On the move…

November 30, 2009 1 comment

Those of you who’ve been reading Dog Trainer’s Log for awhile might have been wondering when I’d get to that picture of Casey celebrating his birthday and the latest update on Princess M’s weave pole training. Soon, gang – soon – and I promise you’re going to enjoy what I’ve got in mind for December!

But this weekend instead of writing posts, I was building websites – one at patsteer.com that will be the new home of my survivorship blog Life Out Loud and my freelance writing projects; one for my food blog Kitchen Jam in development here; and one for Dog Trainer’s Log, evolving here.

None of these sites is ready for prime time yet – although I’m aiming to launch all of them officially later this week. When they’re ready, your links, bookmarks and RSS feeds to the WP.com sites will direct you automatically to their new domains. Until then, wish me luck as I work to make 30 years of writing and 10 years of tech training pay off.

I’ll update this site with the final addresses. Meanwhile, feel free to drop by and check out the construction. Look for some special December blog-warming projects at both Kitchen Jam and Dog Trainer’s Log as I feel out the dimensions of their new homes – and for the same old me (working under my real name now!) at Life Out Loud.

Categories: Uncategorized

Completing circles: what our animals teach us

November 23, 2009 3 comments
Celtic Knot

Image via Wikipedia

I’ve been slammed at work for the last couple weeks – twelve hour days do not let me be a good dog (or cat) trainer. Some days, the cuddle time I get with Casey, Madison and Churro is all the interaction we share. I feed them, they eat. We go for walks. We cuddle for a few minutes before I go off to work, and they moan (M.) or groan (Casey) or purr and head-butt (Churro) with me until it’s time for them to go back to crates to nap the day away. I come home, and we repeat the process – except that cuddle time usually melts into falling asleep together. Then Casey wakes us all up in the middle of the night. I ex them all again, and they go into crates for a couple of hours until daylight, when the alarm goes off and we do it all again.

I’ve been so slammed that for a couple days this week, I didn’t keep up with my blog reading, or my Twitter stream. And then I saw a tweet from my friend @azahar – missing her Sunny, her 16 y.o. cat who earlier in the week hadn’t been doing well and had needed a quick trip to the vet.

Sunny died while I was off trying to coax a validation test script out of some co-workers and do role reviews in my application and help plan a retirement party. And my friend, a day ahead and thousands of miles away in Spain was deep in the agony that follows when a circle closes, and the realization that our lives are longer than the pets who enrich our days hits us, hard.

I can’t make Az’s pain less. I’m not sure anything can, except time. As I shift softly here on the couch, so that I don’t wake up my own old man Casey, reading about her pain reminded me how close that minute can be for all of us with pets, but especially for those whose pets are celebrating senior birthdays.

Casey will be 15 this week. No, to those who’ve wondered, he’s not dead – just living the slightly befuddled life of a senior dog who some days doesn’t remember who he is or where he is, but is otherwise physically healthy. This weekend, I’ve been slowly working at getting him trimmed up, to take a 15th birthday photo. He can only tolerate a few minutes of grooming at a time, so routine maintenance is a process – but I should be able to give you all a picture of my old man looking his best sometime before the week is over.

I vividly remember the day I went to meet Casey. We drove 3 1/2 hours through a blizzard to come home together. He rode in the #100 crate on my front seat. We stopped twice so that he could pee. He was so small, easily the smallest non-cat creature I’d ever had in my house, and as he sat at the top of the stairs to the side door, looking down, I could hear him thinking “It’s very far, Pat.” He played ball almost from the moment I brought him home. He adored my Gordon setter Bard and my English Springer spaniel Jazz (who were 8 and 12 1/2, respectively, when I brought Casey home.) He learned everything at light-speed. He was the little red speed demon that ran the fastest course of the trial on the day that he earned his NA…and the reason that agility hot-shots like Diane Bauman lined up the next day to watch *us* run.

Casey became the head cuddler as I worked my way through first the recovery from a hemorrhagic stroke, and then five+ years of cancer treatment – if you’d like more of that story, you’ll find it at Life Out Loud. He adjusted as his show career abruptly stopped, shifted gears, restarted after the stroke, downshifted again during cancer treatments, and then took on new directions when I grew stronger. In ’96 he lost his mentor Jazz; a few years later, his friend Bard. He outlived all of his cats: Aslyn, Rocket, and Rani. He saw me re-home the upstart Gordon setter Reuben – I found for Reu the active performance home he deserved, so that he didn’t have to spend his young life as my cancer therapy dog. Casey welcomed into our home his new BFF, Princess M., and a new cat, Churro. His circle is smaller now than it used to be, and I can see that it’s nearing the point where it will close – but not just yet.

I’m dreading that day. And Az’s week has reminded me that I must not let the other things in my world interfere with enjoying the days I have with the creatures around me whose lives are too short.

Az discovered some truths about herself while she lived within Sunny’s circle, and she shared them here in this post from Casa Az: “Learning to Love.” As I read it, hugging my own creatures, I realized how much I’ve learned from all of mine – Taryn, Jazz, Nola, Muni, Bard, Reuben, Ashlyn, Silkyn, Rocket, Rani – and now the ones who draw the current circles in the knots of my time: Casey, Madison and Churro.

But circles close – it’s their nature. It’s our gift to learn from the pets who author our circles, and realize how much they enrich our days.

What have you learned from your pets today?

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Categories: Old dogs Tags: , , , ,

Getting a handle on the crate addiction!

November 4, 2009 2 comments

36" folding fabric expen (mine is camouflage)

If admitting the problem is the first step, then let’s go:

My name is Pat, and I’m addicted to crates.

Two weekends ago I moved my Sun Spot vintage trailer to its winter home in my rented garage. I packed some other things to winter over in the garage – my two larger coolers, a lounge chair from my patio, and crates. Four crates. I have so many crates I no longer need them on a daily or even weekly basis.

Five years ago when I was diagnosed with cancer, I did take stock and gave away many of my ‘extra’ dog things. As my dance with cancer has had its ups and downs, I’ve gotten a good feeling from seeing my former stuff in active use at shows and trials and in the SOTC training building. I had this green Sharpie that truly did have indelible ink – the fading but still readable STEER printed on my former crates always surprises me when I see it in someone else’s setup.

But it’s been five years since I scaled down my dog equipment, and slowly, my crate addiction has resurfaced. Once again I find myself harboring (or maybe it’s hoarding?) extras. I have two english cocker spaniels (easy keepers in 200-size crates) and a pretty large orange tiger cat who fits in a 100-size crate but is much happier in a 200. My oldest functional but damaged crates are the house crates – at this moment that includes a 25-year-old 400 side-door wire, a 10-year-old 200 Deluxe VariKennel (Casey and M.’s houses, respectively), a 200 plastic PetMate (Churro’s ‘cat house’), and a 100 Varikennel and smaller than 100 cat crate which are cat-transports to the vet or kennel. That’s actually a sort of controlled chaos – it’s the car that reminds me, daily, that I may be taking ‘Be Prepared’ a step too far.

Two plastic 200 Varikennels are secured in the car all the time. Stored around them are a medium Guardian Gear soft crate (big enough to hold a gordon setter, it’s now my hotel crate that holds both Casey and M.), a 200-size Noz2Noz soft crate with a strong aluminum framework (for venues where I need crates that stack), three 200-size off-label Petmate soft crates, and my brand new folding 36″ soft ex-pen. That gives me one crate for the car, one crate for the show site and one crate for the hotel for each of the three in my current entourage – and an extra in case space is a problem.

The fabric ex-pen is an upgrade/replacement for my 25+ year-old folding metal 36″ covered ex-pen – how could I *not* want to reduce my weight and load from 25 pounds to 4? You heard me – a 4-pound ex-pen. I love it! Although the website recommends the 36″ size for ‘Shelties and Mini-Schnauzers,’ it’s just fine for larger breeds who respect a soft crate – and the solid bottom and zip-off screened top make it more escape-proof than the average wire ex-pen.

But I have to admit, today was a one-day-at-a-time crate day. The email came in the digest of the SOTC mail-list: MidWest Metal is clearancing its 30″ black-expoxy-coated wire expens for $37 and change with free shipping. I caught my breath, I clicked the link – and then I closed the ad. In the car-port, waiting for their own trip to the garage, are a 300 Deluxe Varikennel, a 300 folding wire, two 200 folding wire crates, and two uniquely sized tall and narrow wire crates that often fit into tight spaces and are no longer manufactured. I need to move them to enclosed storage before winter really hits.

If you’ve been keeping count, I own 20 crates for two medium-sized dogs and a cat. Full disclosure: Casey will turn 15 in a couple weeks – his crating requirements are much lower than when he was actively traveling, showing and going to classes two or three times every week. But once a crate comes into my home, it always stays years after the dog who first lived in it has passed on.

I’ve rented crates to students, and never bothered to get them back. I gave away the partner to my metal expen, and I’ve given away at least as many crates as I currently own.

Okay, my name is Pat, and I’m addicted to crates. But at least I’m always prepared. 😉

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Afternoons as the only dog…

October 26, 2009 1 comment
Obedience Training Novice Class.
Image by Sukianto via Flickr

Casey depends on M.

M., for her part, seems to miss the old man sometimes – she’ll check for him outdoors, and look for him in the house. And the colder the night, the more eager she is to cuddle up with Casey.

But there’s no arguing with the way Madison shines and sparkles on those afternoons like Sunday, when she got to be the only dog in the car, at the show-n-go, in the ring. My full attention and a piece of string cheese got me her undivided attention, automatic sits, a flip finish and a rocket-launched recall.

Oh, there were plenty of no-sits, wide about turns, forges, and a lag or two. Ms. breed champion forgot that on a stand-for-exam, the point is to plant her feet and stand still. There was one brief moment when I thought she was going to happy dance herself right out of the ring – but instead, she turned and fronted when I called her back. Score one for judicious use of the appropriate electronic brain cell boosters. 😉

Overall, a Sunday afternoon as the only dog agrees with M.

So as much as I hate leaving the old man behind (he doesn’t care; he slept peacefully all afternoon), I’ll be giving M. more one-dog afternoons. It’s time for the princess to solo. It’s been a long time since I only had one dog to pack for a show. But it’s time.

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Categories: Training Tags: ,

Training approaches broader than a catch-phrase

October 22, 2009 1 comment
Operant Conditioning
Image by The Pack via Flickr

Carol Lea Benjamin, trainer and author, once wrote in her AKC Gazette column “Dog Trainer’s Diary” that when she was stuck in a training challenge with her own dog, she’d ask herself how she would solve the problem for a paying client – someone who was expecting effective and lasting results. Benjamin continued that considering her personal dog’s training issue in that light always crystallized a solution and gave her a direction that got the job done.

That advice, a couple thousand class and kennel dogs, and two decades of work with various purebred rescue groups molded me into a solutions-focused trainer almost from the beginning. I provide skills and solutions — I show owners how to resolve/improve behavior issues, develop specific skills to raise a good canine citizen or a reliable competition performer (or both!), and make decisions about what and how to train next. When I’m directly working with a dog, I provide a language bridge through which we can each communicate. It helps to remember that dogs don’t speak human. I am always asking myself whether the information I’m giving the dog is meaningful to him.

So when another blogger asked me whether I would describe myself as more of a hierarchical/dominance trainer, or more of a positive reinforcement trainer, I had to stop and think for a couple of days. Ultimately I replied, ‘Neither.’

I have trained my own dogs to 18 titles in the US and Canada in obedience, agility and rally, pointed dogs in conformation, performed intake skill evaluations for a board-and-train business, managed a boarding kennel where I walked every dog at least three times daily and provided grooming, taught hundreds of group classes and private lessons. Five of my eight personal dogs have been what Benjamin called ‘second-hand dogs’ – two rescue dogs, two young dogs who came to me to be grown up (and never left), and a retired breed dog who’s now working on her performance skills while being my cuddle bug. My private-lesson specialty is ‘difficult’ dogs – creatures whose owners have been told by vets, kennels and groomers that their dog’s behavior is a problem. My own dogs, and many class situations, were and are training for the sheer joy of training. But I’m not afraid to admit that my name is Pat and I train dogs for money. Training for a paycheck means that my training solutons must consistently produce reliable results for which my human students are willing to spend money.

When a trainer’s priorities are effective communication, providing solutions and developing reliable skills, s/he learns to adapt many approaches in order to provide a custom solution appropriate to individual dogs, owners and situations. Characterizing those individualized solutions with a couple of tightly-focused adjectives does the entire teaching process a disservice. I can’t boil my training approach down to one adjective – or even five!

Hierarchical? Since most of my clients come to me because I’m more experienced in the training process than they are, yes – there is a hierarchy to the process of learning. Eventually, the learning process will shift from hierarchical to synergistic, as teacher and student learn from and enrich each other’s pool of experience – but it takes time to develop synergy. In my house, the hierarchy is me, the cat, the young dog, the old dog. The hierarchy shifts a bit from time to time – my young dog and my old dog having recently shifted within the hierarchy. But I’d be oblivious to reality if I didn’t recognize that there’s a pecking order in my house. And I’d be wasting a naturally occurring, elegantly effective training tool by ignoring it. By recognizing that hierarchy exists, I can use it to enhance synergy and make our days together more enjoyable.

Dominance-based? Absolutely. Whether in private or class lessons, my primary student is the human being, and his/her dog is my secondary student – who will learn based on how effectively I teach my primary student. To both humans and dogs, I first focus on teaching them how to learn, and then offer training in specific skills. The human student gives me money and I give him learning tools and training skills. The canine student gives me attention and I give him learning tools, some (new) reliable behaviors and a human-dog interaction from which we’ll both benefit. However, I determine the depth and scope of the relationship, whether the student is human or canine.

From the beginning, I tell students that I won’t waste their money or attention if they won’t waste learning time by ignoring what I’m teaching. I tell them that I’ll work just as hard to help them succeed as they do. I also tell my human students that I can’t work harder at training their dogs than they do because I’m not their dogs’ primary trainer. As long as the (humna) student keeps coming back, he or she has accepted that agreement.

Canine students don’t have the same choices their humans have about participating in my training. They are brought to training and they can’t leave unless their human drives them away. Dogs learn whether we’re teaching them directly or not – in my presence, my priority is to ensure that they learn what I’m teaching. Every skill we humans directly teach our canine companions involves things they wouldn’t do if they weren’t domesticated – display self-control in the face of exciting stimuli (like cats, squirrels, tennis balls, bikes, kids); control their bodily functions to times and places we direct; stay when they’d prefer to move; move (in specific directions and patterns) when they’d prefer to stay put. That our dogs continue to perform the skills we teach them means they accept that agreement.

Sure – we provide food, water, regular vet care, mental and physical stimulation. But we also use leashes, collars, crates, and regulate when things like food and water appear. Dogs aren’t in total control of the array of choices they can make – and their lack of control implies that they are submissive to the choices we make about their lives with us. If dogs are submitting to their humans’ choices for their lives, then who is dominant in the human-dog relationship?

Am I focused on positive reinforcement? Not to the exclusion of other techniques which may be more effective for that particular dog or human or training situation. Positive and negative carry the emotional baggage of “good” and “bad” (respectively) among non-trainers. But in training language, positive doesn’t mean “good” – it means doing or adding something to a situation. Negative doesn’t mean “bad” – it means not doing, or subtracting something from the situation. Taking the (human) emotional baggage out of training language frees that language to help the trainer elevate the human-to-human communication between teacher and student. It allows both trainer and student to create solutions without getting hung up on the method(s) that creates those solutions.

In the end, I’m none of hierarchical or dominant or focused on positive reinforcement. And I’m all that – and more. It’s my job as a trainer to elevate my human students’ understanding of training language and training skills by using them all correctly. By paying attention to solutions, I can most effectively help them develop better relationships with their dogs…using the method(s) that work best for each owner and dog and training situation.

Can you describe your style of dog training in one or two words? Do you focus on making your preferred method(s) produce results, or do you adjust method(s) to suit the human, the dog and/or the training situation?

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The 3 things that help me take training from backyard to competition

October 11, 2009 9 comments
7 may
Image by shutterflood via Flickr

My name is Pat, and I train dogs for competition performance events.

No, I’m not on the Agility World Team. I don’t make the list for the annual AKC Obedience invitational. I haven’t made the Front & Finish top dog in breed rankings since Casey was in Novice obedience and agility (1999.) The last time dogs I trained made first-in-breed listings in any venue was January 1, 2005 when Casey and Reu became the first English Cocker Spaniel and Gordon Setter in the US to earn AKC Rally Novice titles.

In 2000 I actively taught and trained two dogs in three to four obedience and agility classes each week, a schedule I’d maintained since I’d started training Taryn in 1981. I showed my dogs every other weekend in some combination of breed, obedience and agility. In 2009, after an intracerebral hemorrhage (stroke) and five years of cancer diagnosis, surgeries and treatments, it’s a good day if I have enough energy left after work to take a long walk with the dogs, let alone get my dog-in-training to one regular class each week. The day after a class (when I can take a class) feels like the day after I’ve been hit by a truck. I pick one cluster to show at each month, try not to combine too many venues in the same weekend, and generally need a day off after a circuit to ‘recover’ from my dog show vacation.

It may seem odd that a person who now trains mainly for her personal satisfaction actually considers herself competitive. Then again, you’ve probably never seen me cook – put me in the kitchen and I’ll trash-talk you all the way to the first-place ribbon. Yes, when it comes to certain things I’ve got a serious competitive streak. Where that shows up in my dog training is that I want my dogs to do their best, to improve every time we go in the ring. Our ‘bests’ may not lead to first place ribbons every time, but I don’t need more flat sateen ribbons. What I’m looking for are titles, letters after their names which tell the whole world that they are trained companions who work for a living.

How do I get my dog to a title when I can’t manage a class? Maybe even more important, how did I manage to teach skills to my dog when I spent the better part of 2008 on the couch recovering from either a surgery, a chemo infusion, or both?

The answer lies in keeping my training organized, but simple. During my recuperation, I made use of the three things that have always helped me understand where each of my dogs is along his individual training continuum:

1) A training log: This blog is an extension of the pen-and-spiral-notebook that I keep in the basket on my coffee table (you know the place–mine is where I corral the remote controls, pens, back issues of Clean Run and the spill-free zone where I set my coffee mug.) In a simple Dollar-Store notebook I jot down in my personal shorthand the results of each day’s training session, no matter how short or small. Even if all we did was practice a down-stay while I made my breakfast protein shake, I write it down. Which dog(s). Where. How long. What position. In or out of sight. If outdoors, what weather. Whenever an exercise doesn’t seem to be making progress or seems to break down for no reason, a quick check of my log lets me know whether I’ve been devoting enough attention to that skill.

2) An exercise binder: The hardest thing to do when energy is at a premium is create a practice on the fly. I save every course map (agility and rally.) I save copies of exercises from the ‘net and from issues of performance magazines like Clean Run and Front & Finish. I have every curriculum I’ve every written, every instructing and seminar handout I’ve ever received. They’re filed in the binder by venue and class. When I don’t have the energy to practice, I read through my saved courses and plans, and flag the ones I want to try next (Post-it notes are my friends.) Later, when I do have the energy to practice, I can quickly find something to work on in my files.

3) A calendar: The toughest thing about being out of dog-showing in any venue is getting back onto the superintendent’s mailing lists and into the swing of which show(s) are on which weekends when you decide to come back. My calendar is pretty low-tech — a two-year paper monthly vest pocket calendar with a separate notes section. It’s in the same plastic cover with a telephone/address section saved from an earlier organizer. I keep closing and circuit dates in the calendar, and update it regularly from the AKC website and various online agility calendars. I make notes about each run in the calendar’s notes section. I keep notes about judges in the telephone/address section (that section stays with the planner; the two-year calendar and notes sections come out and are stored in my office file cabinet.) By knowing when the shows are, I can plan my entries, evaluate where my dog is in ring-readiness, and get a reality check by looking at my notes about individual show/run results. My notes in the show calendar help drive my practices.

A really organized person would probably keep all three of these elements in a single binder — but I like them to be more flexible. I also like them to be closest to the spot where they’ll be needed, or where I’ll be likely to fill them in with notes. For now, the training log lives on the coffee table, where it’s most likely to be completed after a training session or class. The calendar lives in my purse, so that it follows me to work (where I make entries) and to shows (where I make notes about judges and runs.) The binder of courses lives on the lower shelf of my coffee table, with the current issues of magazines — ready to review and flag new courses and exercises to practice.

Sure, there are a bunch of other things I do to keep my dogs working when I’m laid up, but these three items — training log, reference binder and calendar — are the three things without which I would never get my backyard-trained dog into the ring.

What are your strategies for training when you can’t take a dog to classes? How do you keep your dog(s) in training when their training is limited by your own physical condition? Please share your ideas!

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Dog Owner’s Survey

October 1, 2009 1 comment
Slip collar, showing how the chain pulls throu...

Image via Wikipedia

On Twitter, @wholedogcamp has been asking people to complete this 10-question Dog Owners survey: http://bit.ly/yyEko

One note: if you’ve owned multiple dogs, you should complete a new survey for each individual dog. For me, that meant 8 surveys (Taryn, Jazz, Nola, Muni, Bard, Casey, Reuben and Madison) which took me about 15 minutes, total (~2 minutes/dog.) I didn’t fill out surveys for the temporary foster dogs who’ve lived here over the years. My surveys were only for personal dogs who have spent more than a year in my house (15, 14, 10, 10, 14, 14+, 4 and 3 years for the dogs recorded, respectively.)

I do wonder how my eight surveys’ answers – that I regularly use slip, prong and e-collars and a halti if needed – will jive in the survey tabulations with my affirmation in each survey that, in my estimation, my training methods are ‘firmly based in behavior science.’ Using aversives judiciously is firmly based in behavioral science – it’s just not the part of behavioral science that makes people feel warm and fuzzy, and therefore it doesn’t meet with approval in many current (vocal) dog training circles… 😉

@wholedogcamp promises results will be shared, so I’ll post them here when they’re available.

Meanwhile, if you’ve owned and trained a dog, consider completing this free survey. If you use slip, prong, and e-collars and use reinforcement methods based in behavioral science, speak up!

edit: 6 oct 2009 12:55 pm EST – issues with the survey link have been resolved and it’s still available — have you filled out surveys for your dogs yet?

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