Tuesday, April 30, 2019

Size matters

Belgians will always hold a special place in my heart but a number of factors came into play in 2014 after I lost Jamie and began to seriously look at another breed. Without coming right out and admitting I wasn’t getting any younger, I foolishly thought my dog training life would be easier if I downsized. My two previous dogs were Jamie, a tervuren who stood 25” at the withers, and Phoenix, a 24” malinois.

After 15 years of schlepping around big dog gear, smaller sounded better. Easier. Simpler.

Smaller crate. Smaller dumbbell. Smaller scent articles. (I threatened to weigh Phoenix' article bag but never did. On the occasion I had him work a double set in training, I swear the combined sets weighed 20 pounds.)

Besides, if I got a smaller dog, I could enjoy the pleasures of shopping for all sorts of new, smaller, gear. It’s not nearly as much fun when you realize your next dog can just use your current dog's hand-me-downs.

Phoenix's articles were already
second generation hand-me-downs
from Jamie.
I settled on an Aussie because in addition to being clever and adorable, the breed was safely smaller than my Belgians as well as safely larger than my initial shelties. This ensured I could spend countless hours shopping for new stuff because nothing I already had would be the right size.

Right? Of course, don't be silly. Remember that.

And so I was delighted when Banner joined me in the summer of 2014. He was a delightful little puppy who grew up to be a delightful little 19” dog. My plan to downsize appeared to be a smashing success.

Well, sit back and let me tell you how that’s working.

When it came time to teach Banner to retrieve, I discovered with dismay the battered old dumbbell I’d used to train Phoenix with fit him perfectly.

Well, crappity crap. The dumbbell in question was a hand-me-down to start with, having been used by Jamie first, then Phoenix. How in God’s name did a dumbbell crafted for my 60-pound tervuren fit my 40-pound Aussie?

October 2014
The big and the small of it

 I quit trying to figure this stuff out a long time ago. I don’t need anything else making me crazy.

Well. All right then. Theoretically this was going to save me all sorts of money. I wouldn’t have to buy a new dumbbell, right?

Outstanding in their field.
Technically they're sitting.

Of COURSE I had to buy a new dumbbell! You KNOW me. I can’t NOT buy dumbbells. It’s in my DNA. I am genetically programmed to buy dumbbells whether I need them or not.

Seriously. I HAD to buy another dumbbell. The one I’d used for training Jamie and Phoenix had seen better days. Having been through the careers of two dogs who didn’t exactly have soft mouths, the bit looked like it had been worked over by a rabid beaver. Plus, 15 years being thrown on cement, gravel, grass, sand, mud and once, possibly, off the roof of the barn, had left the ends les than pristine.

In case you’re interested, it’s an Invinc-A-Bell. When they say those things are unbreakable, they mean it. And this is coming from the person who has broken other types of “unbreakable” dumbbells.

“Training” dumbbells are not to be confused with “show” dumbbells. This was a distinction I didn’t learn until I had the Belgians, who were considerably harder on their gear than the shelties. Rabid beavers, remember? Pay attention.

“Good” dumbbells are the ones that only get used when you’re training or showing on a surface where they won’t disappear into the Black Lagoon on a bad throw or shatter on impact. They’re the ones that go into the show ring. They’re the pretty ones.

So Banner could use Phoenx’s “good” dumbbell, right? ‘Cause it fit, too, right?

Of course he couldn't use it! Are you sleeping? Try to keep up.

As we all know, once dogs are retired and/or pass on, certain elements of their lives become sacred relics. I simply could NOT use the show ring dumbbell Phoenix had used to earn his UDX and OTCh., no matter how well it fit Banner.

Bann deserved his OWN dumbbell. Besides, Phoenix’ had been ensconced in the Shrine Of Holy Dog Things that occupies the built-in china cabinet in our dining room. See? Dumbbells and collars for each retired dog.

The Shrine of Holy Dog Things

 To my credit, I haven’t gone bat-shit crazy buying dumbbells for Banner like I have with other dogs in the past. Anyone who’s shopped my club’s garage sale table at our spring trials knows the number of dumbbells I’ve test driven, only to pass on for other dogs to enjoy.

Since I already had the measurements of Phoenix’ dumbbell, I was able to order Banner’s without going through the hit-or-miss process that saw previous dumbbells stacking up faster than bodies in a slasher movie.

Every trainer knows dumbbells don’t just need to fit your dog’s mouth. They need to possess an elusive aesthetic of color and texture that will undoubtedly ensure flawless retrieves. In other words, they need to be pretty.

From left: the two white plastic dumbbells are used and abused, battered, scuffed and chomped
(on left, Max 200, also apparently impervious to breakage, on right, Invinc-A-Bell, on its
third generation of dogs with hard mouths); the gorgeous wooden creature was made by a
friend's husband who is handy with woodwork and is used in the ring sparingly;
the blue and white is from Training Treasures and is my standard go-to.

 Banner currently possesses two such dumbbells. One is a custom-made wood, crafted by a friend’s husband who turns out lovely one-of-a-kind creations. I gave him the measurements and said “Make it pretty.” He did. It is.  

It’s so dang pretty I am reluctant to use it at any site where the rings aren’t covered with cloud-soft matting, for fear it will break, even though it's very sturdily constructed and has shown no signs of collapse in the two years I've used it. (Remember? I break things labeled unbreakable. It’s a super power.)

The second one is a flashy little blue and white number emblazoned with a Celtic knot on one end and Bann’s name stamped on the other. Pretty snazzy. And it’s royal blue, which are team colors. If you ever need to find my crate set up at a trial, look for the blue crate cover, the blue gear bag, the blue cooler, well, you get the picture.

In summary, my downsized dog plan was an epic fail. My “smaller” dog uses the same size dumbbell as the Belgians. He uses the same size scent articles, too. By the time Banner’s training got to the point of teaching articles, I bought a new set out of pure defiance.

Don’t even get me started on crates.

Friday, April 26, 2019

Tips for living with dog trainers

 I’ve compiled a list of tips to share with the non-dog-training people in your life. You know. So they can keep living.

Tuck this under their cereal bowl in the morning or tape it to the bathroom mirror. Chances are, if they've never encountered a dog trainer in her natural habitat, they have no idea how to behave and need guidance. Sometimes they do know how to behave but need a gentle reminder.


First, leave your dog trainer alone when they’re training, much like leaving a dog alone when it's eating. Unless you’re volunteering to be an active participant in the process, your input is not required. Do not, under any circumstances, try to initiate a conversation about when supper will be ready. It will be ready when it’s damned good and ready. Continued interruptions will delay your supper further. Like for three days.

 When your trainer comes home from a trial with THAT look on her face, offer her an adult beverage. Put a frozen pizza in the oven for supper and ask, gently, how the day went. Bonus points if you offer to help her train after supper. 

Before committing to any family holiday, wedding, retirement party, funeral, colonoscopy, heart surgery, barn raising or pilgrimage to Mecca, check with your dog trainer’s calendar to be sure it doesn’t conflict with a trial, lesson, seminar, group session or power grooming day. If it does, you’re going alone. Get used to it.

Realize trainers often go to their happy place while in the midst of non-dog-training activities. If you ask what she plans to take to the family reunion potluck and she says, “Scent articles with a cat in the pile,” walk away and ask again later. Better yet, be responsible for your own potluck dish cuz you’re probably going by yourself anyway.

Never, under any circumstances, tell your dog trainer, “Maybe you should find a different hobby.” She may come home depressed, demoralized, bleeding, limping, frustrated, bankrupt, disgruntled, with a speeding ticket and pneumonia but she does not want another hobby. So shut up already.

 When you feel compelled to give training advice, look in the mirror first. Has the person looking back at you titled a dog at the same level or higher than your dog trainer? Then you know what to do. Repeat after me. Keep. Your. Mouth. Shut.

Dog brought back a ball you threw.
Now you're an expert on the directed retrieve?
Interesting . . .
Refrain from asking how much money your dog trainer earned over the weekend. In fact, avoid the topic of money – whether incoming or outgoing – all together. It’s not going to end anywhere you want to go.

Give your dog trainer gifts of wash-and-wear clothing in colors that compliment her dog. Breed jewelry and lint rollers are also acceptable gifts. Anything that requires dry cleaning will go in the back of the closet, never to be seen again.

Smile agreeably when your dog trainer announces she is going get up at 5:30 a.m. to train before work. Do not suggest she get up at 5:30 a.m. to clean the house before work.

Never ask your trainer if she wishes she had (insert winning breed of current year’s NOC) instead of her chosen breed. The look you will get could drop a Special Forces team in their tracks. You don’t stand a chance.

Never tell your trainer you could do as good of a job training her dog as she does. She may hand you the leash. If she’s smiling, be afraid. Be very afraid.

Learn to appreciate your trainer’s creative mastery of the English language when she gets home from a show weekend and describes the judging panel, show site, weather, competitors, food vendor, parking conditions and questionable activities taking place at the hotel at 2 a.m.

Never question why she has four sets of scent articles, each one differing in size by increments of 1/8”. Or five dumbbells for one dog. If you feel yourself overcome with an overwhelming need for explanation, just stuff your fist in your mouth and bite down until it passes. If you’re not a dog trainer, you won't get it. Sorry. That’s just the way it is.

The way to a trainer's heart
is through heel position.

And finally, if at a loss for how to interact with your trainer, try standing on her left side and gazing at her with rapt attention.  Dog trainers have a soul-deep connection to this and it will open lines of communication faster than flowers and chocolates.

Monday, April 22, 2019

A walk in the woods

Not to be confused with the book of the same title by Bill Bryson, although if you’re looking for a funny read, I recommend it.

Over the weekend, Banner and I took a hike. Five generations of dogs have walked with me on this particular trail, singly and in pairs, and back in my sheltie/tervuren days, in triplicate. We always took the longest of three paths, a nearly 4-mile hike that winds through native timber to a bluff overlooking the Iowa River.

Trail guides on the bluff overlooking the Iowa River between Amana and Homestead, a few years ago.

Fish weir on the Iowa River
(Photo courtesy of the
Iowa Office of the State Archaeologist)
In the trail’s early days, if the river was low enough, you could see a fish weir from the bluff. Locally, it was referred to as the Indian dam. It was a rock structure built across the river channel. No one really knows who built it. It may date back several hundred years or several thousand. The structure funneled fish into the watery equivalent of a corral where they could be speared or netted. Over the years, the river channel has shifted and the dam is now buried under about six feet of silt and no longer visible. You can see the silt already starting to accumulate as a large sandbar on the right edge of the photo.

I’ve spent 30 odd years traipsing around this timber with my dogs and it’s truly my happy place. Right now the wildflowers are blooming. They’re tiny and delicate and it’s like a fairyland to see a carpet of them stretching between the trees.

Three decades of Iowa weather has taken its toll on the trail markers. At some point in the early 2000's, while walking Jamie, then Jamie and Phoenix, I stopped paying attention to them and just followed my dogs. They knew exactly where they were going.

Every time the trail split, Jamie took the correct direction with no guidance from me. He followed the long, looping path to the river bluff like it was imprinted in his DNA. After he passed, Phoenix took the reins and guided me unerringly along the chosen route. Having a four-legged guide allowed me to wander along at the other end of the leash, daydreaming and losing myself in the scenery without paying any particular attention to where I was going. Good thing for dogs with a sense of responsibility.

Sometimes you can see the trail
Others, not so much.
 The trail itself has degraded over the years due to use and erosion and it’s a bit rough in places. It’s steep, hilly, curvy, twisty and flat with a couple of dicey bridges, which all makes for a wonderful hike. In the autumn, a thick blanket of leaves makes the path indistinguishable from the rest of the forest floor. I love walking there in the fall and watching generation after generation of my dogs unerringly trot past the signposts with their faded arrows and chose the right direction without pausing.

 I have to admit, a couple of times I’ve wondered, WTH are we? Did we take a wrong turn? Then Phoenix would look back over his shoulder and give me a “Don’t be a back seat driver” look and we’d keep going.

My walk with Banner on Saturday was the first time I’d been back to this particular trail since losing Phoenix four months ago. I wondered if Banner was ready to shoulder the monumental task of keeping me on the not necessarily straight but definitely narrow.

South end of a northbound Aussie.
Walking with Banner alone is a much different experience than was walking Banner and Phoenix together. Phoenix was a bit of a drill sergeant. We were there to walk, not monkey around. There was ground to cover and there would be no extraneous flower sniffing, no pausing to stand and look handsome in the sunshine. With him gone, I realized Banner is a much more laid back soul. We meandered. We sniffed flowers. And logs. And mud. And leaves. And we still made it to the bluff overlooking the river and back safely to the parking area without putting a paw wrong. The torch has been passed.

Sitting in the sunshine, looking handsome is
a complete waste of time if you
subscribed to the Malinois world theory.
Banner begs to differ.
 One thing that’s always intrigued me about this timber are a trio of Indian burial mounds, which people who know a lot more than I do have dated to the Early Woodland period, about 1,000 years ago. There’s nothing particularly unusual about their presence since there are more than 1,500 documented ancient sites throughout the state of Iowa (mounds being just one example.) Many of the mound-building cultures chose sites overlooking rivers to build structures to inter their dead or to serve as territorial markers or ceremonial centers.

When the trail opened, the presence of the mounds was publicized, along with the fish weir, as a connection with Iowa’s archaeological past. There used to be a marker regarding them on the trail but over the years, it has succumbed to the elements. The exact location was never specified and the mounds themselves were – wisely – left unmarked.

Their approximate location is indicated on the map board at the trailhead and while I’ve always been aware of them, I couldn’t say I’d ever made it a point to locate them. Not to mention, it’s hard for the eye to isolate a specific mound in a timber of rolling hills and glacier-carved gullies.

When we reached that part of our recent hike, I paid particular attention to the landscape. In the spring, while last year’s dead undergrowth is laying flat and this year’s hasn’t taken off yet, the shape of the land is much clearer. I was able to pick out two distinct mound structures that were simply too perfectly round to be a product of nature. They sat on otherwise flat ground just off the trail. (I couldn’t find the third one. Hmm. Must go back.)

Indian mounds at Toolesboro Mounds National Monument
in southeast Iowa. The mound on the right was excavated
by early archaeologists and partially destroyed in the process.

I’ve visited Toolesboro Mounds in southeast Iowa and last fall, I took the dogs to hike at Effigy Mounds National Monument near Harper’s Ferry in northeast Iowa. Those sites are both large and showy. The mounds are groomed, with brush and trees removed so the shapes can be plainly seen.

The ones in the Amana timber are neither showy nor groomed. They are much more subtle. The photo below does not do them justice. The sun was almost directly overhead and there’s little depth of field but if you look closely, you can see the slight domed shape. What made them stand out (okay, you had to be there) was the fact the forest floor around them is perfectly level. There’s no particular reason for a large mound of earth to exist, except by human hands.

One of three Indian mounds at the Amana Nature Trail near Homestead.
I should have put Banner near it for perspective.

The second mound. Once the undergrowth takes off, the site will be indistinguishable.

I’m not an archaeologist and I could be completely off the mark but I’d like to think on that warm spring afternoon I discovered something I’d never seen before in all the times I’ve walked that path.

Thanks for sticking with me through this long ramble through the timber and memories. I’m pretty sure Banner and I weren’t hiking it alone. Phoenix was right there with us, joined by Jamie, Connor and Jesse. Oh, the miles we logged together.