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Category Archives for Musings

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.

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.

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)

Which came first?

As our training saga went from days to weeks, weeks to
months, months to (goodness help me) more than a year, people began asking me
why I don’t just let Lilly stay home and get another agility dog to train and
run competitively. It’s an interesting idea, which begs the question … Which
came first, the dog or the sport?

For me, the answer is clearly the dog. Lilly is my puppy
girl, my best friend, my near constant companion. We do agility because she
needs it. And, despite everything, I know she loves it, even if she never

We first bonded over early medical drama and then training
and then training problems. Replacing her with another dog would feel like infidelity.
And, I’m nothing if not loyal to the ones I love.

I feel bad enough for Ginko, our big lab-greyhound, when he
makes sad faces every time Lilly and I head outside without him to train,
attend classes, or run errands. But, the truth is that he’s perfectly content
to just hang out, chew on the same ball … all … day … long. (I’m not kidding.)
Sure, he likes to go places in the car. He likes walks, and he gets to do those
things, but technically he’s daddy’s boy. Lilly is mommy’s girl.

I’ve tried teaching him a few agility things, but he shows
zero interest. None.

Want to go, go, go? Lilly’s your gal.

But, if you want to take a nap, then Ginko is your man. (In
fact, we might be headed for a little snoozle soon.)

While I wait and work for a resolution to Lilly’s fears, I
might start asking pals to practice handling their dogs for fun, but that’s
about it.

I cannot imagine simply moving on to another dog because I
find the sport so compelling.

As that saying goes – “My dog is not a tool I use to excel
in agility. Agility is a tool I use to excel in my dog.” (CJD)

I have no idea who CJD is, but I agree with the sentiment.

Shifting expectations

Maybe all new handlers think the same thing, but I honestly imagined Lilly could be quite an agility dog. Her early learning curve and performance astounded me. As time went on and difficulties mounted, reality forced me to adjust my expectations. The question lately … “How low can I go?”

Before Lilly, I spent 14+ years with a dalmatian, so a border collie came as a real revelation in my life. She learns things easily. She responds to my requests. She stares at me all day long and reacts to my every move. It’s a real ego boost after more than a decade being loved, but ignored, by the spotted princess.

What’s interesting is that early on I found myself way more frustrated with Lilly than I ever was with Penelope because my expectations for her were so much higher. As long as Penelope didn’t behave like a total beast, I was happy. With Lilly, I knew she could do better.

I’m not saying that I thought we would win big ribbons, go to nationals, or entertain any delusions about getting on the world team. I simply thought she’d be good enough to compete locally on a regular basis and be pretty good. In other words, I figured we would not make fools of ourselves.

So, my expectations began there.

Later, I told myself it was OK that we do not compete, but at least we could train every week and run courses at class and just have fun.

Then, I told myself that it was OK we could no longer take classes since Lilly refused to work in public. I worked hard to believe that we’d be perfectly happy running agility at home.

After all, Lilly doesn’t mind the cattle and horses from the nearby ranch watching her as they graze by. (Seriously, we’ve trained with 50 head of cattle mere feet away.) She even smiles when neighbors watch from their balconies up the mountain and clap for her.

It’s something. And, it may be all we have.

I tell myself that’s OK, but deep down I still believe she’s capable of more. Only time will tell. After all, she’s only 3.

The things people say

Having a shy or fearful dog in public is a lot like walking around with a screaming 2-year-old. “Dog people” and even the general public make the same negative assumptions. Beyond the dirty looks come really mean comments disguised as helpful suggestions. Two, in particular, stand out because they are entirely untrue … and incredibly rude.

The first one is, “Your dog doesn’t trust you.” Ouch! I went home and cried the first time someone at a dog event said this to me. I was in the middle of coaxing Lilly to enter the building and sit quietly for a few moments as part of ongoing socialization work. (Now, I actually like the woman who said it. I think she and her dog are a hoot, but the comment still wounded me and shook my confidence.)

First of all, I spend all day every day with Lilly. And, that’s been the norm since I she came home in October 2004. I think I know my dog better than “you” do (and by “you,” I mean the snotty people who say mean things).

The relationship I have with Lilly is stronger than any I’ve ever had with any other dog. And, that’s saying something. We’ve come a long, long way from where we started, but people don’t see that. All they see is her behavior in the moment. And, baby, do they judge.

The second one, which I’ve heard from two PhD applied animal behaviorists is utterly false, is that comforting really fearful dogs rewards the fear and makes it worse.

In very early 2005, I took Lilly to an agility dog birthday party. She did OK at first, but she freaked out when another dog banged the teeter-totter unexpectedly, and I’ve been screwed ever since. (I now know this incident has scarred her, but at the time I had no idea how far reaching the effects would be. We’re still trying to unravel the damage nearly 18 months later.)

She fled. I coaxed. Several people scolded me. “Just ignore her, they told me.”

And, since I didn’t know better at the time, I tried that strategy, and in ways I’ll enumerate later it only made things worse, which made some think Lilly was “manipulating me.”

It’s true that you can inadvertently “reward” dogs for unwanted behaviors like playing rough, jumping up and such. Ending the game and turning away are good options in these cases.

However, with true fears, a little comfort goes a long way. When Lilly shuts down completely, in fact, the only way I can reach her is through touch.

Her eyes go blank, and it honestly looks like her soul has left her body. With the help of our big-picture, behaviorist-type trainer and the instruction of our holistic veterinarian, I’ve learned ways to soothe Lilly physically when she’s literally out of her mind and cannot be reached with logic or typical training.

My trainer watched her shut down once. Then, showed me how pale Lilly’s gums were. Seriously, they were almost white. All her blood was in her core, like she was in shock. That’s not manipulation. That’s sheer terror.

I’m happy to report that I rarely see this ghostly version of Lilly these days. But, it’s been a long road, and I often feel like I too am earning a PhD in animal behavior to help Lilly conquer her fears and have a happy and successful life.

It’s hard work, and anyone who pretends otherwise is entirely full of beans – especially overly-hyped dog trainers on TV who use old-fashioned, dominance style methods. (People often recommend I use those methods too. Gee, no thanks.)

There’s one other thing people say that bugs me lately. Sometimes when we’re walking on a trail or training in public, clueless people let their dogs approach Lilly without permission. Or, they’re too busy doing whatever (eating, chatting, talking the phone) to pay attention to their unruly dog at the end of a fully extended flexi-leash.

These kinds of dogs scare Lilly. And, if I don’t control the situation, she feels the need to snark at the other dog to warn them off. That can be barking, lunging, and even snapping at times.

Again, through hours and hours and hours of training over many months, she does this less and less because I distract her and shield her if necessary from what she perceives as a marauding dog (even though most times these are just super friendly pooches).

Lilly has an “off trail” command that means step off the path, sit down, and face me. I then block for her as the other dog passes.

Now, my body language could not possibly say any clearer to “go away,” but some people still let their dogs approach Lilly.

So, I’ll say, “She’s afraid of other dogs. She might snap.”

And, they answer, “That’s OK.”

Uh, no it’s not.

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.

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