Cleared for Takeoff

Desmond’s adolescent ears are a constant entertainment, and I adore them!  Each day they’re a little different, but more often than not, they standing at attention with the ends flopped over like this.  All he needs for takeoff is a magic feather.

I don't know what they're going to do, either!

Every once in a while, he strikes a pose with that long neck and standy-uppy ears that reminds me of an alpaca.  Then he hunkers down into a pouncing stance that reminds me alarmingly of a velociraptor.  Remember those from that dinosaur movie?  For years, I got the willies walking through fields of tall grass, waiting to be ambushed by one of those Jurassic suckers.  Thank goodness my VelociDes only pounces on his toys, then turns back into a happy little puppy.

An Aussie or alpaca...?

Ears aside, and despite standing slightly uphill of Duncan in this picture, it’s clear that Des has shot past his brother in height.  Duncan is starting to take advantage of this, as evidenced by him running under the couch today with Des in hot pursuit.  Dunc disappeared with his ball.  Des bounced off the couch.  Bummer!

Des continues to prove his legs are made of springs.  This is his normal fetching technique.  Instead of sitting still and waiting for the ball to come down to earth, Des launches himself into orbit to meet the toy.  His challenge is learning how to launch into the same orbit as the toy…

Duncan, who holds a PhD in fetching, finds this behavior horribly inefficient, but entertaining whenever his brother ends up off piste.

Dude, you're landing in the landscaping!

But mostly, the boys and I are enjoying the winter sunshine as often as possible.  Soon enough things will get busy as the gophers and weeds once again get rowdy, and our trialling season gets underway.  The long, cold nights watching old movies and Top Gear reruns with both merlies curled up on my lap will give way to evenings pulling weeds, moving irrigation hose and working 2x2s.   It’s a reminder to slow down, enjoy the moment, and hit ‘play’ on the remote again.

“Sempai, why are we lying down on this wood thing?”

Because it is so, young one, because it is so.  Mama gives us cookies for the oddest things, so just roll with it.”

Look, we're touching. Reward us!

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The Power of Positive

Photo by Jan Skurzynski

Having a dog like Duncan as a first agility dog has been a blessing in disguise.  He’s not a boy who runs for the love of the game; he runs for the love of me.  It’s been my biggest challenge to learn how to make that rewarding for him.  He’s a shy guy who worries, so our agility journey has included finding ways to help him find his confidence.  When he’s got his brave on, he just flies.  We’re still learning, but we’ve picked up a few good ideas along the way.

I’ve learned to maintain a positive attitude; while training, while walking the course and while we’re waiting for our run…if Dunc knows I’m concerned, he starts to wring his paws, and that leads to a tentative performance.  As a result, he’s made me more efficient and much more positive handler.  If I’m annoyed after a day at work, I need to either check my attitude when I get out the clicker, or admit defeat for the night and trade training for snuggles on the couch.

I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve walked a course and heard other handlers say that they know their dog won’t make it through a sequence, or take the correct end of a tunnel.  And you know what?  Most of the time, they’re right.  Worries can become a self-fulfilling prophecy.  I don’t proclaim to be innocent of negative self-criticism… I do have to tell my inner voice to shut the hell up sometimes.  I can get very competitive, where doing well is my main priority.  But that’s not the way I do well in agility… not by my own choice…but because Dunc requires it.

Why?  With Dunc, I saw the chance to compete in sport again, and do well.  But shortly after beginning to trial, it became apparent that only one of us was having fun.  Dunc was shutting down completely on course, and I grew ever more frustrated because the same dog who ran joyfully fast in practice showed me every avoidance behavior ever invented at trials.  My sweet boy was unhappy, and I needed to either find a better way for him, or something else where we were both having fun.  The agility bug bit me, but I wasn’t fair to continue to ask him to do something that upset him.

In searching for a better way, I was shown how to train by shaping, using only positive reinforcement that allowed Dunc to figure out how to learn on his own terms.  The change was immediate.  He fires up every time I get out the clicker, and is so responsive to encouragement, that I began the long process of eradicating as much negativity from our training and my head as possible.  I could train in a positive manner, but until I also committed to thinking positively, Dunc knew my heart and mind weren’t completely on board.  In short, I decided to believe in us as a team…if I couldn’t believe that Dunc was capable of doing well, who else would?

I don’t ever approach a course thinking anything less than “we’ve got this”.  Because if I step to the line thinking we’re beaten then we are.

I’ve often heard “when you have a fast/slow/bar knocking/distractible dog you can’t do that cross/sequence/contact or make time’.  To which I think ‘don’t limit yourself’.  We all have unique challenges.  Dunc’s challenges are no tougher or easier than any other team’s…he’s just Duncan and I accept him as he is.  It’s how we figure out a way to overcome and work through these challenges that makes the journey worthwhile.

I know our limitations and we play to our strengths.  If you know you can handle a sequence in a different way, then go for it!  It’s amazing how far a little positive thinking (and boatloads of practice) will get you.  If a popular method of handling isn’t working for you, find another way.  It may take a lot more time and effort, others may criticize your choices…but if you know it’s the right for you, stand up for your teammate and do it.

And when something doesn’t go as planned and we don’t do well on a run?  I hear the words of a very wise friend in my head.  “Finish happy”.   This game isn’t about my ego, or our Q rate.  If I want a sport that I can walk to the line in a bad mood and assign blame after a crappy run, I’d better find one without a living, breathing, feeling partner.  This game is about the bond between handler and dog…and it goes far beyond what I ever thought was possible.

If these thoughts make me Sally Sunshine, that’s okay with me.  There are enough negative things in this world already; I don’t need to make up more.  So each time I get my dogs out to run, I try to remember the important things.  Run Fast.  Take up the Challenge.  But above all…

Finish Happy.

Got Bubbles?

If your house looks anything like mine, you have a few boxes stacked in the corner of the room, the fruits of your internet holiday shopping.  (Thank you Al Gore for inventing the internet so I never have to brave the mall.  Ever.)  And in those stacks of cardboard, you’ve probably got some bubble wrap.  Those fun little bubbles, along with those industrial sized bubbles that are about the size of a hot dog bun.

Why do I mention bubble wrap?  Here’s my training tip of the week, courtesy of my Boxer, Angus.  You see, Angus loves bubble wrap.  If he even sees the stuff, he gets all excited and drools (because Anguses drool when they’re excited) and starts jumping up and down.  Mind you, Angus weighs about 95 pounds, so when something of his size starts imitating a pogo stick, the little dogs scatter.  Me, too.  The Pogo Stick sometimes crashes into things.  Anyway, bubble wrap.  His favorite are the silver dollar sized bubbles.  He’ll take off with a sheet of those reminding me of the fish from Finding Nemo…”bubbles…MY bubbles!” and chomps them into oblivion, each pop further punctuating his joy.

I'm a pogo stick, too!!

Des watched Angus, then rocketed my way and latched onto a wad of the little bubble wrap I had in my hand.  He was a maniac, tugging harder than he ever has, towing me around the room.  It’s definitely not stuff you want to leave the pups alone with, but supervised, you just can’t beat bubble wrap for entertainment.  Or so I thought…

I know several dogs that are afraid of loud noises; fireworks and gunshots being the worst offenders.  Given that I live in the sticks, gunfire isn’t an odd thing to hear in the neighborhood, especially right after the fall bird season opens.  Most of the places we practice agility around the valley are close enough to fields or the river to have lots of random banging going on.  And most of us find out that our dogs have a problem with it when it’s too late…when we find a cowering, shivering, terrified little furball hiding under the bed.  At that point, things like Thundershirts and cranking the TV volume can help, but with my puppies, I really try to desensitize them to banging early in life.

Usually, that means I ask my husband to take his shotgun for a hike with the new baby, something he’s more than happy to do.  He’ll walk a fair distance away and bang a couple of times while I feed and praise the pup.  Then he keeps walking back towards us, intermittently shooting every fifty yards or so.  Maybe I’ve been lucky, but we’ve never had a dog  react badly to noise after the shotgun/puppy hike.

Well, with Des, we just haven’t had the opportunity to take that hike in the desert.  Oddly enough, the reason is because my husband is off banging away at the range most weekends doing his sport, generally returning with a big grin of his own.  So I’ve improvised.  I walked Des all around while my husband was using the nail gun on our shed.  That worked well, because the air compressor would also unexpectedly go off with a whoosh.  But how often can you bank on someone nailing something when you need it most?

And so I return to the bubble wrap.  I was going to cut the big hot dog bun sized wrap to let the air out so I could get rid of it, when Angus made off with his own bubbles, and it gave me an idea.  I got a handful of kibble, took my wrap to the hardwood floor, and started stomping.  At first, Des skittered off, barking.  But the other dogs were dancing around, so he came back out and got PAID for it!  It took about three more stomps, before he was barking with glee, waiting for the next bang for the party that followed.   Take that, big loud, scary noises.  We have bubble wrap and small nuclear devices.  I guess I’d better order something else so I havemore training materials.

Now that we have that sorted…on to the next training challenge…

A Quest to…Reno?

Last winter, we found out that AKC Agility Nationals would be held in Reno, NV in March of 2012.  Since it’s less than ten hours away, it qualified as a local trial, and Dunc and I set our sights on earning enough points to go.

At the time, we had three Double Q’s and about 50 speed points, (after becoming eligible in March) so I thought it would be easy.  We would need six QQ’s and 400 points total to attend.  A few short months later, the multipliers went away, meaning we needed to earn each and every one of our speed points…one point for every second under course time…no more double point bonuses for earning first place.  Gulp.

The traveling road show of 2011 began, and the driving, road food, yucky rest areas, noisy hotels, wonderful friends and trialling adventure is one I will never forget.  And honestly, can’t wait to repeat.

Little Dogs Rock!

Happy boy in the Palouse

We began in Moscow, Idaho.  Despite it raining nonstop on Saturday and Duncan shying away at every other bar setter, it was a lovely trial in a lovely spot.  The Palouse in the spring is an amazing sight, and I’m thankful to have had an extra day (and friends, especially friends with rain-proof tents) to enjoy it.  Thank you ML!  We added QQ # 4 here.

We spent the 4th of July weekend in Redmond.  The weather was terrific, and the setting stunning with Mt. Bachelor on the horizon.  We got a puppy fix and some tasty Lo Mein (but not at the same time because you’d end up with noodles everywhere).

Volcanoes and Tent City

At the end of August, Dunc and I zoomed up to Spokane.  How do I say this…it was hot. Damn hot.  It was in the high 90s, but Dunc and I pulled it off, running fast and accurate all three days on some courses that could only be described as diabolical.  We made some new friends (thanks V!!) and in between moments of heat-induced visions of pink elephants and herds of stampeding Bostons, we earned QQ # 6 and 7.

Lynnleigh Farms over Labor Day was our next stop; a four-day trial.  It’s such a pretty spot with the trees and mountains…and horses…and giant motorhomes rumbling by. Maybe ‘pretty’ distracting might be a better description.  It was this trial location last year, while trying to weave directly at a wall of crated Border Collies, Dunc told me that maybe his sport was chasing dust bunnies under the bed instead of agility.  This year, Dust Bunny Duncan was nowhere to be found, replaced by Awesome Duncan, who earned QQ # 8 and 9, and his Exc. FAST title.

And to add to the fun, we spared no expense to celebrate Muligan’s MACH 4 in high style.

I smell waffles...

We headed to Prineville in October.  For the first time, I saw the light at the end of the point earning tunnel…we were closing in, with 140 points to go.  It was this trial when Duncan shifted into a whole new gear, leaving me paddling madly in his wake, like an uncoordinated duck.   What an amazing sight to see, those little paws throwing out rooster tails of sand, with a crazy Aussie grin on his face!  I was honored to witness Tug’s inaugural agility run, and the beginning of another brilliant BT Rock Star’s agility career.  Dunc also earned QQ # 10 and 11.

Every Champion begins with a first run

Is anybody home?

The next trial in Farmington was Dunc and my first trip on the road by ourselves.  As orphans, we were adopted by some kind Utah friends, who helped add my points, as I seem to lose that ability when excited.  Being the agility portion of the Samoyed Nationals, there were big white dogs parked in every available corner.  I’ve never seen it snow indoors, but white fur was a-floating, and it wasn’t long before every surface of my crate was white and fuzzy. I also learned that Samoyeds bark.  A lot.  The courses were downright tough…technical and littered with traps, but after much obsessive course walking, Dunc and ran a perfect weekend and brought home QQ # 12 and 13 and 45 speed points.

Have ball...will travel!

At our home trial in October, on the last day, 16 speed points remained to hit the magic 400 points to qualify for Nationals.  We had a fantastic Standard run, fast and accurate, and I knew Dunc had done it when he sailed over the last jump.   Pause.  A moment later, from the score table I heard “No time!!”  The timers had failed to work.  Normally our choice would be to take standard course time and the Q (but with no speed points) or to rerun and risk the chance that it wouldn’t be clean.  And then the judge called to the crowd:  “Did anyone get it on video?”  YES!!  Half an hour later, with the video camera in one hand, and a stopwatch in the other…the judge confirmed that we’d sped around the course 18 seconds faster than course time, and earned our final points for Nationals. Anyone within ten feet got hugged.

Gratuitous puppy photo!

The last stop in our AKC trialling year was to east Idaho, and Desmond came along, riding like a seasoned traveler, and had a great time with his Belgian friend, despite Nick being 4X his size.  Overall, in 2011, Duncan and I earned 15 QQs and 436 speed points. It’s been one heck of a ride, and after a lot of judges, difficult courses, variable weather, fantastic friends and amazing experiences, I only have one thing to say:

Bring on 2012!

Why DuncanDes?

It’s probably no surprise that blogging is new to me.  I generally think that most people wouldn’t find my life to be all that interesting on a day to day basis, so have felt little need to write about it, let alone do so publicly.  This is a leap.

What would lead me to blog about my pups?  By going on continually about my fur family, people are going to realize how far I’ve fallen off the Crazy Dog Lady cliff!!  I’m certainly not trying to reinvent the training wheel (that would be dog training), and am no expert.  I have however, found my life to be irrevocably changed by the journey that Duncan has taken me on while we find our way in the agility and dog training world together.

In one sense, I’m giddy about the prospect of training Desmond, and want to share that with a few very Doggy friends who appreciate gratuitous puppy photos and training chatter.  And in another, I feel by writing about what I’m doing with Des is also a tribute to Duncan.  Without Dunc to show me the way, to forgive me for not knowing better and to gamely try anything new I’ve thrown at him, there would be no Desmond.  Then again, I’m sure Dunc would be just as happy without having to share his toys with a baby brother. With luck, that will change.

And if you’re wondering, I put a lot of thought into what to name this.  I considered all sorts of witty little plays on words and hidden meanings.  And laughed at myself, because that’s not really my style.  I call my boys Dunc and Des, just nicknames for their full names.  DuncAndDes looked silly, so Dunc(an’)Des it is.