Saturday, December 25, 2010

Christmas wooing.

"Oh Little Girl, won't you please come play with me?" 
     "Absolutely NOT. How undignified for a lady!"

"Pretty please?  As you can see, I am a very handsome Big Black Dog."

     "Certainly NOT!" 
                                       [Gives requisite 'I'm too much of a diva to play with icky BOYS' look (usually short-lived.)]

     "Wellll.... maybe."


Merry Christmas to All!

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Where did fall go?

Well, the Withun family has been busy during fall, both human and canine.

The humans were busy at work with big projects.  Paul hosted a big Security Conference for all of the security folks from all of the US defense distribution centers all over the world, AND spent some time in Japan for work visiting/checking on one of those sites.  I hosted Lean experts from Brazil and India for a two-week Lean Continuous Improvement wave.  Usually I love these - this one, not so much.  But life goes on, even for Quality Managers who would prefer their "help" go ahead and fly back to where they came from.

The dogs were possibly even busier than the two-legged Withuns.  If you're one of our dog-person friends, all the details you could ever want are in my training log - link to blog at left. (In fact, in the interest of how well keeping a detailed journal has been for enhancing my training, it is WAY more than anyone would ever want to read about someone else's dogs.)  But for everyone else, I'll try to use non-crazy-dog-person-terms...

November 5th, Paul and I competed in a Rally-Obedience trial.  In Rally-O, we (handler and dog) go through a course of numbered stations (usually around 20), with the dog heeling between them and doing specific obedience exercises at each station.  All 3 dogs did well.  Rowdy earned his Level 2 Title, and even had one PERFECT score!  He was on fire!  This was Seelie's first obedience competition, and she did well too!  She is definitely the kind of multi-talented, versatile dog I was looking for.  Although she does occasionally bark, as if shocked, by someone/something that's been in the room unchanged for the last half hour - earning her the loving nickname of "freaky-beans." 

Brutus and Seelie volunteered with a "Kids Reading To Dogs" program at the library.  Several kids had "appointments" to read books aloud to them to practice their reading skills (the dogs don't mind if they make a few mistakes, and it makes reading more fun.)

Paul and I celebrated our "Thanks-I-Versary" - 9 years on November 23rd!  But we both worked that day, so we celebrated with a lovely Thanksgiving dinner out, just the two of us.  (Yes, those are roasted chestnuts in with the brussells sprouts - so festive!)

Thanksgiving weekend, Paul and I competed in another CPE Agility trial.  All 3 dogs earned titles (by accumulating several runs through different agility obstacle courses, while meeting certain standards for completing the obstacles quickly, correctly, and in order.)  These were Seelie's first competition titles ever, so she is now officially "Seelie Court Withun, DSA, CGC, TDI, CL1-R, CL1-F."  [Dog Scouts of America, AKC Canine Good Citizen, Therapy Dogs International certified therapy dog, CPE Level 1 standard agility title, CPE Level 1 agility fun games title.]  Here she is at the September trial, before she decided that it was fun to doing a flying leap off of the A-frame like super-woman (which unfortunately disqualifies you.)  It's actually nice to have a pursuit that's occasionally very humbling, and also occasionally results in a thrilling victory.

By the way, Rowdy is now "Rowdy Bones Withun, DSA, CGC, TDI, PDX, CL1, RL2, AOE-L2."  [Dog Scouts of America, AKC Canine Good Citizen, Therapy Dogs International certified therapy dog, DSA Pack Dog Excellent (hiked 100 miles under pack with one 10-mile hike), ALL of the CPE Level 1 agility titles (standard, handler, fun, and strategy), APDT Rally-Obedience Level 2 (includes his completion of the level 1 title as well), and the APDT Rally-Obedience Award of Excellence for level 2 (for earning exceedingly high scores.)] 

Paul especially enjoys the fact that our "mutt" is "Brutus Withun, DSA, CGC, TDI, PDX, RL1, CSL1-R, CSL1-F, CSL1-H."  [same as above, with the standard, fun, and handler's agility titles for level 1 - as a "specialist," that's the "S," which essentially means that since he's 9 years old and gigantic his jumps are lowered to 16" high instead of 24" which would be his regular height.]

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Habits 4-6 {it's all connected, post #2}

For Pete's sake, it's habits 4 through 6 now, in a dog training blog.

Habit #4 - Think Win/Win  (Work to find that 3rd solution that really is a win for everyone, instead of everyone, or one person, just compromising.  With this attitude, no one has to compromise, and everyone can really buy into the solution, since it's actually better than what either "side" brought to the table.)

Habit #5 - Seek First to Understand, Then to Be Understood  (I think/hope this one is self-explanatory.  You can communicate more effectively when you really get where the other is coming from, not just the words, but the intentions, passions, and motivation behind their words and actions.)

Habit #6 - Synergize  (This is working in a way that ensures the results are the very best efforts the team has to offer, truly valuing and leveraging everyone's strengths and diverse ideas and perspectives.  To synergize, you must set up an environment where everyone is bringing everything they've got to the table, leaving no talents unutilized.)

After the first three habits focusing on ourselves, these are the three of the seven habits that teach us how to interact with others in a way that makes our collaboration more than the sum of its parts, better than what we each could achieve with only our own efforts/ideas/talents.

And here's an interesting look at a "problem" dog behavior - a dog learning to open doors and gates - from another blog:

 "This is the very kind of creative ingenuity that enabled dogs to survive and thrive around hazardous human activities for the hundreds of years before we began to contain and control them. This is the dog’s default program. Why would we want to snuff it out and exchange it for the dutiful compliance of a measly few orders—what we call “commands”—we actually take the time to teach a dog? Who would want to trade an animal with such incredible potential for one who won’t or can’t do anything unless and until he his told or allowed? "

[Here's the link if you'd like to read the whole thing:]

The title of the blog's entry is:

"Trading Possibility for Control."

Wow.  That to me hammers it home.  This is what we do so often in the workplace.  Just insert "employee" for "dog" in the excerpt above.  We require compliance, but unwittingly buy it at the cost of creativity and enthusiasm.  We forget habits 4-6, because they require us to honor the other person's (dog's) perspective, and communicate with them in a meaningful way.  And that's hard a lot of the time.  We make mistakes, and it's not pretty, it's not smooth.  We need to make an investment in the other person (dog); to lay the groundwork of a strong relationship that can sustain minor miscommunications and keep on rolling.  We need to truly accept and honor the other's perspective.  So I think sometimes we learn to AVOID any kind of real collaboration.  We inadvertently squash creativity and passion, because we either don't know how to channel it, or don't want to do the "extra" work it takes to turn it into a finished, collaborative product.  I think we've all seen workplaces, and dog training classes/events, that have employees/dogs who are acting like mindless automatons, who if they take initiative to do anything on their own it's mostly centered around keeping a low profile so as not to draw fire. 

I agree that every team needs a strong leader, who takes responsibility for developing and leveraging the members' talents, charts the team's course, and makes final decisions.  But the fact is, if you truly commit to the kinds of actions and attitudes described by Covey in habits 4-6, you GET compliance.  Willingly.  To an often-better plan everyone genuinely buys into.  Enthusiastically.  Person or dog.

I say, trade your control for Possibility! 

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Habit #1 {it's all connected, post #1}

Lately I've been noticing common themes that keep coming up in my life.  These ideas keep arriving on my doorstep, refusing to be ignored.  They will try to work their way into my life any way they can, through work, hobbies, books, friends, whatever's handy.

The fact that the 7 Habits of Highly Effective People relates directly to my choice of dog training methods is freaking me out a little.  At the same time, it's reassuring that right is right.

Theme #1:    Don't spend any time on things you have no control over.  That leaves a surprising amount of surplus time and energy to spend on things you can influence.  Spend more time on THAT.


"God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference."  - the "Serenity Prayer"


“’Look how he abused me and beat me, how he threw me down and robbed me.’ Abandon such thoughts and live in love.” – Dhammapada: Choices

“Look to your own faults, what you have done or left undone. Overlook the faults of others.” -Dhammapada: Flowers


The Circle of Concern includes everything you care about.
The Circle of Influence includes only those things that you can influence / control.

"Proactive people focus their efforts in the Circle of Influence, working on things they can do something about. The nature of their energy is positive, enlarging and magnifying, causing their Circle of Influence to increase.

Reactive people focus their efforts in the Circle of Concern. They focus on the weakness of other people, problems in the environment, and circumstances over which they have no control. The negative energy generated by that focus, combined with neglect in areas the could do something about, causes their Circle of Influence to shrink."  -  Stephen Covey's The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People

In dog training, I start with myself, and how my behavior influences the dog's.  I can completely control my own actions, so spending time on that is very worthwhile.

Product DetailsProduct Details
Of all of those ideas that seem to be collecting around me in pools, this one is everywhere. I would not be surprised to see it on a billboard today on my way home from work. Which would be appropriate, since this is one place I could work on this idea - while driving. What a waste to feel even brief anger at a discourteous driver. To spend one fraction of an emotion on someone I will never meet, to accomplish nothing at all. And "spending" it is. I really think that expending mental and emotional energy on another driver actually depletes my resources.  Certainly, all the nerdy brain science books I've been reading would support that - it takes energy and a mix of all kinds of brain chemicals to produce and process all that frustration.  Resources I could spend being kind, or empathizing, or being appreciative, or something productive.

So I'm going to try to let things go - anything at all that I have no control over.  I've never really been so awful at this I think, not usually stewing over things, but better is better.  So far I like it, just the absence of even those brief moments of seething frustration.  I had always thought of some of this activity as "venting" in some kind of productive way, but just letting it go feels much better.  Venting is tiring.  I actually think it will be energizing, saving up all that consternation to be applied to something else. Or so the world is shouting.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Two in the bush

You know, I don't really think that a bird in the hand IS worth two in the bush. 

Better to have a hand open to endless possibilities, and a world filled with birdsong.

Better to be on a journey toward a hopeful destination than clinging to what one has, grasping to keep it, regardless of what else the world might hold for you if you could let go.

A shy pileated woodpecker in our woods, which in my opinion is worth more than, oh, a sparrow in the hand. 
Even if there's not TWO of them.

If I had the choice to win $1000 in the lottery, but would have to forgo any future chance of winning the big jackpot, I wouldn't want it.  I play rarely, but what I'm buying into is the idea that something of legendary proportions could happen. 

I buy into that idea in life. 

There are great things out there, better than what's in your hand right now.  I don't mean to say I'm constantly longing for something I don't have, but that you can be both happy with what you have and where you are, and also open to all of the other, wondrous possibilities the world has to offer.

Monday, September 6, 2010

The fruits of our labor.

Lots of fun, lots of Q's (meaning we "qualified" for a leg toward a title, by meeting the standard requirements of the course, quickly, and with minimal errors).

Seelie: 2 Q's in her 2 runs (her first ever), in FullHouse and Standard.  One 1st and one 2nd place.

Brutus: 3 Q's in JackPot, Jumpers, and WildCard.  (With a special mention from the judge for how much fun they were having.)

Rowdy: 5 Q's in his 8 runs, in FullHouse, Standard, Jumpers, Jackpot, and Wildcard.  Three new titles: CL1-S (Standard Level One), CL1-H (Handler Games Level One), CL1-F (Fun Games Level One.)

All in all a great weekend!

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Two days and a wake-up till...

This weekend we're entered in our second-ever agility trial.  Paul with Brutus, and me with both Rowdy and Seelie.  As usual before any kind of competition, I'm totally nervous, and the evenings of lying awake visualizing runs and obsessing over our training gaps began in earnest last night.

A new twist:  I've entered a dog with minimal training that I've had for just over three months.  Predictably, this has raised the ante of my nervousness. 

Seelie can safely execute all of the obstacles and stays focused and with me while running even if I don't have any treats.  She has run full competition-level courses in practice, with mixed results and frequent re-tries of obstacles.  I will admit she does NOT really have enough training to enter a trial, and I'm sure some dyed-in-the-wool aficionados of the sport would find it offensive that I'd enter such a novice dog (maybe I will give them the raspberries).  I doubt she will qualify, particularly if there is a competition-height tire jump involved.  But I'd plan to bring her along anyway, and heck, why not?  Saturday we're entered in Fullhouse, so we can pick our own course (each obstacle worth a given amount of points).  We have a pretty good chance of doing OK, pending she doesn't have some kind of freaky-beans moment.  But Sunday, we're entered in Standard and we'll need to run whatever course the judge designed, so we'll just see about that.  Hopefully I won't chicken out at the last moment.  If nothing else, it will help me identify any trial environment things that might freak her out, so that we can work on them.

Rowdy has been just great in practice, and I'll admit that I'll be disappointed if we don't do well.  We've been flowing through courses like a mountain stream, rushing with power but also serene along its purposeful path, flowing around obstacles like we've been doing it for millions of years.  Well that's what it feels like till the end... THEN it feels like I need an oxygen tank.  Rowdy is very, very fast particularly when he's running seamlessly from obstacle to obstacle. 

A trial environment is different than class, so I'm trying to adjust my expectations back to the "let's just have fun with it" setting.  It's difficult, now that I've gotten a taste of the awesome runs we've been having for the past several weeks in class.  But we have eight runs (2 Standard, and 6 games), so I'm hoping to at least have a few runs that are of the quality we've been doing in practice.

Here's hoping we don't have any of THIS this year.... Rowdy visiting the ring crew during one of our runs last year (so disappointed she is shunning him!  Please lady, don't you have something in your pocket for a poor cattle dog?)...

Paul and Brutus move to Level 2 in Standard this year after two solid runs in last year's trial.  I've been their "weave pole coach," since those are added in level 2. They're doing great, and I love to see them run - both truly enjoying the moment, with such wonderful teamwork.

OK, this is Brutus Lure Coursing... don't have an agility pic handy.  :)

Monday, August 9, 2010

"Every day, a little up."

At work as a Quality Manager, I use Lean continuous improvement methodologies. I love this aspect of my job, as Lean methods fit right into my own natural way of thinking. In the US, Lean is often defined as the “elimination of waste,” but this definition focuses only on the results and not the methods, where the true genius lies. To convey Lean thinking, I like a story I read in the Toyota Way Fieldbook that goes something like this. An American executive goes to a Toyota site in Japan to learn about Lean. After walking around the facility and talking for a while, struggling somewhat to convey Lean to the American in English, his Japanese counterpart walks up to a dry erase board and draws a simple set of stairs. He indicates just one of the steps and says “every day, a little up.”

This is Lean. We honestly assess ourselves and embrace our imperfections, so that we might all work together to improve them, by digging down to find the true root of the issue and focusing on changing the things we can control. When we want to improve an area, we look for a small bite-size piece that we can easily change for the better - even if each small change only improves the area a little bit, the sum of these small changes for the better over time makes for amazing results. We form cooperative teams of employees at all levels, from in and outside of the work area in question. And instead of focusing on a giant, looming goal, we feel a sense of accomplishment when we make the change that we had planned, and it indeed improves things. In the end, we’ve scaled the huge staircase, but along the way each step was carefully done and its own achievement.

Another bit from the Toyota Way Fieldbook is a critique that American managers tend to "Ready, Fire, Aim" in problem-solving - basically shooting from the hip.  In Lean, it's more like "Ready, Aim, Aim, Aim, Fire."  More time and effort are spent before an action is taken, to ensure that this action will "hit the target."  The actions themselves may be dreadfully simple, but if they are sure to make a positive improvement in your desired result, then they are better than a thousand expensive, expansive actions that miss the mark.  But next to a flurry of firing and re-firing without thinking, all of that thoughtfulness can seem lackadaisical.  It's important to remind ourselves that the process that generates these dramatic and amazing positive changes over time can look peaceful, quiet, and reflective at each step.

I am not into stalking employees taking notes on my clipboard about their mistakes, though this is what people typically think of when they hear my job title. I spend little time as a Quality Manager focusing on our error rate, and analyzing our mistakes. I find that if we spend our time ensuring people are doing the right things every day, small things that are under our control, then quality automatically follows.


Sometimes, I think I seem like I am not very serious about my dog training, and do not care about the results, that I am a dabbler without high aspirations. This is true, and it isn’t. It’s true I spend very little time thinking about titles and accomplishments, and that I favor versatility over perfection in one sport.

But my dogs often attain just as much, if not more, success as others – certainly not reaching elite levels, but they compete quite respectably alongside others who seem to be far more serious about the individual sport.  For the amount of time I put into training on a given canine sport or activity, I have a pretty high return on investment. I’ve been thinking all along that Rowdy is just an exceptional dog, bright and willing and versatile. Which is true, but as I embark on teaching Brutus to do basic weave poles in the one month remaining before the CPE trial (so that he and Paul can move up to Level 2), without even a doubt as to our eventual success, I have to admit this is not all that’s going on. In the two months I have had Seelie, she has grown tremendously, and in our agility class yesterday it became obvious that she will quickly surpass other dogs’ skills who have been working with their owners for years. My dogs’ most fluent skills of course reflect the things I hold most important – to willingly give their all toward any request I might make of them no matter how odd, to be able to easily understand what I want of them, and to be the kind of companion I enjoy most. I am far from a perfect trainer, but I have to admit that I think I’m on to something.

I spend a great deal of time learning about training methods, and I choose my methods carefully.  By the time my dogs and I are actually working on something, the serious part has already been done. When I train, it is lighthearted and fun for my dogs, but rather than indicating a lack of seriousness, it is an integral part of the methods I’ve chosen. The methods are solid, and I work hard to implement them correctly. My goal is to spend all of my energy on the journey – enjoying it, being in the moment, and also ensuring the quality of that journey. In each training session, I focus on improving just one or two small things as a team. It must seem like I have low expectations at times, since all I ask is that my dog and I complete the exercise of the day. I am almost always satisfied with whatever performance my dogs give me, because I know that the methods I’ve chosen will bring forth from them the very best performance they were able to give that day, according to the job I did as a trainer that day. Over time, this choice to focus on small, achievable training goals in each session has paid off. I choose to work first and most on the underlying foundations of our relationship and communication - this results in exactly zero impressive tricks or titles, but I find it to be serious and important work though an onlooker might think we’re just playing. I spend a good deal of time quietly assessing and re-assessing my training plans – but rather than having huge game plans and lofty goals, I really just want to build quality into the next session. And then the next. Every day, a little up.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Weasel Joy

For watching when you need a smile...

My ferrets have to remind me sometimes that there is joy around every corner.

Friday, July 30, 2010

On dog-dog greetings and wine tastings...

Dog Greetings and Fine Wine.

Most people assume that both of these things are supposed to be great all the time. Lassie et al have ensured that we all have an idealized picture in our minds of dog behavior, and the price tag and snobbish wine aficionados might be what tell us wine is just supposed to be enjoyed.

Upon actual observation, things are different. Reality tells us that some dog greetings go way off track, and too often a first wine tasting sends a person running, now self-stamped as a person that “doesn’t like wine.” We consciously or unconsciously blame the “nasty” dog, and the person with the “uncultured palate.”  If either a dog greeting, or a wine tasting, go wrong – then it must be due to a deficiency in the dog or person.

The thing is, most people can tell if something’s a train wreck, or a masterpiece. But in between, there are less easily discernible shades of gray, which take a very small and worthwhile investment of time, observation, and skills to see and to appreciate. Like in wine. And dog greetings. And pretty much everything.

People often assume that dog greetings are going fine unless there is a terrible cacophony of snarling to tell them otherwise (Train Wreck). Others can also discern when their dog particularly likes another dog. But that’s about the extent of it. Train Wreck or Masterpiece.

But just like when you meet people, some greetings are vanilla and uneventful, some are awkward and mildly uncomfortable, some are rude, and sometimes, rarely, you meet someone new that is destined to become a good friend. Dogs are a social species – this is one of the reasons they have found their way into our homes over time. Just like us, they come in a wide continuum of personalities, and each dog has preferences about who they’d like to spend time with. You might also have some opinions about just what kind of strangers you’d like to touch you, and how… but no reason to get too far into that. The point is – tune in, and what you see might change your attitude about assuming your dog loves every other dog. They might not enjoy greeting strangers at all. Oddly, even the shyest of people tend to find this disturbing.

Same goes for wine. I think mostly, people assume they “should” enjoy all wine. They hear wine drinkers touting the excellent bottle of Merlot they just had, the lovely Chardonnay. If they saw me pouring a freshly opened bottle down the sink, they’d know the wine aficionado’s dirty little wine secret – some of it is downright terrible. And just like the dog, you might justifiably need to look around a bit to find the wine you’d enjoy meeting, and you might need to look around quite a lot to find the wine you’ll be lifelong friends with. The Masterpiece. I like sweet whites, and dry reds. This is not “supposed” to happen, so no one else’s judgment would have gotten me to enjoy both red and white wine, only my own observation and experience. So non-wine-drinkers, I beseech you to hone, and then trust, your own observation and experience.

If you can learn to recognize the shades of gray, you can get more masterpieces, and you can enjoy warmer, happier shades of gray along the way. Until you can interpret the gray area, you’re destined to have only whatever masterpieces happen to fall into your lap by chance. You’ll keep wondering why you’re drinking wine you don’t really like, without the chops to throw some of the stuff out. You might just avoid the stuff entirely rather than attempt to navigate the scary “gray area.” And your dog will keep doing his best to humor your expectations to be constantly running for Mayor of Dogtown (but occasionally, he might throw a punch at a heckler. Really. At least don’t be so shocked now when it happens.)

Instead, you could treat both as journeys, with shades of distinction in quality of experience – Allow your dog some input on what kind of company he enjoys (if you watch for a while, he will tell you quite clearly), and be a good friend to your dog by honoring this input and not expecting him to tolerate continued behavior that he finds rude just because it hasn’t devolved into a dogfight. If you do this, you’ll find you have less of those shocking Train Wrecks. Allow yourself some input on the ups and downs of your own journey into wino-dom. Try wines out, find a few acquaintances at first, toss out the crass jerks and the ones you just don’t hit it off with; then as you surround yourself with good friends, you just might find a BFF or two. (Oh Shiraz and Riesling, I can always count on the two of you!) We know that having dogs can improve our health, and lucky me that wine is the only vice that, in moderation, has been medically proven to improve your health. And most wonderfully, “moderation” is still a glass every day! Apparently, my drinking habit isn’t even “moderate!”

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Dog Scout Camp 2010!


Rowdy, Seelie, and I just returned from a fun-filled week at Dog Scout Camp, my fourth journey to this heaven-on-earth in Michigan’s north woods. The whole concept of summer camp is awesome, with good friends, loads of activities to try, craft projects, campfires, hikes, water fun, and games. Combined with all of us bringing our dogs to focus on our shared hobby of choice, I can’t imagine a better way to spend a vacation. It also has “all-inclusiveness” since you park your car and leave your wallet for the whole week, with everything within walking distance and an honor-system camp store “tab.” Lisa Basial and I made the trip together (with her dogs Nano and Ransom), and had a blast as roommates.

Merit Badges! Gosh I love these cute little things, each one holding a memory of time spent learning something new together. Seelie earned some of her “first year camper” badges:

Puppy Paddler (learning to swim)


Obstacle 1 and 2 (Agility)

 Art of Shaping (painting) - hers is top left, a stingray 

I used the clicker to teach Seelie to raise her paw and hit a board, and also to wear a little mitt – later to be used by her to paint a picture which earned first prize in the “art contest.” She’s a quick learner, and gave a great demonstration of latent learning (like when you “sleep on it” and then grasp a concept better the next day without any further studying) – at our first Shaping class, we managed to get a couple swipes of paw on board and I decided we’d just end early on a good note, since we had all week to train with Shaping class each day. The next day, as soon as we sat down she picked up the behavior immediately and began striking the board – on with the Painting Paw mitt and paints, and whamo there she is painting in two ten-minute training sessions. Wow. But the big achievement for the week for Seelie and I was strengthening our relationship and communication – I definitely feel like we’ve crossed a bridge to a place where training is easier and the awkward new-ness has worn off of our relationship.

Rowdy has already earned most of the easier badges, but he got three neat ones this year.

Water Racing


I’m especially proud of Rowdy for earning the new Messenger Dog badge (whose patch isn’t complete yet.) It simulates the job of military messenger dogs who in wartime would take messages back to base camp, and lead reinforcements to the forward platoons, tracking the platoon to its new location if they had moved. My friend Lisa took Rowdy about 200 yards down a wooded, winding trial and with the command of “report!” she sent him back to me with a message, Rowdy flying at top speed to reach me, never mind the wildlife, woods, and lake he needed to pass to get to me – he was on the job! He then led me to the location she released him from, but she had by then moved another 100 yards away, choosing one of three paths and then hiding off of the trial. Rowdy used his nose to track her path, not wavering even a moment as he chose the correct trail. As we passed Lisa’s hiding spot, Rowdy stopped when he lost the scent on the trail, just a few feet past where she had went off trail. It took him a moment to figure out what to do, but then he doubled back where he knew the scent was, picked up her scent again and then found her in her hiding place! Amazing! We only trained on this for a few days, and he did great.

Training for the Messenger Dog merit badge reminded me that I should never underestimate Rowdy – if I just can figure out how to communicate what it is that I want, he is always willing and able to carry it out. 

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Surviving Bloat

Brutus after surgery, with breathing tube still in, and a foot-long incision you can't really see here.

Bloat. It’s a word that inspires fear in the hearts of crazy dog ladies everywhere. No one really knows what causes it, and it can move from zero symptoms (or ones you don’t notice) to fatal in a matter of minutes. The stomach twists on itself and once the stomach and intestines die, there is nothing you can do.

On Tuesday, Brutus had emergency surgery for bloat, and so far is doing ok. It’s very scary that if I had not been working from home that day, by the time we got home from work he probably either would have been dead or past veterinary medicine’s ability to save him. After the surgery, the owner of the veterinary hospital passed by and said he didn’t know whether to say it was our unlucky day, or our lucky day.  I replied that I’d put it squarely in the “lucky” column.

To spread the good karma around, the rest of this post is sharing my experience with bloat in the hope that it could save another dog’s life.  Pay special attention if you have a deep-chested or large breed of dog.  It’s also a harrowing tale with a happy ending, and even a bit of dark humor at the end.

Basically, Brutus’s stomach spun all the way around so that it was pinched shut and cutting off the blood supply to all parts of the digestive system south of the stomach. It also wrapped around his spleen, which had to be removed. His distressed system began filling with gasses that had no means to escape his body. The big risk is the dog going into shock and the blood-deprived tissues and organs dying. Dogs can’t live without functioning intestines.

The trigger to rush Brutus to the vet was a single stretch. He had vomited earlier, but it was the stretch that sent me to the vet for possible bloat. 20 minutes later, it would be apparent to anyone that he was in terrible distress, but thankfully we were already pulling up to the vet at that point because minutes count.

Here’s how it went down: Brutus was fine Monday night and Tuesday morning. He ate breakfast in a joyous but relatively relaxed manner with nothing out of the ordinary. A few hours later, he vomited, and there was a bunch of grass and a scrap of green vinyl I couldn’t identify in there, which may or may not have caused some gastric upset that contributed to the bloat, who knows. He drank some water I offered him, and took a treat - my first “tests” for how sick he is, which he passed with flying colors. Next test, check gums for capillary refill and color – A-ok. I gave him a Pepcid, which we normally give him for his acid reflux (he’s kinda fragile for a giant dog) and proceeded to my conference call. A bit later, he retched and belched a couple of times then seemed to recover (thank you “mute” function on my phone.) OK, time for closer observation. Then, lying down next to me, he did a big stretch, stretching his back legs way out. Uh oh. Maybe he is trying to relieve some discomfort in his belly/bowels? I decided to embrace my crazy dog lady-ness and drop my conference call on the rare chance it was bloat, and not just him stretching for the heck of it.

When I got the keys and crated the other dogs, he was ecstatic about going on a trip. I thought for the umpteenth time how I was overreacting, but thought at least I’d be able to pick up some milk while I was out. During the drive, on which I was favoring speed over smoothness of ride, he began retching repeatedly and couldn’t sit still (also thank you to my cargo liner, though I wasn’t caring about that at the time.) When I opened the back hatch about 20 minutes later, panic began to set in. There was foamy drool all over the cargo area. He had to stop several times between the car and the office to retch. From the car to the exam room, I watched his belly start to blow up like a balloon. At this point, I figured it was either an obstruction or bloat, but either way an emergency. He was x-rayed and put on IV fluids, which he would need to complete before surgery to guard against shock. Two bags took a while to drip in, and in the meantime his belly now felt and looked like a 9-month pregnancy. He spent some time pacing with his legs set wide apart, groaning, drooling, and trying to pass gas to try to relieve the pressure he was feeling (which did succeed in expressing his anal glands quite a bit), holding his tail high over his body. He spent other time lying down, still groaning and drooling.  His tongue and gums became pale white.

The x-ray had shown what looked like an intestinal torsion, which is more rare (i.e. vets have less experience performing these kinds of surgeries successfully.) After the x-ray and starting the IV, our wonderful, caring, and skilled vet - whom I am so glad happened to be in that office branch on that day - informed me that if she opened him up and saw that his intestines were dead, she would be asking us to make the merciful decision not to wake him up.  I knew already that bloat was often fatal, but hearing it out loud is something else entirely.  Of course I lost it at that point, but had to quickly recover so that I could get Paul on the road toward us and hopefully not so erratically to provoke a crash. Paul did make it prior to the 2 IV bags being done, and Brutus was happy to see him of course. Throughout, Brutus still summoned a little tail wag for every visitor to the exam room.

A bit into the surgery, we were informed that it was his stomach that had turned, not the intestine, which was the first bit of good news. It was also apparent at that point that the vet had seen inside him and it wasn’t a total unsalvageable mess.

Some hours later, our vet emerged looking absolutely exhausted, to tell us we could see him as soon as he was moved from surgery into an exam room, and that everything went ok. Part of the surgery is to tack his stomach against his body to prevent recurrence. He’ll stay at the vet the rest of the week, because it is possible he’ll need a second surgery to remove part of his stomach, but this seems to be a contingency they are prepared to deal with if it happens. Then a week of feeding tiny meals every few hours, and six weeks of leash-restricted walking and crate rest, and he’s back to full duty.

We stayed with Brutus quite a while, until we were officially kicked out so that he could go in the back and rest. Here’s the only humorous portion of the story. He was pretty much out of it, sort of aware of his surroundings but just lying there sleepy. Then a vet who we normally don’t see, but who was the one to come out to our house last July to put Louie to sleep, stopped by to see how we were doing. As soon as Brutus heard that voice, he came alive and tried to get up, and we had to work to keep him lying down and still. Apparently he was saying, “Whoa there! No, hey, I’m ok, see? Look I’m standing up! No need for the grim reaper here. Good as new!” Apparently he wanted to be VERY clear, that today was not his day to go.  And thank heaven for that.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Audubon's failure at naming, and the miracle of inter-species communication

Announcing Seelie Court Withun, DSA! After realizing that “Piper” was completely wrong for her, I started looking at bird names since she is so light, joyful, and merry. But, as it turns out, birds got the short end of the stick in the naming department… Not one suitable name in the entire Audubon Field Guide to North American Birds. I fared no better with the Field Guide to North American Wildflowers. After going 0 for 2 with Audubon and a brief unfruitful look at North American Trees, I knew better than to crack open Reptiles & Amphibians or Insects & Spiders.  Seriously Audubon, wasn't taxonomy your "thing?!"  Is it just North America, or is humankind really this bad at naming flora and fauna?  I guess waiting two weeks to name my dog is not so bad then.  So the search moved to new areas.

In Scottish folklore, the fey – fairies and such – are divided into the Seelie and Unseelie courts. Generally, the Seelie Court fey are the more benevolent toward humankind; though they are still mischievous and have their moments, they have good intentions. I think it fits, because while she is lovely and sweet, she does have her own ideas about things (and I think she’s got about the perfect combination of biddable and independent.) Some see the Seelie Court as the “aristocracy” of the fey, and hey if you’re going to be a fairy, you may as well be in the ruling class. Paul also came up with the name Seelie completely independently. Long before we started watching the TV show Bones, he nicknamed Rowdy Bones – and Seeley Booth is Bones’ counterpart on one of our favorite shows (tough gun-toting FBI guy and nerdy forensic scientist – gee I wonder why we both like it.) So there you go.

Seelie has been quite busy, enrolled in two classes a week, going to Dog Scout camp for the retreat, and we just went out to work sheep again yesterday. I am anxious to build a good working relationship, and not that great at practicing on my own, so there we are in class. I knew that getting a new dog might have its frustrations, starting over in many ways with training while I am used to Rowdy pretty much knowing everything already or at least picking it up in under 5 minutes. But what struck me in the first week was that I wasn’t bothered by her not knowing how to retrieve, or having a perfect recall – it was that I had no way of communicating with her. It was as if I were hosting a foreign exchange student that knows nothing but Japanese. What struck me next is that – good heavens – this is how most people live their whole LIVES with their dogs! What a shame, when life can be so much more enjoyable, and your “friendship” with your dog so much richer, if you just take a few minutes a day to discover the wonders of inter-species communication. 

With both Brutus and Rowdy, it seems I can always communicate with them, and know generally what they are wanting as well. Most of the time it just feels like we have ESP and is totally effortless, but really it’s a combination of having taught them pretty many words, and them learning my body language and tones of voice (and me being consistent with them), added to a healthy dose of just paying attention to one another enough to figure each other out.  I do spend some time trying not to be hopelessly confusing, but I have to say this has paid off in my human relationships as well.  For either of us, it pays dividends. Whether they decide to cooperate is another thing entirely, but I’m never left without a way to let them know what it is that I want. If Rowdy is thirsty at the training building, he looks at corner with the water bowl and looks at me, and I’m usually paying enough attention and don’t mind walking him over there. Because he knows how to politely ask for things, and is granted that thing often enough, he doesn’t become a nuisance demanding stuff or throwing tantrums.  I like to think he’s happier being able to ask, and I like the idea that he’s not just a prisoner who has every moment decided for him, down to when he can execute the most basic bodily functions.  Incidentally, this is why I find it hard to believe so many people think their dogs are "taking over" and dominating their relationship - use your TOOLS, people!  That's the hallmark of homo sapiens for God's sake! 

ANYway...  Occasionally, he “asks” to be let out back to do joyful zoomies around the woods when HE feels like it, and occasionally I oblige. And I can ask him to bring me the squeaker he has just liberated from a savaged stuffed toy so that he doesn’t swallow it (and I don’t even have to leave my chair) or to walk more slowly over the dogwalk please, or please don’t make a noisy scene about the over-exuberant retriever coming at you, yes I see that he needs some manners but can we leave that to his owner this time?  Thanks, and you're right that is indeed cookie-worthy.  What a gift it is to be able to communicate with another species, and what a gift to your dog to bother. It makes life so much more enjoyable. And slowly, Seelie and I are getting on the same page, though I wonder what she’s thinking and worry that for now she’s living inside that Far Side cartoon “blah, blah, blah, Seelie, blah, blah, blah” wondering what the heck this crazy lady wants, anyway.

Sunday, June 6, 2010

Adventures with New Red Dog

   Well, for simplicity's sake, I'll keep referring to little girl as "Piper" though we are currently testing several other choices.  Too many puh's or something, but Piper just does't work for her or for me, although I really liked Pi - 'irrational, yet well-rounded' for my fellow geeks.  Unfortunately, we already have a Pie in our circle of friends, so that adds fuel to the new name search fire.  And when I say "Piper, Down" I think of Mike Myers in the movie "So I Married an Axe Murderer," speaking in a heavy Scottish accent about the bagpiper that passed out drunk at his wedding - "Piper dowwwenn, we've go' a Piper dowwwenn."  On top of that, the whole Rowdy Roddy Piper thing, and it's just all too much.  (Little girl, tell me your name!!!!) 

   Some ideas on the current short list: Sesame (Sam for short), Cyder, Nutmeg (Meg), and Kaizen (Kai for short, pronouced just like it looks: kai - zen) which is a Japanese term for continuous improvement that loosely refers to working together to get a little better every day, though it means more to me than that.  I like the sentiment, and Kaizen is one of my favorite things about my work.  Just don't tell me if you *don't* like one, because that will make *me* not like it too, and then I'll never decide.  But feel free to show support for your favorite.

   So little girl came home with us for good on May 23rd, after a brief stay with Aunt Lori and her jack russell terriers.  Then right off to Intro to Rally-O class on Monday, and Basic Obedience class on Thursday.  Of course she is a superstar in class, and a quick learner, though she is a "breed snob" and has no interest in non herding dogs approaching her, with all their crazy bounciness (though she LOVES Brutus, and he loves her.)  I'm pretty sure she was using the canine version of the F-bomb on the nutty Dachshund sitting next to us who was only loosely under the control of its owner.  Then, on Friday morning we were straight off to the Dog Scouts of America Leader Retreat on Memorial Day Weekend with little girl, Rowdy, Aunt Lori, Sadie and Howie!  The Withun dogs keep a busy calendar.

   Highlights of the retreat: little girl earned the Dog Scout title (now her name will be "to-be-determined, DSA"), as well as the Overnight Camping and Backpacking merit badges, and Rowdy earned the Earthdog badge.  We had an awesome time camping out in a tent with our friends Lori and Lonnie - 3 people and 5 dogs in a tent, plus 3 more tents of great friends.  Rowdy carried the water in his backpack, and I carried the Chardonnay, while little girl took it easy for her first backpacking trip.  [Man, camping is fun, but also MUCH improved by a little wine.  Take the bag out of the box and you have yourself a drunken-camelback.]  Both dogs were fabulous, and made it seem like we camp out all the time.  Earning the Backpacking merit badge entailed hiking 6 total miles in Michigan's beautiful North Woods with the dogs wearing their backpacks containing: water, water bowl, spare collar and leash, poop cleanup bags, flashlight, first aid kit, matches, owner's ID, compass, pocketknife, and signalling device.  It's come in handy more than once that they are always carrying this stuff (and it leaves room in my pack for less serious but still important items, like wine and glasses, and bug spray.)

   It is so great to have dogs that you can take anyplace and do lots of fun stuff with, and it's worth all of the work to get there.  And/or it's worth all of the Donovans' work in little girl's case, since she arrived as a pretty easy companion, thank you very much Donovan family.  :)  She has quickly worked her way into Paul's heart too, even though she still barks at him when he emerges "suddenly" from the Man Cave (basement).

   I wondered how I would deal with a more timid type of dog, as little girl is.  I am used to Rowdy's all-in kind of personality.  For better or worse, he's always up for whatever I throw at him, enjoys any activity, and seems to excel at everything.  With relatively little training/encouragement, he was an Earthdog.  Down into the tunnel, crawling about ten feet to a left turn in the dark, then 8 more feet to where the rat was (safely contained), and "working the rat" for 15 seconds to earn the badge.  His version of "working" was furiously digging and whining at the bars that separated him from the rat.  I think when he realized I *wanted* him to dig and try to get the rodent, I got yet another shade cooler in his eyes - first sheep, now rats!  What a mom!  She's finally "getting it" about how much more fun that is than always "leaving it!"

   Little girl would not have been so interested, I think.  And as it turns out, I'm OK with that.  I think it would have been a little scary for her at first, and while we could have worked through it, she had a nap in the lodge instead.  I mean really, what more could I ask from her in that weekend that she had not already offered?  Between Brutus, Rowdy, and little girl, I think we have a great family of dogs with very different and interesting personalities.

   This weekend, I got brave enough - at Paul's encouragement - to let little girl off leash outside.  We had a great little hike around the property, and while I won't claim she's got a "lightning-fast recall," she didn't have any interest in straying out of our sight, and at this point, I'll take it.  Being able to just open the back door and walk out unleashed into the woods is wonderful.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Simon Cowell and Basic Obedience Class: the examined life

   Piper came home today, forever!  She is a wonderful little creature, and it's as if she has always been a part of our family.  More about her as she gets settled in, and I see if I am up to sticking to the training plan (yes, plan!) I've made for us.  The clicker and a dream, and a dear sweet little bird, my Piper.

   Oddly, why I love American Idol is the same reason why Piper will attend a Basic Obedience and Manners class. 

   The reality TV I've seen can be divided into two categories: 1) infomercial, and 2) learning experience.  Take the Dog Whisperer for instance.  Which I watch occasionally, out of curiosity.  The performer = the narrator = the judge of how the performance goes.  Highly edited.  Cesar Millan tells you what needs to be done, does it, and then tells you how well it was done.  He chooses canine body language that his training methods elicit, and he holds these up as the standard ("Calm Submissive" and/or "intimidated into non-action" depending on your interpretation, but viewers are only given Cesar's interpretation....if you want another opinion, you're going to have to find it elsewhere.)  Not a surprise that each "solution" he provides is a grand triumph...when he's writing the test questions and the score sheets, and any clips that don't fit end up on the cutting room floor.  Some of his work on the show is great, some is OK, and some is absolutely revolting - but in the show, all are gospel.  And it will remain as-is, static, status quo, show after show.  Message: he's fabulous, what's to improve?  Remove Cesar Millan, replace with ShamWow, and you have yourself an infomercial complete with (only) glowing testimonials.  Though I hate to cast dispersions on the ShamWow, which by all accounts is a lovely product.  Plus no one's hiding the fact that they're trying to SELL you the ShamWow. 

   Contrast with American Idol, or any of the reality shows where there is a panel of evaluators, that are filmed live.  This is the kind I'm addicted to, now that Tivo allows me to follow the story without being a slave to the TV Guide.  You get to watch someone do something, then get to hear several differing, objective evaluations by experts in the field.  No editing, no time for everyone to get on the same page.  FAR more interesting, seeing the whole picture.  There may not be any REASON for me to be able to tell a fabulous Tango from a mediocre one, or to know if a singer was "pitchy" but hey, I like learning, and I enjoy honing my observation skills.  And if I'm going to learn, I'm not going to take the actor's/ singer's/ dancer's/ trainer's word for it.  Nor should I.  It really doesn't matter how great a performer Cesar Millan is, or not - but the life left unexamined is lacking in richness, and lacking in learning.  It is unidimensional and boring.  Now, add Dr. Sophia Yin's commentary on Dog Whisperer video clips, and now you've got something -  - performance AND objective evaluation!  Pros and cons, things to look for as an informed viewer.  If you aren't interested in all this, just stick to NCIS, because fiction gets to do whatever it wants, and NCIS is great fiction.

   Which leads me to two truths (in my view):  First - The examined life is a better life.  That is, if you're interested at all in being a better, smarter, and more capable person tomorrow than you are today.  Objective observation and feedback are absolutely crucial to learning how to do something, or how to do it better.  While I have taught the curriculum of the Basic class to many students, I will still benefit greatly from having the wonderful Sue lead us in our exercises, encourage us, observe Piper and I with an educated eye, and provide vital feedback.  One just CANNOT be both doer and observer/evaluator and expect to expand one's horizons.  I've come to believe that those that solicit and act on feedback are in a very separate category than those who do not - and are capable of so much more.  Individuals who take on mentors and solicit feedback from their employees, coworkers, and bosses are consistently better at their jobs.

Piper, doing some examination of her own...

   Second truth:  It's good to see real and genuine emotion in others.  Fear, trepidation, gratitude, enjoyment, bitterness, triumph.  These are so apparent on the faces of the Idol contestants, as they make their larger-than-life journeys.  Sometimes their expressions and words do not flatter them, but as real-time (or DVRed) viewers we are not shielded from this humanity.  And... I LOVE this part - jerks get voted out.  As it turns out, people don't like those who are petty, spiteful, and ungrateful.  And we get to see these kids free of the repackaging and merchandising of more established celebrities.  Season after season, we raise up those that are gracious, humble, and worthy in all their uncut glory.  If only the rest of life were so fair.  Possibly, if we had more panel discussions and took on more mentors...