Monday, May 27, 2019

Utility signals (or why trainers drink)

Banner and I have been fighting a signal problem. I’m not sure exactly when the wheels fell off since he sailed to his first 5 UDX legs with, if not exactly precision, at least a fair amount of confidence. Somewhere along the line, he decided the down signal no longer had meaning in his universe and the sit signal was an equally foreign concept.

Signals? I don't see no stinkin' signals.

 For my non-dog-training readers (all four of you), the Signal Exercise at an obedience trial consists of a heeling pattern ending with the dog responding to a series of hand signals to lie down, sit up and come to front, all given while the handler is at a distance. No verbal commands are used. While fellow exhibitors are generally respectful of the dog working in the ring, the general chaos of a show site (people moving around, doors opening and closing, loud speakers, barking dogs, etc.) makes the exercise even more difficult if the dog is not totally committed to what he’s doing.

As trainers, most of us have experienced the deer-in-the-headlights stare. Dog stares straight at you. Dog sees signal. Dog now resembles cement statuary from a garden center while you die a thousand deaths 40 feet away and kiss another entry fee good-bye.

While you stand at the other end of the ring, not breathing, every muscle in your body clenched and sweat trickling into your nether regions, watching an otherwise lovely run go right down the toilet, the thought that flashes through your mind is, “What the hell! Why won’t you do this?”

Dog, standing on the other end of the ring, is undoubtedly thinking any of the following:

• Huh? Do what? Sorry. There’s a kid eating a hotdog outside the ring. I have a higher calling.

• Why are you waving your arms around like that? Are you under attack by bees? Are you having some kind of seizure?

• I see your signal and I’ll raise you this lovely breed-ring stack. See how pretty my ears are? Everyone’s looking at me. I’m gorgeous. Photographer? Make sure you get my best side.

• Omigod. Everyone’s looking at me. Please stop. I can’t stand it. I’ll just freeze here and maybe the floor will open up and swallow me.

• There’s a shifty looking dude with a clipboard standing behind me and ain’t no way in hell I’m laying down.

I'm too sexy for my signals.
How about I just stand here and let
my fluff sparkle in the sunshine?

What’s worse is when your dog starts to respond to a signal, then freezes as if trying to decide if it means the same thing today as it did the last 10,000 times he’s seen it. If your signal arm is still moving when the Ice Age strikes, no doubt you’ve tried to salvage the exercise and thrown in some kind of frantic additional motion to indicate to the dog he is on the right track, while trying to stay within the “one continuous motion” as allowed in the rules. 

We’ve all seen handlers give signals that look like a major league baseball pitcher on the mound. By the time their  multi-spinning signal arm winds up and releases a low and inside breaking curveball, the judge is yawning and the dog has decided he's having no part of any of it.

 Dog trainers are nothing if not helpful and when Bann’s signals derailed, I got all the usual advice. Your signal is too big, make it smaller. Your signal is too small, make it bigger. Your signal is too slow, give it faster. Your signal is too fast, give it slower. (Seriously – is it any wonder obedience newbie trainers wander about in a land of confusion until they realize the answer to success with their dog doesn’t lie in the accumulation of knowledge – it lies in figuring out what knowledge best applies to them?)


What I thought I’d taught and what I’d actually taught turned out to be two different things.

Banner and I have spent the last few weeks doing what can only be described as spontaneous signals around the house. My goal was to catch him at moments that were not preceded by carefully orchestrated set ups that had “WE ARE GOING TO DO SIGNALS NOW” written all over them (i.e., heeling into the stand, walking away, turning to face, blah-blah-blah).

I needed my dog to understand that “drop means drop” regardless of the context.

It didn’t take long to establish Banner had absolutely no freaking clue how to do signals, regardless of context. Apparently, our earlier success had been linked to some bizarre alignment of the planets.

I was appalled to realize he couldn’t do signals at random when I gave them in his own house! I got the same glazed I-have-no-clue look I’d seen so often in the ring.

WTF?! And I call myself a dog trainer? I’d done all the toy-tossing, dancing wind-up chicken, cookies-on-the-floor proofing one would expect before bringing him out in Utility. Apparently that had only taught him to do signals when a possessed mechanical chicken is hopping around a foot away or there is an open bag of treats on a chair next to him. 

The make-it-harder-in-training-so-it's-easier-in-the-ring approach had utterly failed. It had not addressed the issue at the heart of the matter - that he was expected to do his signals anywhere under any context.

Well, I’d rather have a training problem I can re-create at home than one I can’t. 

I started giving signals any time we made eye contact when he walked into a room at home, when I walked into a room, when I was sitting in my recliner, sitting at my desk, watering flowers, brushing my teeth or any time I caught his eye from a distance. At first, I got the woman-you-crazy look. We worked through it. Initially I threw a treat if he was successful. The treats are now given for what I consider exceptional effort.

I'd guess I'm asking him for random signals about 20 times a day in and around the house. It's getting harder and harder to catch him out. He's engaged and thinking when he sees me facing him, no more vacant stare.

I've put pieces of furniture between us and even put him out on the patio and ask him to do drops and sits with me inside the house, looking through the window. I've popped out from behind a tree and signaled. He's done them on the bed, on the landing of the basement stairs and with a cat being a complete nuisance.

Then I decided to step it up. I asked him to do signals when I wasn't directly in front of him. This, too, started at random but before long I had to do at least a semi-formal set up because Banner had started keeping a close eye on me any time we were out in the yard or moving around the house. If I stopped behind him, he’d spin to face me. By now he was convinced I’d lost my mind and needed careful monitoring. 

Holy Mother of God, woman! You been drinking'? I know you
can't walk a straight line but you belong in FRONT of me
for signals, not over there! Do I need to write it down?

Do these signals make my butt look big?

At first, it blew his little mind and took lots of close-up work but I’m happy to say he’ll drop almost 100% of the time now, regardless of where either of us are positioned. I'm under no illusion the problem is fixed but we're in a better place than we've been all spring.

Can't wait to see what breaks next.

Monday, May 20, 2019

Denial keeps you sane

There are certain things in life I refuse to think about. Nope. Ain't gonna. You can't make me.

A therapist would call this denial. I call it maintaining a tenuous grip on my sanity. My husband would call it things he didn't know he signed up for when he married me.

 These include, but are not limited to, how much I’ve spent on vet bills in a calendar year, exactly what a year’s worth of entry fees and travel expense adds up to and how much dog hair I’ve eaten in my life.

Furball, anyone?

Once, in a fit of morbid insanity, I got out my calculator and added up Phoenix and Banner’s vet bills from 2017, which shall forever be known as The Year of Horrible Things. Jeff would refer to it as the Year of Hey Your Dog’s Throwing Up Again. 

Looking at the cold hard numbers, that was a really bad idea. The vet at the specialty clinic where the dogs and I spent an inordinate amount of time in 2017 probably remembers 2018 as The Year I Took A Fabulous Vacation and Bought a New House.  Ha-ha, just kidding. 


My local vet, who is a wonderful person, only got in on the early diagnostics of things that year but still, she and her husband went to Scotland recently so I’d like to think in my heart of hearts that perhaps my dogs’ combined bizarre medical crisis during The Year From Fucking Hell – oops, The Year of Horrible Things -  somehow contributed to their savings for that trip.  I may never go to Scotland myself but I can take comfort in the thought that some of my money has been there.

Another un-mentionable topic is dog fur. Dog fur is an occupational hazard at our house. It’s a lifestyle. It’s a condiment.

 If you live with a dog, you know the rules about dog fur.

The number one rule is simple. Deal with it.

Dogs shed. If you can't deal with it, don’t have a dog. Don't marry someone with a dog. Don't be friends with anyone with a dog. Live your life in a sterile bubble. (People with allergies notwithstanding. I'm sorry they can't share the delightful furriness of the world.)

Or have a dog and get a cleaning lady. Or spend a stupid amount of time vacuuming. Or just say to hell with it and buy a lot of lint rollers and get used to plucking fur out of the mashed potatoes.

Maybe ya’ll with your schnauzers and poodles and Portuguese water dogs live beyond the realm of a perpetually furry existence but the rest of us? We’re living the dream and plucking the fur, baby.

In addition to its ever perpetuating source, dog fur shows up in places you would least expect.

In the gravy boat of the good china when you get it out of the cupboard at Christmas.

In the well of my contact case.

In the crisper drawer of the refrigerator next to the apples.

In my lip balm.

Stuck to the screen and keyboard of my laptop.

In the ice cubes.

In the freaking ice cubes! I can't even.

I once took the case off my cell phone and you guessed it - there was dog hair inside. What the what? It took the guy at the cell phone store 15 minutes to get that case on when I bought my new phone. It was damn near hermetically sealed.

On the black pants you KNOW you lint-rollered before leaving for the funeral.

And it goes without saying it shows up in the food.

And you wondered why Neegan wore that leather coat
in Georgia in the summer. Leather sheds dog fur.
Like most of the dog owning-training-showing fellowship, I can pluck dog hair out of practically anything and keep eating without batting an eye.

A human hair in food will nearly put me off eating that particular dish ever again.

(I’m still trying to figure out how dog hair gets into the ice cubes.)

I love having dog people to our house for a gathering. No one gets excited if there’s a dog hair in the dip. They expect it.

Dog hair is ingested, inhaled and I’m not entirely sure it isn’t absorbed through the skin. For every bit of fur I’ve surreptitiously plucked off a pork chop or brushed off a biscuit before setting it on the table, I figure I’ve probably ingested that much twice over.

In the ice cubes. Seriously. How?

Wednesday, May 15, 2019

Sweet dreams

I read somewhere that people who sleep with their pets have a better quality of sleep than those who don’t. I would like to have a word with the folks who came to this conclusion. 

On any given night, the following is representative of our house. Keep in mind, this is with one grown-up (and I use that word loosely) dog who sleeps loose and has a comfy dog bed right next to my side of the humans’ bed. When I shut off the TV after the news, he jumps off the human bed, curls up in the dog bed and peace ensues. Briefly. Then all bets are off.

11:45 p.m.

Banner: Grrr. Woof. WOOF! WOOFWOOFWOOF! (Sound of paws racing out of the room and forcefully hitting living room window sill).

Me (climbing out of bed): What are you doing?

Banner: Huntin’! There’s a trespassin' varmint. Lookit! See ‘im? Lemme at ‘im! Gonna get ‘im!

Me: That's Gryffindor the cat. You LIKE Gryffindor.

Banner: Oh. My bad.

12:30 a.m.

Banner: Whine. Whimper. Snarl. Ferocious snarl. Series of ferocious blood-curdling snarls. Silence.

Me: What are you doing?

Banner: Havin’ me a dream. No worries. I got the thing.

Me: What thing?

Banner: The thing under the bed. Okay. I sleeps now.

Me: WTF?

1:03 a.m.

(Sound of paws digging into carpet as Banner sprints out of the bedroom and slams himself into the living room window sill.)

Me: Oh dear Lord, not again.

Banner: WOOFWOOFWOOF! (Glass in the window pane vibrates.)

Jeff: What the hell does your dog want now? (Notice he’s MY dog when he’s doing bizarre shit at 1 in the morning but let him come home from a trial with a fancy ribbon and suddenly all of that changes.)

Me: What are you doing?

Banner: Gittin’ the varmint!

Me: There is no – well crappity crap – there IS a varmint. (Watches raccoon having a party of one outside the window.) But you’re still not getting it.

Banner: Lemme out! Want it! Gonna git it! 

Me: If I let you out, the only thing you would get is a trip to the emergency clinic. You are NOT going out there.

2:14 a.m.

Noises rises from the floor on my side of the bed.

Scratch - scratch (tentative).

Scratch - scratch - scratch (with more authority).

DIG DIG DIG DIG DIG! (now in full-blown excavation mode).

Me: What are you doing?

Banner: Makin' a nest.

Me: No you aren’t, you’re making a racket.

Banner: Nesting. See. Fluffin’ my blanket.

Me: You don’t have a blanket. You have a dog bed. You can’t fluff it.

Banner: Lumpy. Needs fluffin’. 

Me: Your head is lumpy. Go to sleep.

3:43 a.m.




Jeff: What is wrong with that dog? (It’s possible he’s passed me and given ownership over to a third party at this point.)

Me: What. Are. You. Doing. 

Banner: Cleanin’ my junk.

Me: Oh for fuck’s sake. (Sorry. I do not possess a great deal of decorum in the hours before dawn.) Is it necessary to do that next to where I’m sleeping? Can’t you go do it in another room? Or better yet, don’t do it at all.

Banner: Nope. Gonna lay right here in my nest and do it.

Me: Your junk can’t be that dirty.

Banner: Needs cleanin’. Wanna see?

Me: NO! Go to sleep. And stay that way!

5:07 a.m.

Stealthy footsteps traverse from one side of the bed to the other, punctuated by the sound of wiggling. You don’t think a wiggle can be heard? Think again.

Me (groaning): What? (I can’t even muster the rest of the sentence.) 

Banner: We gets up.

Me: No. We don’t.

Banner: We gets up. Breakfasts. Time to do the things.

Me: If I get up right now, you’re not going to like the things I do.

Banner: You grumpy. What wrong? No sleeps last night?

If this is quality sleep with pets, I'd hate to see what it's like without them.