ran half-way up the big teeter, which she typically gives wide berth – ever since another dog banged it in January 2005. (I’ve been screwed ever since. We hadn’t introduced it yet, and it scared her to death.)

She realized her mistake and ran back down toward me. She seemed really jazzed, though, so I thought what the heck. We circled back to pick up the weaves. She carried such speed out of the final pole that I called “Lilly, Teeter.”

And, she flew. No hesitation. No worry. No pause at the middle. Just sprint, tip, bang. Lilly even held her two-on, two-off contact.

I started praising like mad, dropped to my knees, and opened her jackpot bowl. I let her eat everything in it.

She seemed thrilled with herself for about three heartbeats. Thump-thump, thump-thump, thump-thump. Then, she freaked, realizing what she’d done (I guess).

She tucked tail and slunk off to hide near her toy bag along the fence. Moment over.

I cajoled her into playing some more and tried again later, but no luck. Refusal.

So, I jacked the adjustable teeter up to near-full height and tried that instead. Run, tip, bang. Perfect. Over and over. So, the day wasn’t a total loss. Then again, she’s been doing the adjustable one for more than a year.

I know a lot of other handlers wish their dogs thought more, made better decisions on course. I have the opposite problem. My sweetie girl thinks too much, worries too much.

But, for that one moment, she forgot everything and ran.

Size and sensibility

“Your dog needs to drop 3-5 pounds.” So began our first-ever
private agility lesson with a handler who has been on the AKC world team. I
thought Lilly looked great at 39 pounds, so I must have made a face because the
next thing she said, dropping her sunglasses just enough to make eye contact,
“This is agility, not conformation.”

And, she was right. Lilly looks phenomenal at 34-35 pounds.
Yes, compared to your typical pet dog, she looks skinny. Stand her next to a
bunch of agility dogs, however, and she looks just right.

The growing girth of people and of pets sets up what trend
experts call “normalization,” where the average, overweight body looks like the
norm, even though it’s not.

It’s like the time I wrote about the marriage of two
professional Ironman triathletes for The New York Times. I was one of very few
non-triathletes at the wedding, and I felt like a moose. Seriously, these
people have body fat percentages in the single digits.

It’s the same with agility dogs. Hang around them much, and
suddenly regular dogs look huge. And, honestly, many of them are.

I feel compelled to remind my veterinarian each time he sees
Lilly that she’s a performance dog. I make sure he knows that’s why I keep her
so lean. He always smiles and says Lilly looks perfect. I guess he too sees too
many fat pets, too much suffering from the long-term effects of excess weight.

My friend JoAnn (Hey, JoAnn!) runs some fast Labs – Chaos,
Hottie, and Bosco. The dogs also hunt, so they don’t look anything like the pet
Labs living in so many homes. You know the ones. They look like big brown,
black, or yellow coffee tables. A little thick and wide.

JoAnn jokingly calls these other Labs “pigadors.”

It’s not just about looks, however. There are serious physical
dangers for agility dogs to carry too much weight through all those jumps, over
all those years.

So, next time you see a dog that looks a little thin,
remember she might be deeply loved, just not with too much food.

Eulogy for my friend Jody


Devastating grief compels me to go completely off topic today. I’m sad to report the suicide of a long-time friend. She was a brilliant, funny, most excellent woman, and I am crushed by her loss (as are so many of our shared friends). As my way of coping, I often draft a list of lessons I’ve learned from friends and family who have died. Here’s my list from Jody:

Lessons I Learned from Jody

Novels make more sense when you skip certain parts now and go back later.

Cinnamon toast and real hot cocoa are the perfect afternoon snack

Chatting start to finish makes baseball games more fun.

Men who obsess about condiments aren’t worth the bother.

To emphasize your point, slip your hair behind your ears, gesture wildly with your hands, and use outrageous analogies.

Live your politics in your heart.

Keep laughter in your eyes.

And, when the path you’re on doesn’t seem right, make a change.


The sport of dog training

People who do not know better talk about agility as a sport only for dogs, like the dogs run and work alone, like they magically do all these advanced behaviors without any input. Even friends and family seem amused (at best) at our continual pursuit of canine learning. At our peak, we took three classes a week (one obedience, one rally, one agility). I call them all “puppy class” as a recognizable phrase for Lilly, and maybe that’s where I go wrong.

I’d venture to guess that 99% of dogs that do attend some sort of class at some point stop going after puppyhood. I’m pretty sure most dog owners consider basic obedience the end all and be all of training.

The flip side of that are pals whose dogs have played on agility equipment once or twice, then they talk about how good their dogs are at “agility.” Uhm, yeah. Sorry. Not the same thing.

Pardon the rant.

Before Lilly, I too thought just a little training early on would suffice, but now I know better. Thanks to her, I see it as a nearly lifelong pursuit of mental stimulation, exercise and socialization. Without it, I’m sure she’d be completely mental.

As Helen Phillips, an experienced handler here in CO, puts it in her email signature, “No dog comes out of the package bored; he only gets that way when his handler takes some of the fun out of life!”

Currently, Lilly and I train at least a little each day at home. We make at least one or two public outings per week so that she can practice being brave in new situations. And, we take one drop-in advanced class on either Wednesday or Sunday. (I hope to add agility classes back in soon.)

Public pressure made me feel a little odd, a little obsessed until I read the following in Patricia McConnell’s “For the Love of a Dog: Understanding Emotion in You and Your Best Friend”:

“… if your dog’s emotions are causing behavioral problems, don’t hesitate to seek professional advice. Even the best tennis player in the world has a coach, and dog training is a sport as much as anything else.” (page xv)


“The biggest difference between dog lovers and professional dog trainers is that the pros know exactly what their bodies are doing when they’re working with a dog, so they don’t confuse their dogs with random and inconsistent movements. That’s why I think of dog training as a science, a sport, and an art – and it’s the sport part that everyone can learn if they are willing to practice a little bit.” (page 97)

Stomach of steel

Lilly is extremely travel worthy. She’s pretty quiet. She doesn’t throw up. She mostly sleeps when I have to leave her in the car at the mall or whatever (windows down, sunshade up, etc.). In the way-back of my 4Runner, inside her hard-sided crate, she’s perfectly happy to motor along even though the first 20 minutes and the last 20 minutes of every trip include a windy canyon drive. If you’d like proof of her intestinal prowess, check out this video I found on YouTube.

It shows some guys on sport bikes (aka crotch rockets) blasting up the canyon at dangerous speeds. (Notice the speedometer in the foreground.)


Based in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado (USA), Roxanne Hawn is a veteran journalist and author.


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