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.

The Flying Aussie and a Great Cause

Pretty, but don’t touch!

This past weekend, Duncan and I traded the sleeting skies of Idaho for the sunny ones of Arizona to run at a trial and visit a dear friend.  The timing was perfect.  You see, just like my Boxer, I’m convinced that when it rains, I’ll melt (although I don’t claim to be made of sugar like he does).  So after one of the driest winters on record, the day we left, the skies had opened and we got out of town.  The difference this time, is that we flew to this trial, a first for both of us.

It’s a good thing that airport security doesn’t screen for high pulse rates, because I was so nervous to get everything right, that I was amazed I didn’t keel over right there in line after throwing my shoes in the plastic bin.  Many, many thanks to the website Dog Jaunt for all the fantastic information on flying with a small dog, and my husband for getting me through check in.  I knew my carrier (a large SturdiBag) would fit perfectly on a Southwest 737, and indeed, it did.  Dunc was a fantastic little traveler, and fit in his little bag just fine thanks to his ability to bend like a wet noodle.

Dunc under the airplane seat.

The trial was fantastic.  Duncan, amazing Duncan most definitely got his brave on.  In a completely new place on weird footing (some sort of tentacle-like dormant grass) after being stuffed in a bag and going up and down until his ears popped, he came out swinging, and ran two of his fastest runs, ever.  He also earned his very first QQQ.  Rock on little man!

This is quite possibly the coolest chute ever invented.  Not only is it covered in flames that Duncan’s Wildfire blazed through, but it’s wonderfully, perfectly, terrifically, and shockingly SHORT!  The new shorter chute length is a winner in Dunc’s book.

Here’s Dunc’s run on the Saturday Standard course…another diabolical creation courtesy of judge Dan Butcher.  Love these technically challenging courses, and after three trials this year under this judge, we’re drifting dangerously close to being DB groupies.

This trial was part of a large group of dog sporting events held at the Paws for a Cure event, a fundraiser for the Canine Cancer foundation.  This foundation is near and dear to my heart, since we lost our first beloved boy Boxer, Sinjin to cancer, and Angus is a survivor. My trialling partner in crime runs a Boston who is also a survivor, so we made sure to visit the Foundation booth, where I made a memorial heart for Sinjin.

Sinjin, my old soul and beloved friend.

On Sunday, they stopped the trial, and smack in the middle of the rings, the Foundation held a ceremony to celebrate those buddies we’ve lost to this disease.  They read the Rainbow Bridge poem, and one of the foundation’s founders asked me to place Sinjin’s heart on the wall first, quickly followed by dozens of other hearts.  It was an amazing moment, standing there, tears streaming down my face, in a crowd of people doing the same.  Not one person there was ashamed of crying visibly for friends we had lost, and I had one of those beautifully clear life moments.  These are my people, and I’m so proud and thankful to have been among them on this special day.

The Canine Cancer Foundation Memorial Wall

Sweet Sinjin. You are missed.

Of course, trialling is also about being with friends, new and old, fuzzy and non-fuzzy.  Dunc was thrilled to have a weekend away from Baby Brother Des, and reveled in the company of one of his favorite people friends and dog friend.   Sweet Mully even ran with me on the FAST course, and thankfully, we upheld her amazing QQQ streak.  (Whew!)

We are cute. Feed us. Now.

All in all, the weekend was a blast.  Lovely weather, fantastic company (thanks, G!!) and running with the best and sweetest teammate a girl could ask for.  A Ferrari dealer on the way to the trial grounds was just a bonus…after all, I do love a parking lot filled with sexy Italians.

Parting thought…maybe this kid really knows how to have a blast...

The 2012 Adventures Begin

Des 5 months, Dunc 4 years

Baby Desmond is now five months old.  He now tips the scales at 14.4 pounds, a gain of about three pounds over the last month.  As in previous months, most of that gain has been in legs.  One of these days I hope his legs will slow down, or I’m going to have a baby merle giraffe on my hands.  He does put those wheels to good use while doing hot laps around the yard.

Wheeeee!

He is most definitely a handsome little dude, a whirlwind of flying ears, waving paws, and endless wiggles.  We’re currently working on things that he finds extraordinarily boring, yet gamely humors me; sit stays, sitting by an open door before being released to imitate a Dakar rally car in the yard, and only jumping shoulder-high by invitation.  (This last one is just too tough, I often find yodeling Des bouncing alongside while I’m filling the dinner dishes.  This wouldn’t be odd, except that I’m standing upright, and he’s clearing the height of the countertops).

Duncan, on the other hand, is about to begin a new year of trialling, and it’s looking to be momentous.  We have a few trials to warm up for Nationals in March, which will be a fantastic experience.  We’re working on improving his running contacts, and my challenge is learning to get him around the course in a way that keeps him off his brakes and driving forward.

Duncan, I am thankful to you for your sunny grin, and for helping me find a better and more positive way to get there with you.  Let’s rock the house this year!

My view while freestyle heeling with Dunc. A big grin!

Lets get this show on the road!  The drive to our first trial of the year is easy, however the commute is waaaay different!  Stay tuned…

Leavin' on a jet plane...

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…

Desmond, Ninja Puppy.


Little Brother? Not for long!

As you can see, baby brother Desmond is catching up to big brother Duncan in a hurry!

This afternoon, Des was playing with some toys, and showed me some of his tricky Ninja moves.  Maybe he’s been secretly watching the Matrix while we’re out of the room, because there was some serious “I know kung fu” action going on.  Whoa.

It starts innocently enough.  Just a puppy playing with a stick.

And then, our own fuzzy Jason Bourne appears…

Watch and learn, grasshopper.

Or maybe he was watching reruns of the Muppets and Miss Piggy?  Hi-YA!

Did I mention that I’m not throwing any of these toys?  He’s pitching these to himself!

mine. Mine. MINE!!

But, he’s still a baby, so I’ll hold off on calling the clandestine services for a while yet.

He’s a very sweet little boy when he’s not fighting the Earth’s gravitational pull.

Handsome Des

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!