Friday, June 3, 2016

And They Lived Happily Ever After


Sorry about dropping off the face of the planet there. Grad school. Almost done.

Done enough that I've been thinking about blogging again. And I have decided to officially retire Rubi's blog. If I'm being fair (and I try), this blog hasn't been about Rubi in quite a while. Rubi's story has entered its final chapters. Bluntly, she's getting old: mellowing with time and training, and these days, life is pretty peaceful for her. She plays with her ball and her family, goes for car rides, eats good food, and loves with the same ferocity that she always has. A good life, but not so much blog material. And so other stories have been creeping in.

But never fear! I have more stories to write and have started another blog dedicated to their telling. I'd like to invite you all to join me over on The Outliers (because normal is just a word for people you haven't met yet). The content will be a blend of teaching and stories, as per my usual, but the topics will vary more. I'm sure a great deal of it will continue to revolve around dogs - because when you have dogs, you never run out of things to write about. But I also want to bring in other topics, so I'm leaving that path open as well. Heads up, my faithful readers - heaven forbid I should start with an easy topic.

And so here we go: on to new adventures!

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Two Nerds Walk into a Petstore

So as you've probably noticed (or maybe not), I haven't been posting lately. Between the new job and grad school, I don't have much free time anymore. And when I do, well, spending more time in front of a computer doesn't seem to be a high priority for me. I'm going to try to write at least once a month from here until the end of grad school, but the content is probably going to shift a bit from information promotion to what's on my mind at any given moment. You've been warned.

Hopefully you'll still love me anyway.

So here's what on my mind: I bought a parrotlet from a breeder a couple of weeks ago. Her name is Auri (and yes, I did name her after the Patrick Rothfuss character - naming birds after crazy people is always appropriate), and she's just about the coolest critter ever.

When I was in college, a little art shop in Canal Park had a parrotlet named Kirby. I fell in love with Kirby, and every time I went down to Canal Park, I would spend what was probably a creepy amount of time just watching Kirby do his thing. The shop closed a few years ago, but I've thought of Kirby often, and wanted a parrotlet for about a decade now.

And now I have Auri, and I couldn't be more smitten.

I've had parakeets and cockatiels for most of my life, but it's been a while since I was actively involved in the parrot world. So when I found myself with a few hours to kill on the other side of the cities, I stopped in at a local parrot-oriented pet store to catch up on what I'd missed.

It turns out that the owner of the store is an IAABC parrot behaviorist. We spent the next two hours chatting about parrot behavior, dog behavior, and the training of both species because sometimes when two behavior nerds meet, they can't shut up to save their lives.

One of the things that has changed since I last looked at the world of birds is an increase in positive reinforcement training. I've always been a little confused by the amount of positive punishment historically involved in bird training. I mean, they're not killer whales or komodo dragons, but I still feel like it's a bad idea to piss off an animal that can literally bite your finger off when it's feeling cranky.

Not only have bird training techniques changed, there's also more of a focus on understanding and working with bird behavior rather than working against it. This is really important because parrots are not a domesticated pet. Parrots are not dogs - they're not even cats. For the most part, their base behavior has not changed with their closer association with people. This means that unlike dogs, there is no innate desire to "be good," act in accordance to our wishes, or mold their lifestyles to fit with ours. So it is people who should change if they wish to share their lives with parrots.

What does this mean for me and Auri? It means that there are more resources for us going forward. I'll be able to understand my parrotlet better and therefore be better able to meet her needs. I won't be the only person I know who has clicker trainer their parrot, so if we run into trouble, chances are here will be someone to help us out of trouble. If possible, I'm even more excited to have added a parrotlet to the horde.

And as I've said before - this is a great time to be a trainer. For any animals.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Training Philosophy

I've been thinking about training philosophies a great deal lately, and I've decided that - contrary to the current political correctness trends - training philosophy is really, really important. But I'm not talking about whether you're R+ or P+ or balanced or whatever kids are calling the different techniques these days. I'm talking about your personal philosophy of training.

If you chose to pursue dog training as a hobby, you're going to want to have a personal philosophy because it's going to help you make choices that you can live with. Eventually, you're going to have a trainer tell you to do something that leaves a bad taste in your mouth. Or you'll watch someone do something to their dog that makes you uncomfortable, but hey - they're a good trainer and their dog is well-behaved so maybe it's not so bad. And then you try the technique and maybe it works or maybe it doesn't, but on you're way home you have the sneaking suspicion that you've done a Bad Thing and are maybe a Bad Person. Knowing your own priorities and how a skill or training technique fits into those priorities can give you guidance when you find yourself presented with a difficult training decision - and trust me, you'll run into those. Having a personal training philosophy will help you sleep at night.

I'm sure it's no shock to anyone who has met me or followed the blog that my highest priority is that my dogs are I are having fun together. When it comes to showing, I also want the high scores. Having these two philosophies means that I'm not going to take a dog into the ring who doesn't know the exercises. And because I have placed my dog's happiness above high scores, I'm also not going to employ a training technique that might improve our scores at the cost of my dog's enjoyment. Or take my dog into the ring if he doesn't want to be there.

Take Jai, for example. He and I have a lot of fun working and playing together. He knows all the exercises for level one rally in WCRL - and level two, for that matter. If I took him to a show, he's probably wouldn't have a complete meltdown; we've done a bunch of work on not being crazy in public. And because I've over-trained everything, it's likely that we'd manage to pull off some decent score. But I am 100% absolutely certain that Jai would hate the trail atmosphere. It would be too much stimulation, and he would get overwhelmed. So because I've made my dog's attitude a priority, he won't be showing anytime soon. Also because I've made his attitude a priority, we're going to work on making that environment less scary for him. I think there's a good chance that Jai could learn to have fun at dog shows, and I'd like to have him there if I can. So that's where our training is headed next.

I feel pretty strongly that my dogs' lives are too short for them to spend any more time unhappy than they have to. Certainly other people have different personal philosophies, though, and I don't consider myself so perfect that I believe their philosophies are wrong. (Well, mostly anyway. Obviously some people are wrong.) Most of the time, they're just different. Some people want good behavior, some people want perfect behavior, some want to pack as much adventure into their dogs' lives as possible, and some just want a dog to come home to and maybe walk around the block with them. As long as your philosophy doesn't interfere with mine and doesn't involve abusing your dogs, you can go ahead and do whatever you like. However, I think it's important to have a personal philosophy when it comes to dog training because knowing your own values will help ensure that you act according to them and still manage to achieve your goals.

So, what does your personal dog training philosophy look like?

Monday, October 6, 2014

Littlest Bulldog's Big Adventure

My dad, my brother, and I had planned a canoe trip into the Boundary Waters Canoe Area in September. Since we would be paddling instead of hiking, I thought this would be a good opportunity to take a dog that can't walk long distances. There's only one of those in my house, so the Littlest Bulldog got a Big Adventure of his very own.

I like to have a good idea that I'm not making a huge mistake when I take a dog on a trip where we can't easily turn around and go home, so I recruited my friends Vera and Earl to help teach me to teach Cannon to ride in a canoe. I shouldn't have worried though. I tossed Cannon's mat into the canoe, he jumped in and said, "Oh, hey, here's my mat, I'll just hang out here." It was the easiest bit of "hard" training I've done in a long time. It sure is nice when the dogs decide to make me look smart.

Little bulldog, big canoe, no worries.
When it can time to actually go on our trip however, one adverse coincidence after another lined up and got in our way. At the last minute, my dad and I decide to cancel the BWCA trip and stay at Flour Lake campground instead. Flour Lake Campground is literally less than a mile south of the BWCA, but I haven't been campground camping in about a decade and a half, so it was almost entirely new territory for me.

There was a picnic table.

There were stores.

There were s'mores.

It was amazing.

Knowing that I wasn't going to have to carry my stuff everywhere, I brought a few extra books.
Knowing he wasn't going to have to carry his stuff everywhere, my dad brought the Taj Mahal.

One of the fun parts about suddenly being stranded on a desert island - or in the middle of the woods - with someone is that you get a new perspective on them. I learned a lot about the Littlest Bulldog on this trip. For example, when I adopted Cannon, he couldn't even walk a mile due to breathing trouble and general out-of-shaped-ness. On this trip, I learned that he can now walk six and a half miles! After which point he will not walk a step further and needs to be carried, thankyouverymuch.

One of those moments when I'm really glad I don't know what my dog is thinking.
Guessing is bad enough.

I learned that when confronted with an over abundance of food, Cannon will bury his goodies and then run back for more. I also learned why I should not let him bury things in the fire pit.

And I learned that while feeding Cannon marshmallows is entertaining, feeding Cannon toasted marshmallows means that I will be picking marshmallow twig dirt out of my sleeping bag later.

"My face is stuck to itself! Oh, noes! How will I eat more things if my face is stuck to itself?!?"

All in all, though, I think Cannon enjoyed himself. We hiked, and we canoed, and he got to have three people (and their food) all to himself. It was a Most Excellent Adventure for a Very Little Bulldog.

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

What Unemployment Taught Me About Forgiveness

In spring of this year, funding was cut to the Brain Sciences Center, and on June 15, 2014, I got cut along with it.

And we're okay. We've had to tighten our belts a bit, and the savings account has taken a hit, but the mortgage and the bills are still getting paid, the dogs and the people aren't missing any meals, and nothing horrifying has happened. Truth be told, leaving the BSC was probably for the best: I went to nursing school to take care of people, not stare at spreadsheets, and the lack of human interaction was starting to wear on me. I have a new job lined up to begin in November working in hospice care - something I've wanted to return to ever since I got my first taste of the field in college. It even pays better. We're okay. We're going to be okay. I know this.

But knowing and feeling are not always the same thing.

The loss of a job is considered a major life event, and now I know first hand why that is so. In spite of the relatively trauma-less nature of my unemployment, I still sometimes feel that I have failed. I thought I would retire at the VA, and I've lost that. Am I still a nurse if I'm not working as one? Am I a bad nurse (just as I've always thought in those secret, dark moments), and everyone can see that, and that's why it took me so long to find a job? The are people and animals who rely on me, how could I have allowed this to happen? (Even though I know there is nothing I could have done to stop it! I know this.)

And so I have gotten in the habit of waking each morning with forgiveness. I was raised to believe that forgiveness was something you had or did not have. You asked people or God for forgiveness, and they gave it or they did not, and the matter was closed. I have come to find, though, that forgiveness is an active noun, like "struggle" or "love." It bears constant repetition. It is not something I have or do not have; it is something I practice. So I wake in the morning and acknowledge my guilt and pain, no matter that I know it is wrong to feel guilty about something I was powerless to change, and then I give myself absolution.

And then I get out of bed.

It's not perfect. Sometimes I have to remind myself throughout the day that it is okay to have flaws. As I have practiced forgiveness, I have gotten better at it, and it becomes easier to let go of what I feel and embrace what I know: that I am good, and strong, and brave, and that this, too, shall pass. And there will be wonderful moments in the future that would not have been possible if I had not become unemployed.

When I first started rolling this blog post around in my head a few months ago, this was as far as I had planned to take it (well, okay, I was going to relate it back to dogs because that's what I do). But with the recent suicides of Robin Williams and Sophia Yin, and as a survivor of depression* myself, I feel that I need to touch on that topic as well. I started graduate school in June (June was a rather intense month), and I'm currently working on a paper about Major Depressive Disorder. At the heart of the paper is the question, "What do we do?" It's fine to be aware of depression and pass around emergency numbers and all that, but what do we do? when confronted with the suffering of others? How do we help when we suspect someone is depressed?


Ask them how they are doing. Let them know you care. Don't ask once - ask a million times, and a million times that, until you are certain they are okay. Depression is a disease of mountains and gorges, and what may be truly well one day may start sliding down the mountain the next. And when the person with depression cries, "I don't know how you can help!" be ready with your awareness and phone numbers - but more likely, be ready to simply sit and be present. We who are depressed are terribly afraid that we will scare people away if they are allowed to see who we feel we are. I believe that many people shy away from those with depression because they do not understand how to help, and they do not see how much just being present, leaning into our pain instead of away, is a great and incredible gift. I don't need anyone to fight my battles or tell me it will be alright - I just need someone to hand me a goddamn stick, and make sure I don't fall off a cliff.

I think that one of the reasons pets are of such comfort to people who are grieving or depressed is that leaning into the pain of others comes naturally to them. At any given moment, I have a six-heartbeat care team literally within arms' reach ready to be with me. Ready to get out of the house with me or make me laugh or simply be still with me. Present. I don't have to worry about them leaving me because I am too imperfect or stupid or hurt or simply too much. They don't need to do anything but be themselves.

Be kind. Everyone is fighting a great battle that you know nothing about. That you will know nothing about, unless you are willing to ask and be present for the answer.

Photo by Sarah T.

*I realize that this post is a little more painful than my usual content, and I just want to mention because I don't want you to worry: I really am okay. What I'm currently feeling isn't anything beyond the normal grief that comes with losing a job. I keep pretty close tabs on myself, and I'm not afraid to use my crisis plan and support network if I need to. I have depression. It does not have me. I'm gonna be alright. But I'm grateful to you for asking. 

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.