Tuesday, September 16, 2014

I Took My Porsche Off-Roading

I've spent a big chuck of my life hearing my dad talk about how much he wishes he could do a solo wilderness camping trip - no one but him and the woods. So when I wound up with a few spare days this summer, I decided to take a solo hiking trip of my own. And since dogs don't count as people, I decided to take Allister along. I was pretty sure he'd enjoy it, and if he got loud, well, the only person he'd be annoying would be me.

For our trip, I picked a twenty-three miles section of the Superior Hiking Trail just north of Grand Mirais, Minnesota. The first day was spent driving and arriving at our drop-off point, which was an adventure in and of itself. We parked our van at the end of our trail and took a shuttle to the start. The shuttle driver took one look at Allister's stumpy little legs and started telling me horror stories about people who's dog's weren't able to keep up with them on the trails. And I laughed and laughed.

This dog could run circles around me any day of the week,
and I'm not exactly a wimp.
Knowing that we wouldn't get to our drop off point until mid-afternoon, I picked a campsite that was close. We hiked around a little to stretch our legs after six hours in the car, and then we settled into camp. And I discovered that while Allister enjoys hiking - yes, hiking is fine - camping is apparently something I failed to address before. It wasn't anything major; Allister was just confused about why, having hiked and played ball and picnicked, oh why were we not going back inside the house for a nap?

"Where are the beds, woman?"

Luckily, over the next several days, Allister seemed to settle into this whole "camping" idea, and it turned into an awfully good adventure.

Allister: I dropped my ball gag. Oops?
Me: *facepalm*

I won't go into the spiritual side of wilderness hiking. I'm pretty sure I've beaten that one to death over the past few years (plus I have two more camping trips that I did this year, and I need to have something to write about if I'm going to make you look at my vacation pictures).

Because seriously, how can you not believe you're part of something bigger out here?
But the trip was a good one for us. I don't often take the time to just hang out with Allister because, let's face it, Allister is really hard to just "hang out" with. He - and I - both want to be doing something, and it turns out that this hiking trip was a nice blend between doing and nothing. We had fun together. And when it comes down to it, that's all I really want from my relationship with my dogs anyway.

Thursday, September 4, 2014

Late Bloomers

This is Allister. He doesn't get much blog time by virtue of being almost perfect. What I mean is that he's not quite as awesome as Cannon and Piper, but not nearly as crazy as the pit bulls. He's just kind of . . . stuck in the middle. I've had Allister since he was nine weeks old, and I did a bitchin' job of socializing and training him, if I do say so myself. He's not afraid of anything, behaves at the vet, is polite to strangers, and has an amazing drop on recall. Allister has just one itty-bitty, tiny, little, GINORMOUS flaw.

Allister barks.

He also screams, yodels, whines, howls, and meows (I'm not even kidding). Basically, Allister has Opinions, and like most people with strong opinions, he thinks everyone should hear about them. I've spend most of the last five years trying to get Allister to shut the heck up already. I tried everything: positive reinforcement, negative reinforcement, positive punishment, clickers, bark collars, peanut butter, EVERYTHING. And mostly what I accomplished was to make Allister and I incredibly frustrated - to the point where we wanted nothing to do with each other. Then I had a bit of an epiphany at the beginning of this year:

Allister barks.

It is part of who he is. If it were possible to train him to be quiet, I would have been able to do it because I don't suck that badly at the mechanics of training. It's not in Allister to be silent much in the way it's not in me to be short or stop reading or sit still. This is a behavior I will not be able to stop. Ever. Time to pull myself out of this "make-Allister-stop-barking" rut.

With this new perspective, I went back to my toolbox with the idea of compromise. I could not stop Allister's barking, but neither could I tolerate not being able to hear myself think. I came away with two tools.

The first one was easy: differential reinforcement of a incompatible behavior, a.k.a. The Ball Gag Strategy. You see, Allister loves to fetch and carry and bring me things. So we worked on teaching Allister to carry a ball in his mouth whenever we left the house. It was a little tricky, and it's not perfect yet. Sometimes when he barks, the ball falls out, and I have to remind him to put it back in. The ball definitely doesn't stop him from barking, but it does muffle him enough that I can carry a conversation with someone else. As it turns out, that's mostly what I wanted anyway.

The second step was harder: Allister and I grew up. Allister is a brilliant, driven, wicked sharp dog, and like most geniuses, he can be hard to live with. But over the last year or so, some of Allister's cutting edges have softened. He's more patient, and less likely to fly off the handle and start yelling at me when he doesn't understand what I want. And for my part, I've learned to focus less on the shiney ideals of want and more on what we - this marvelous Allister-Laura dynamic - need. I made the grievous mistake of trying to force my dog to be who I wished instead of focusing on who he is, and we're both ready to forgive and move on.

It's as if I'd spent my life only dealing with SUVs. I love SUVs, their versatility and power, their strength and durability, and I like to think that I'm a pretty decent SUV mechanic. But a few years ago, someone handed me the keys to a sleek Porsche 911, and I started fantasizing about fast curves and races and all the pretty ribbons. But the handling was too sensitive, and the clutch was just plain weird, and I hit the brakes and almost spun out. So I freaked out and threw the car in the garage and hid the keys under the couch and tried to pretend that I'd never had a Porche 911 in the first place. It wasn't my proudest moment. But here's the things about Porsche 911s and little weasel dogs:

They want to be driven.

So I started sneaking my baby out of the garage. Just short trips around the block. Then little jaunts to the park. An easy little dog show, just building up our confidence in each other a scrap at a time. And I'm starting to think that I might actually be able to pull this off. But even if we never make it to the Big Times, I'll tell you what -

It's still a hell of a ride.

Monday, August 11, 2014

A Year in the Life of Short Snort

Cannon has the exact same Gotcha Day story as Piper Ann. It went like this:




Cannon and I leaving the shelter: Day One.

It's been just a touch over a year since I brought him home, and just like Piper Ann, I have yet to regret the decision. It's been quite a year! We started off with a bang: Cannon passed his CGC just sixty-eight days from adoption, a new personal record for me. And him, I suppose.

After that, we took a break from training in November to get Cannon his nose job so he could breathe easier. Littlest Bulldog ripped the stitches out of his nose on day eight (to which the vet said, "wow, I've never seen that before!" Ain't that special?). To this day, his left nostril is just a bit crooked. I'm sure it adds character, though. Or something.

"Hi! Isn't my slightly crooked but super expensive nose adorable?
Doesn't it make you want to stuff my face full of cookies?
Because I would be okay with that!"

We'd didn't let surgery slow us down for long: in March, Cannon passed his therapy dog test. This came as a surprise to no one who knows him - I've met very few dogs who were "made" for therapy work, but Cannon is certainly one of them. The part that made me happiest about the therapy dog test was when the evaluator pulled us aside afterward and complimented us several times on what a great team we were and how well we worked together. I work hard to make sure a good relationship is the foundation for everything my dogs and I do together, and it was nice to hear someone who didn't know me or my dogs was able to see and appreciate that.

All of the happy. I haz it.
As an encore, Cannon had his WCRL rally debut last month. We worked hard on the exercises, but knowing my own ring nerves and the fact that Cannon is still a rather green dog, my goal for the weekend was to get our feet wet. I half expected him to realize that the people outside the ring had food, and bolt out after their luscious goodies in the middle of our course. "If nothing else," I said, "we should be entertaining."

Apparently, we disappointed a few people - more than one of my friends came up after our runs and told me, "That wasn't funny at all."

Less funny. More super-awesome-amazeballs.
Definitely entertaining.

Needless to say, Cannon and I blew my expectations out of the water. We got all three qualifying runs for his RL1 title with scores of 209, 209, and 206 for an Award of Excellence. This translated into a first place, second place, and fourth place ribbons in a pretty competitive level one A class. I'm not sure where Cannon's competitive career is heading next, but I'm super excited to find out. 

Cannon is more to me than his accomplishments, though. First and foremost, he is my friend and companion, and friendship is made in the little moments. He makes me laugh every day, whether it's finding new ways to be gross, or creative counter surfing, or rabidly trying to hump dogs three times his size. Cannon is always ready to try a new adventure. And he is of great comfort to me as I watch Piper age, knowing that when she leaves me, I will not be left alone in this house full of crazy.

Um, "sanity" being a relative term here. 
This blog post has taken me forever to write because I kept getting distracted facebook stalking my own dog. In such a short year, we have made so many fantastic memories. I started out ridiculously in love with Cannon, and it's only gotten worse. I love how fun he is to train. I love that he is always surprising me with his clever little bulldog brain. I love that I am his happy place. 

I love

I love

I love

Photo by Paige.

Thursday, July 31, 2014


"Oh my god, Laura!" my best friend wailed, "We're going to be thirty this year! WE'RE OLD!!!"

"First," I replied dryly, being rather closer to the Big Day than she was, "I'm pretty sure thirty is not old. And second, would you really want to be sixteen again?"

The truth of the matter is that, in spite of all my cultural conditioning, I've been looking forward to thirty. I've come to the realization that being an Adult is mostly whatever I decide it is. For example, I've decided that Adults get to wear whatever they want. So if I want to wear running shorts and dog tee shirts, or a bikini top with capris, or a pencil skirt and high heels - then I will, and I can. Because Adult. I can buy that fancy collar if I damn well please, or take a day just to go hiking in the woods with my dog(s), or impulse adopt that bulldog if I want to. Age appears to have its privileges, and I've found the balance of freedom, ability, lack of interest in pleasing the majority that comes along with being thirty to be quite enjoyable.

I've heard that in some homes, little dogs enjoy special privileges. But with both Rubi and Piper edging up to ten years old, here at the Horde House, we have ElderBitch Rules. For example, ElderBitches can have cake for breakfast if they want to. They can also sleep however they want, because dignity is something that happens to teen-agers and people who never really grow-up and therefore care about what others think.

In fact, if Elderbitches want to sit on the table, well, who are they hurting, really?

ElderBitches get to play outside with their big orange ball as long as they want.

Because if she hasn't killed herself yet, she probably isn't going.
Also: Fuck bushes. Those assholes.

If fact, if they don't want to give the ball back at all . . .

I think there comes a point for every good dog owner when they realize that their friend has more years behind than ahead. If you're lucky (and we are), you've already put in the years of training that a little relaxing of the rules now won't make much of a difference (well, unless you're the table, I suppose).

A friend of mine once posted that she loves the stage she and her reactive dog are at: they're not doing any official "training" anymore - not BAT, LAT, CAT, DS/CC, or R+/P-. They're just having a conversation. I love that stage, too, when you and your dog are finally communicating on the same level. It's where Jai and I are right now, and after struggling so long to figure out what we needed from each other, it's a relief to be able to respond to one another so naturally.

It's not where the ElderBitches and I are.

The girls and I have reached the Old Married Couple stage. We've had so many conversations that we've run out of things to say and now go straight to reading each others' minds. We might not always like what the other is thinking, mind you, but more often than not all we need to do is look at the other before we start grinning at the amazing ridiculousness that is our lives. We have grown into each other, like trees planted too close together.

I know that there is a day coming when I will no longer have Piper and Rubi to read my mind for me: when their tree-like strength will no longer be here to support me. And I know that day is coming much sooner than I would like. But that day - it is not today.

And that is reason enough to celebrate.

When I am an old woman I shall wear purple
With a red hat which doesn’t go, and doesn’t suit me.
And I shall spend my pension on brandy . . .

Thursday, May 15, 2014


I had blog posts I wanted to write this week. A whole fist full of them.

But it's been an . . . intense month. And one by one I've forgotten everything until I can barely tell up from down.

So I think it's about time I spent a week out in the woods.

See you all after the holiday.

Thursday, May 8, 2014

Polka Will Never Die

What are we up to now? Seven? Eight? It's probably a bad sign that I've lost count.

Well, how's this - if we're counting my dogs, he doesn't even exist.

Last fall, my best friend since forever broke up with her boyfriend and needed a place in the cities to crash while she finished school. Since she's the only one who has ever slept in our guest room anyway, it made sense for us to offer the spare room to her, and Friend Roommate been with us ever since (Laura Logic need not resemble the logic of the standard population).

Friend Roommate is a Horse Person. She was riding horses before she was born (literally), but she had to leave them behind to come get educated in the big city. I think I kind of know what she's going through - I had to leave my dog behind for a few year to go get educated in the little city, and without getting into too much detail about my broken-brain conditions, it wasn't pretty. So when Friend Roommate asked if she could get a dog of her very own, well, FFS look at my house. What's one more?

I mean, it's not like I can fit a horse in the backyard.

So this is Butters. Butters is . . . well, he's Butters. He's kind of lumpy and slimy and not my type, but that's okay because he's not mine, and I'm pretty sure my type is "crazy" anyway. Butters came from St Paul Animal Control, so we don't really know much about his past. His hobbies include aggressive snuggling, drooling, and running through doors. I'm hoping he comes out of his shell a bit more as he gets used to living with the horde. But in the meantime, he sure is easy to live with.

Shit, you guys - how is this something I agreed to?

Thursday, May 1, 2014

So, I'm Kind of a Big Deal

It took me a long time to admit that I am a dog trainer - long past the time when I started teaching classes. When I was a youngin', I practically deified dog trainers. What they did seemed like magic, and it took quite the mental overhaul to realize that I might be allowed to join their completely, imperfectly human ranks. Part of the difficulty was that there was no right of passage to becoming a dog trainer. To become considered an adult, I had to live to be eighteen. To be a nurse, I had to go to school and then pass the boards. But all I had to do to become a dog trainer was say "I AM A DOG TRAINER" loudly and frequently.

It didn't quite sit right.

This March, I took and passed the CCPDT's certification test to become a Certified Professional Dog Trainer. Now I get to put the letters CPDT-KA after my name (someday, I'll have almost as many letters as Piper Ann). Of course, I am pretty sure that I was a dog trainer before I took the test. But I also feel pretty strongly that professional certification is important for dog trainers.

Photo by Paige.
Currently, there is no standard of behavior or training for dog trainers. Anyone can call themselves a dog trainer and as a result, there is a huge variety in the skills and ethical practices of dog trainers. If you're searching for a dog trainer, it's truly a case of caveat emptor. However, by searching for a trainer with a certain certification, dog owners can be more certain of what their money is buying.

For example, by finding a trainer with CPDT certification, a dog owner can be fairly certain that their dog trainer has met certain standards. To apply for the CPDT test, I had to show that I had at least three hundred hours of experience in the past three years and provide references from people who had worked with me. I had to pass a knowledge test covering multiple topics including instruction skills, ethology, and learning theory. And then I had to agree to a code of ethics. I felt the code of ethics was a particularly important part of the certification process - there can be a lot of cruelty done toward both dogs and people in the name of dog training and following a code of ethics based on humane treatment of canines and humans alike can help guide a trainer through difficult decisions.

To maintain my CPDT certification, I will also need to maintain a certain amount of continuing education. You guys, continuing education is so important in dog training these days. This is a really exciting and fun time to be a dog trainer: scientists and dog owners alike are looking at dogs in a new light, trainers are sharing information more consistently than ever, and new, more effective, and more humane training methods are popping up just about every day. If your dog trainer isn't keeping up with all the current information, you really aren't getting your money's worth.

Dog training, ninja style.
Photo by Paige.
By becoming certified, I wanted to support professional standards for dog trainers. After all, you wouldn't trust a doctor without a medical license or a lawyer who hadn't passed the bar exam. Do you really want to trust something as important as the relationship between you and your dog to someone who hasn't proven themselves able to do the job?