This past weekend, I took Phenom to a sheep farm for a herding instinct evaluation. I also brought Piper and Vega along to have a turn as well. Piper has worked sheep twice before and Vega once – several years ago. At the time, they both showed instinct, and so I was excited to see what Phenom would do.
Well – Phenom was definitely interested. She was focused on the sheep from the moment we arrived.
Then – wow. Once on the sheep, she was so intense – and fast. This was the first time I had actually been out there with the sheep. The previous times with Piper and Vega someone else took them out. So I know I was probably confusing her. And then later being alone in a pasture with a crazy red dog chasing sheep up behind you with your back turned – well, it’s not for the faint of heart. Deep breath. Deep breath. Keep walking – okay start running!! Wow – shepherds make it look so easy. And I’m pretty sure I was doing a lot more running than I’ve ever seen in sheep herding. I was clueless, but I tried to be as calm as I could in between spinning in circles, running backwards, getting dizzy, almost falling in a water trough and sliding in the mud. I really admire those who do herding. It’s definitely a dance. While I know I was probably hindering Phenom by my lack of understanding, I was still so impressed with what she was able to do in her first time working sheep. She was young, excited, impulsive and learning. I think – pretty much as you would expect and also similar to the first time Piper met sheep. I was also learning along with her – which was hard too – for both of us. Learning new things is tough. Worth it. But still often a struggle.
Vega also got a couple turns. Just as he is in every day life, he was pretty serious about his work. At 10 years old now, he was much more steady and calm than in his younger days. He was also more sensitive to my movement and knew much more about what he was doing than me. He still wasn’t completely confident, but more so than when he was younger. It felt smooth. Connected.
Then it was Piper’s turn. At eleven years old, she strided out through the pastures as if those were her fields. She got to the area with some other people milling around and started barking – like – “Hey, I’ve arrived – take a look at me!” We walked in the ring, let her go, and she stole the show. Prancing toward her sheep. Smooth, calm, confident, totally sure of herself. Nothing in question. Even if it wasn’t right, she made it look right. All while avoiding most of the mud – in true Piper style. She was glowing. And everyone that watched her was beaming. It was pretty incredible to watch. It just goes to show that with age comes wisdom, confidence, power. And with all that on your side, the best is definitely yet to come.
Thanks so much to Kelly Martin at Findley Vue Farm for being so patient and helpful with a very clueless handler and for videoing so many great moments for us. Also thanks to my Mom for coming along to cheer us all on and hang out. Here’s a video of some of my favorite moments. We all had a great time.
I feel like I’ve always had a camera in my hand, but this is the first one I remember.
It was a Fisher Price camera with those flash sticks that would pop and burn out. I still remember it made this pretty loud clicking sound, and I think I had to manually advance the film with a dial. The film was different too. It didn’t come in the little round cylinder like I remember later – it was in a wrapper. And of course – I would have to be very careful about how many photos I took because film was expensive and so was developing it. But I would be so excited to get the photos back to see what I got.
Then skip ahead to many years later – all the way to high school. I took several art classes and the first assignment in the first class was to make a viewfinder. It wasn’t really impressive in looks – basically a simple square cut out of a square. But it opened up a whole new world for me. I learned that you never really draw a tree. You draw a trunk. Then you draw branches. Then you draw leaves. And suddenly all those pieces become a tree. The idea of drawing a tree might seem overwhelming, but drawing lines in the shape of a trunk isn’t too scary. It seems – even possible.
Now fast forward to me out of college, with my first job and my first puppy, and I start learning about clicker training. Which is basically taking a snapshot of a behavior that you like – so Piper would understand – “Yes! That’s right – that’s what I wanted – right there. Yay!” And shaping is capturing small behaviors until you get the whole picture you’re looking for. Almost like a viewfinder that helps you see the positive – the achievable.
And so why do I take so many photos? Well – it’s partly just because I love my dogs. If “just” really belongs in that sentence. But also – taking photos reminds me to see the beauty in everything around me. Sometimes the whole scene isn’t always perfect. But there are pieces of it that are. And it’s so so important to focus on that. Capture those moments. That beauty. That love. Treasure it all. And hold onto it with everything you have.
Though my big sister is officially a practicing veterinarian today – sometimes I think she was born a vet.
Which meant I was born a vet tech – at least one in training.
From about the time I could walk – I was enlisted to help her catch, hold, trim and treat all sorts of animals. Cats, kittens, dogs, puppies, horses, a calf, chickens, rabbits, turtles – and even a wolf. We were into it all. And I was usually the one holding – while she was treating the patient. I suppose she and I were a pretty good team – except for the time she did accidentally stick me with a needle. Gah . . .
While at the time – I wasn’t so sure I had the best job, I was actually really lucky then and now. Mary-Catherine taught me when holding an animal to relax when they relax – otherwise, there’s no reason for them to relax when being restrained. It builds trust. But also – be ready for when they . . . unrelax.
I also learned to make it a priority for my pets to be okay with being restrained while having their ears, eyes, teeth and feet examined. I’ve really focused a lot on this with Phenom especially as a puppy. It not only makes a vet’s life easier, it’s also easier on your pet. When they’re hurt – they’re already stressed – so if they’re comfortable with being restrained, the situation is a little easier for them.
It’s also important – especially as puppies – to take them to the vet for just happy visits. My vet let me bring Phenom in just to get treats and practice sitting on the scale.
I’ve been thinking about this more lately because on a recent swimming trip, Phenom and Vega cut their feet on some oyster shells, so I’ve been doctoring that over the last week. They are getting much better, but it’s not easy keeping them calm. We are used to lots of playing, but hopefully soon they will be all better. And they are being good patients. And I am trying to have – patience.
Being a vet is hard work. So is being a vet tech. Every day they work with patients who can’t tell them what hurts. I really appreciate all that vets (especially my sister who is always on call for me) and their staff do for our pets. I don’t know how they do it. I never could.
Apologies in advance for some of my audience as this story is slightly – um – colorful. Not long after I got Piper – which was about 11 years ago – I was living in Raleigh and got the chance to be an assistant for a great dog trainer. He was one of those rare individuals who was as talented with the dogs as the people. He was a former police dog trainer and while he had tons of knowledge – he was also very down to earth and practical in his instruction. I learned so much from him and in fact – he’s the one who helped me find Vega. I wonder if he had any idea how much Vega would teach me. Or maybe he did.
At the start of each class Gary would pick one student to demonstrate the week’s homework and you never knew who he would pick – so everyone practiced. I think this was maybe the second week of a basic manners class, so he picked this couple and their lab puppy to demonstrate “sit.” Well – they nervously walked to the middle of the room and just as they got there – their puppy started the dreaded squat for a poop pose. And well – if that wasn’t embarrassing enough – he just kept straining there. The nervous chuckles started from the others in the class. But Gary didn’t miss a beat – seeing that the owners were mortified – he quickly stepped out there with them – looked down at their puppy squatting there trying to poop and said, “No, I said – SIT.” Ah – well. Then everyone laughed. And laughed. The awkwardness was over – well almost.
While everyone laughed – I grabbed a poop bag and helped the poor pup out. Which was a good thing because from the looks of it, he had eaten quite a bit of string and we might have been there all night waiting on him.
Every time I think of this story – I still laugh out loud. And it reminds me that no matter how much things stink – laughing helps.
I haven’t done quite as good a job at videoing what Phenom and I have been working on the past couple of months – but most of our activities take place in the dark it seems. By the time I would get home and get to the park, we usually play under the security lights – and my camera doesn’t have night vision. . . yet. But I’m seriously glad that it’s so much lighter longer now.
The last couple of months we’ve been working on retrieving a lot – especially bringing the toy back to me. We’ve also been working on loose leash walking (especially as a group), recalls, running, stays, tricks, foundation jump grids, circle work, downs with movement, body awareness stuff, perch work with jump bumps, rear crosses, wing wraps and nose touches for contact foundation.
Over the next few months coming up we are hoping to move our contact training further along and also start our 2 x 2 weave training. I’m really excited about that.
Phenom also got to meet my parents’ new cavalier puppy Duchess. Phenom was so great with her. And Duchess is quite the character too.
Oh – she also had her first experience with a pet sitter too. I don’t think she missed me at all. Well – maybe a little. But I bet not as much as I missed her.
Don’t get me wrong – she’s still super cute, but somewhere along the way she’s started looking even more beautiful and elegant to me.
She’s still such a character and makes me laugh all the time with her many antics, but every now and then I get a glimpse of a grown-up Phenom. And though it’s hard to imagine having even more fun with “Grown-up Phenom” than “Puppy Phenom” – I think that’s exactly where we’re headed.
Here’s a video of some of what we’ve been working on:
So I got lazy a couple weeks ago. Phenom and I just wanted to get to the park.
We have to walk about half a mile to the park where she gets to stretch out and race and play and retrieve. We try to walk there every day. I usually reward her for walking by my side with a loose leash – but as you might imagine it’s much harder on the way there than it is on the way back. And it’s also a lot harder for her (and me) when I walk all three dogs together. Well – I got lazy and thought – ugh, I just want to get there. I will let her pull me there. Oooohhh – bad me. Because of course, I know that she is just being reinforced for pulling by getting to go forward. So our walks were becoming less fun. And the wrong things were being learned.
Being lazy is really hard work.
That’s when I decided to make it easier on both of us and actually get back to training. While some people might think that addressing a challenge or training a behavior may seem like hard work – it’s nothing compared to ignoring it or letting it get worse. Now that is really hard.
So we got to it. I measured out her dinner along with a few treats, put them in a ziplock bag in my pocket and we headed out. Lots of treats at first for being by my side, then switch it up – every now and then I give her a handful, then we walk several paces for just a few pieces of kibble or treats, then maybe another handful. Lots of reinforcement.
Here are some tips for those of you working on this too:
• walk faster (believe me – it works)
• change up your pace so it’s more interesting
• stop or go in another direction if she/he pulls out in front
• be focused on your dog and distractions that may be headed your way
• reward right down by your side/leg
• mix up your rewards
• mix up the amount of rewards and pace of reward delivery
• be ready to reward attention on you during distractions
• ask for behaviors along the way – we do some perchwork pivots to reinforce her staying by my side along with a few other things like backing up, sits, downs, spins, etc.
• a handsfree leash helps
• work on the skills individually – not always as a group
I’m sure there are so many other great ideas, but these are a few that have worked for me.
And there is much more to do – which is fine – because it’s fun. That’s so important for me because if it’s not fun – I’m not going to want to do it and Phenom certainly isn’t. She loves fun – like me!
So the other night as we all three walked to the park after dark and the street lights cast our shadows out in front, I could see a glimpse of progress ahead. It was in the form of three loose leashes. And it looked good. I was proud of all of us.
Of course the solution to our challenge is simple – at its core is consistency and making walking by my side the most reinforcing place to be no matter how much both of us want to get to the park to play. It’s a lesson in patience and faith that we will get there together. And because of that – the journey is so much better.
So I’ve audited the Anthony Clarke seminars at DogLogic for several years now, and this year I finally got to participate in one of them.
Well – it was worth the wait. Running Phenom was such a rush. This was the Novice / Open Seminar, so I was a little nervous about it because we really haven’t done much with the equipment and maybe only 3-4 obstacles at once. But Phenom was awesome. She made me look good, and I was just racing to keep up with her. She did things we’ve never even tried before. I guess all that circle work and foundation we’ve been doing at DogLogic is paying off. We are really lucky to have such a great place to train.
This was Phenom’s first seminar and there were so many distractions, but she did an awesome job with everything. The other participants were all great – cheering everyone on. And Ant is so nice to work with. He’s really talented at reading the dogs and pushing the handlers. I was just thrilled with the whole weekend. We also had a private lesson and worked on some rear crosses and running flat out – which was really fun too. It is so so so much fun running and playing with Phenom, and I’m thinking she’s really liking agility too. Yay!
Here’s a little video of some of my favorite moments – a super big thanks to all the people I pestered to video us. It’s great to have this to look back at. And thanks to Ant for coming all this way and of course, to Lynne and Karen at DogLogic for hosting such a stellar set of seminars. We really enjoyed it.