Thursday, January 23, 2014

BRINGING UP PRESTO! Bringing Out Presto!

Once in a while someone asks, "What's your most difficult problem training Presto! ?

The answer is one word: maturity.  But that word represents an obstacle course of hurdles to cross, mines waiting to go off, alligator-filled water hazards, and an abundance of training Catch 22s.

Presto!'s head is on a swivel -- sometimes I attribute that to fear of the unfamiliar, other times I know it's insatiable curiosity.  And, of course, Presto! is a 20-month-old intact male.  Lots of instinctive imperatives are going on here -- pushing back against my imperative . . . focus. 

All this, of course, delivers its best punch in the match/show environment.

Some have said, "Give him time, he'll mature."  No doubt.  But I don't believe the process of maturity functions in internal isolation.  I don't believe it's strictly a function of brain cells and tissues and juices and systemic getting the act together.

We're talking nature versus nurture here, and I'm certain that learning and experiencing give a leg up to the maturation process.  So I'm giving him every boost I can.  And I'm willing to get bitten in the butt by those alligators once in a while if necessary.

Which is why Presto! and I debuted in Graduate Novice this past weekend.  That's right, the the first AKC ring my little guy ever stepped into was Grad Novice.  Which triggered a few double takes.

Here's my reasoning.

I think the journey begins with Novice and becomes a ladder with the Obedience Trial Championship being the top rung.  Pre- this and optional-titling that are nice and they can serve a purpose but our dedication, our obsession, will be the Novice-to-OTCH continuum.  And I don't want to come stumbling out of the gate in Novice.

Presto!'s training is coming along well . . . given his level of maturity.  He can come out in Novice today and do well.  How well?  That depends upon the degree of swivelness of his head and the gawkyness index on a given day.  That's one constraint.

A second constraint is his heeling. He heels well, but I know he has really, really good heeling in him; we're not quite there yet.  Bravo! had many days when his heeling was nothing short of spectacular.  Twice in his illness-shortened career judges stood in the center of the ring following the exercise and exclaimed, "Boy, can this dog heel!"  That felt good. I want more.

I can practice heeling anywhere, any time.  But Presto! needs real-time, real-thing ring exposure.  Right now it's, "Oh wow! Look at that over there!"  Or, "There's a threatening-looking boxer behind me."  Or, "I'll be with you in a minute, somebody's grilling by that picnic table."

Presto! needs enough exposure to matches and shows that it becomes, "Ho hum, here we are again."  Easy to say, tough to pull off.  If I win the lottery, I'll purchase a dozen show sites, hire a hundred extras (at union scale) stock up on tents, squeaky-wheeled carts and the like, and hold mock trials several times a week.  Trouble is, I have yet to procure the winning ticket.

Enter Grad Novice.  Presto! can do all that stuff -- really well if I can keep him focused.  Grad Novice is just the exposure we need.  It allows us to hit the sure-to-come bumps in the road, but not on the mainline.

So I entered us in Grad Novice at the Phoenix Field & Obedience trials on January 18 & 19.

Moments of Truth

If you want to know what the chinks in your armor are, if you want the holes in your dog's training displayed stark naked on the big screen in your mind, do what I did.: enter your not-quite-ready dog in something, then sit back and enjoy the anxiety.

Here's what haunted me in the 48 hours preceding Presto!'s first-ever ring appearance.

First, I'm seeking sustained focus from the time we enter the ring until the moment we exit.  Right now I have anything but.  So I knew I would have my hands full keeping Presto! focused between exercises.  I knew he'd want to gawk, possibly run to the judge or a steward to be petted, likely drift a few feet away to sniff.  Those were almost givens.  In fact, they were the precipitating reasons why I wanted to immerse Presto! in that environment.

Second, there's an exercise in Grad Novice that kind of irks me because I have to waste time on it.  It's the dumbbell recall.  With the dog in heel position, you offer the dumbbell and the dog must "readily" take it and hold it.  Then you proceed to the opposite end of the ring and call him to carry the dumbbell to you.

Nowhere else in obedience do you hand the dumbbell to your dog.  I know the folks who developed the Grad Novice exercises didn't have Presto! and me in mind.  In context, Grad Novice is a class that exists to help those with a CD ease the transition to Open.  And the dumbbell recall is meant to help the dog get comfortable with the dumbbell in his mouth.  I guess the assumption is that folks complete their CD, then train for the next level -- versus the dog who's being trained all the way through before he gets his CD.

Presto! has yet to set foot in a Novice ring, but he's busy mastering the drop on recall, scent articles, gloves, go-outs.  He loves to retrieve a thrown dumbbell, on the flat or over a high jump.  But sitting in heel position and taking it from my hand?  He thinks that's a bunch of crap.

As we drew close to our date with destiny, my anxiety level about that exercise rose.  Oh, he'd take it after a few avoidance moves with his head.  But "readily?"  Not so much.

We'd see.

Finally, a little more than a week before the shows (Doesn't it always happen?) Presto! dropped a new one on me. His out-of-sight long sits and downs training had gone reasonably well.  Oh, we had  had our ups and downs, so to speak.  But recently he had been pretty solid.

It may be that he had seen me write my entry check.  One morning when I was practicing in the backyard -- normally we go to a park -- I put him on a six-minute down and went inside where I can watch him but he can't see me.  I looked out the window.  No Presto!  Going back out there, I met him outside the back door.  Which was the kickoff of the special transgression he had saved just for show week.  Not only was he sitting up on the down, he was following me . . . the lion's share of the time.

And those were the demons that were dancing in my head as we counted down toward my little guy's debut.

Next time:  No place to hide


Thursday, January 16, 2014


I've heard people gush over a young obedience competition dog:  "This is the dog I've waited for all my life."

Let me paraphrase that:  "Presto!'s is the drop on recall I've waited for all my competition obedience life."  Ever since the day I first saw Rev hit the deck.

It was in the earliest days of Honeybear.  There was an event called the Western International Obedience Competition (WIOC).  It brought together elite teams from several of the western states and Canadian provinces.  Two days of competition to see which team could return home as that year's WIOC champion.

Once in the early '90s WIOC was held in Phoenix, in a hotel ballroom.  Alaska was represented.  And that's where I saw Rev dive into his drop, chin first, skidding on the carpet.  I was stunned.

Rev was a red border collie owned by Sandy Rowan, who at that time lived in Anchorage.  I was the newest of newbies.  If I had seen half a dozen Utility dogs, that may be a stretch.  But I didn't need any comparisons, any frame of reference.  That morning, at ringside in that Holiday Inn ballroom, Rev's drop became the standard by which I would judge all drops for the rest of my life.

I ran into Sandy and Rev again at the Gaines in 1995.  Same dive, same skid.  I was no longer a newbie.  I had been there, won that.  In fact, Honeybear and I placed in Open at the Gaines in Salt Lake City that August.  But jaded I wasn't, and Rev's drop still knocked my socks off.

By 1999 I was writing the obedience column in Borderlines, the magazine of the Border Collie Society of America.  I've always known this sneaky thing about column writing.  If I really want to understand the nitty-gritty of something but don't want to expose my ignorance by asking, I write a column about it.  And in the process I interview the person I think knows the most about it.

Which esplains my January/February 1999 Borderlines column, which I headlined "Sandy Rowan's Supercalifragilisti, Dynamite Method for Teaching the Drop on Recall."

And from that moment on I've used Sandy's method (with an adaptation or two of my own across the years.)

That exercise has always been one that I could count on not to siphon off points.  My dogs have always been reliable.  Very good, but not Rev.

Until now.  Until Presto!

Briefly stated, you teach the drop with the dog on a flexi and two long PVC poles eight to ten feet apart on the ground.  The idea is for the dog to come like the wind (popped off the sit) and respond to one of three optional commands (verbal or hand signal):  (1.) Come all the way through and jump for a treat.  (2.) Drop behind the first pole.  (3.) Drop behind the second pole.

All this involves split-second timing on the part of both the dog and the handler.  And extraordinary dexterity in the use of the flexi.  Believe it or not, these are skills you can develop if you set your jaw and say, "By God, I'm going to get good at this!"  I -- SUPERKLUTZ -- have mastered it. "Nuff said.

Presto! is a lot of things.  Among them, he's a bundle of aptitude.  I could not believe it when by the second day he he was dropping behind the pole.  (You start with one pole or -- depending upon your dog's mastery of the concertina down -- you might want to start with the bar from the bar jump;  it's a more imposing barrier.)  Presto! had learned the concertina down in my PVC box, so our first order of business was to make that happen when he was on the move.

He picked it up in the blink of an eye.

Yes, Presto! gets down like Rev, like he's shot.  But their dropping styles are as different as night and day.  What caught my eye about Rev was the way, at warp speed, he dove, then skidded on his chin.  Presto! sees my hand signal (from day two I've used only the palm of my right hand, no verbal) stops dead in his tracks, then folds back into a down.

If you're up there watching us, Rev, thanks!  You too, Sandy.


Friday, December 20, 2013


Across 23 years in the sport of dog obedience I have made many new friends. Among those who read this, a small but select group -- my kind of people -- will nod their affirmation when I say that many of the most treasured of those friends are dogs. None more treasured than Gordy. Gordy was a big, sweet, goofy golden retriever. If I were to write here that Gordy had personality, I'd probably choke on it. The dog was a full-blown character. He owned Beverly Lewnau and the hearts of so many of the rest of us. Bev and I met more than two decades ago, students in a Novice class at Debby Boehm's Precision Canine. Both of us were trying to figure it out with our young goldens: Bev's Bunny and my Honeybear. Years passed. Bev and Gordy became my students in competition obedience. Lessons took place in Moon valley Park. Gordy would greet me by buzzing me -- not jumping on me, not grabbing my wrist, not presenting himself to be petted . . . buzzing me. Bev carried some of the accoutrements of obedience instruction in a cloth bag. Which, in the absence of a table, she'd place on the ground. Each lesson, without fail, Gordy's first order of business was to extract a glove from the bag and run around shaking it . . . all the while proudly showing it to me, just out of my reach. Those summer evenings were what competition obedience training should be. Fun. Sublime. Gordy learned easily . . . because he was having a blast. But if competition obedience had been jazz, he would have attained the stature of Miles Davis, Dave Brubeck, Ella Fitzgerald. Gordy loved to improvise. I remember the day he was sailing through an Open run until he retrieved the dumbbell, returned over the high jump, quickly took it behind Bev and played with it there. Gordy tended to start slowly in the ring. So we devised a little strategy to psych him up as they entered the ring, a few minutes of Bev-deprivation. I'd hold Gordy out of sight, some distance from the ring, behind a tent or a van. I'd deliver him to Bev the very instant the judge was calling their number. One day Bev and Debby Boehm were standing just outside the ring, awaiting our just-in-time arrival, when they noticed a large dog romping through the show. "That looks like Gordy," Debby said. Indeed. And there I came, some distance behind with an empty collar and leash in my hand. Make fun if you must but as I recall Gordy opened with one of his most upbeat heeling performances that morning. Gordy was just OK at obedience, but he sure had fun. He qualified. He got his titles. Bev and Gordy also did agility . . . and print ads . . . and TV commercials. But it was in the conformation ring where Gordy sparkled. In a breed where the rings are populated by dozens upon dozens of dogs and dominated by professional handlers, Bev showed Gordy to his championship and then some -- I mean big-time "then some." In recent years, at shows with 80,100 or more golden entries, Bev would study the catalog, and consistently there was no golden with more dog sports titles than Gordy. Several years ago, on a Sunday morning after our little training group had done our ring run-throughs, Bev startled me with a request. If something happened to her, would I take Gordy? Oh wow! That's a toughie. I loved Gordy; He'd be a wonderful addition to our little pack. But for that to happen Bev would have to die. That's heavy stuff. Barbara and I talked it over. "No," was not an option. Which is how we became godparents. A little over two years ago, Gordy was diagnosed with laryngeal paralysis. I won't detail it here; you can look it it up. But it's a no-win condition. Do nothing and the dog probably dies. Choose throat surgery and you end up with a bunch of nasty sequelae. Eventually Bev chose surgery. Gordy lingered at death's door for months. Frankly, those of us who were close to the situation quietly wrote Gordy off. But then things turned and Gordy became . . . well, he became pretty much Gordy again. One Saturday morning I was in Paradise Valley Park awaiting a student when across the park, at least 100 yards away, Bev got out of her van with her three goldens. There was sure nothing wrong with Gordy's eyes. He saw me -- at that distance! Bev took the leash off and he came running -- no, hopping -- all the was across that field, tail going furiously. That was one fine weekend. The word got around and everyone was saying, "Gordys back! Gordy's back!" Gordy's 13th birthday on October 18, 2012 -- a birthday few of us thought he'd ever see -- was way beyond special. Barbara wrapped a package with pretty paper and ribbon. I took it over there that evening. While the other dogs crowded around, Bev helped Gordy open his package. A glove! A well-worn, dirty glove. Gordy grabbed it out of the box and tore out the back door to settle down in the backyard. No way anyone else was getting near his glove. He kept it to himself the rest of the evening. Bev told me that when he woke up the next morning, magically, the glove was snuggled at his side. Bev had to say goodbye to her goofy, wonderful big guy a couple of weeks ago. Recently she said, "I really love my other dogs (Broker and Louie) but now the house seems so empty." Yeah. Willard

Sunday, December 8, 2013


It's been 115 days since my last post to this blog. Blame it on the computer. "Tecnical problems beyond my control." (Like broken sits.) The tiniest things can wreak the most havoc. You know that little vertical line that flashes where you're going to begin to type? (It must have a name, but I haven't the foggiest.) That little line refused to appear. We tried everything, to no avail. A couple of friends who know lots more about computers than I do tried. Zilch. The hills were alive with the sound of cusswords. * * * When the blog went on the fritz, at first I ho-hummed it. Probably nobody cared, anyhow. As you grind out something like this, you begin to wonder. Is there anyone out there? Or is it like the tree falling in the forest and nobody hears it? But as time passed I began to receive emails. For instance, late last week I heard from Shannon Rodgers Daspit in Des Moines, Iowa. She closed with ". . . please keep blogging, sharing, writing . . . it inspires and helps more than you'll ever know." Wow! That'll put wind beneath your wings. A day later "Aussie girl" posted a comment beneath the item I had shared on August 15,115 days ago. In part she said, "Discovered this blog recently and am waiting for more posts." Thank you Aussie girl, whoever and wherever you are. Late last January, on a day when you could float a catamaran in the ring (Yeah, here in the desert.) a prominent judge told me, "I have a puppy and I'm following your blog and using the same methods you're using with Presto!" Gee, I wonder how they're doing? So there is life out there in cyberspace. And the comments are much appreciated. OK, here we go again. * * * When last we connected here in this blogosphere, Presto! was 15 months old and I was thanking my lucky stars, and his, that he had turned on a dime and come when I called him off of a huge, intact male pit bull. At that point, his light bulb really hadn't come on. Oh, I was doing all the right things and Presto! was responding, sort of by rote. But I've found that there comes a point, actually an identifiable day, when suddenly the dog gets it. I could take you back a few weeks and tell you the precise day when that happened. Bingo! Suddenly Presto! had learned how to learn. And the tenor of our practice sessions changed dramatically. The most exciting feature of our training sessions now is the pure joy that 19-month-old Presto! exudes as he works with me. Example: scent articles. Presto! goes ripping out to the pile as fast as he can run. And as he goes, he gives a sharp growl. He attacks the pile, working at warp speed, comes back and presents the article by jumping on my chest. Many years ago my first border collie, Bebop, was also a lightning fast worker at the pile (accurate, too; in his career he got 340 correct articles in a row). Once we were showing in San Bernardino, California. There was a woman at ringside representing the Canadian Kennel Club. She told us she was observing American obedience as part of a study to possibly amend the Canadian regulations. The lady was standing with Barbara as Bebop and I did our thing in the Utility B ring. Later Barbara told me the woman shook her head and said, "I've never seen a dog work the pile that fast." Well, Presto! makes Bebop look like a tortoise. I love that enthuisiasm, it portends wonderful things for the future. But there's fast and then there's ridiculous. Lately I've been putting a flexi on Presto! as we practice scent articles. I think too much haste might make for waste. Better to slow him down a bit. But the unbridled joy with which he tackles everything we do is wonderful. Willard

Thursday, August 15, 2013

BRINGING UP PRESTO! Great Moments In Dog Obedience Training

Presto! is just over 15 months.  His training is coming along well, but there's nothing where I can look you in the eye and say, "That's solid!"

Last Sunday we were training in Cactus Park.  Presto! and I were about 30 feet from the sidewalk, practicing fronts.  I had my back to the sidewalk.  All of a sudden my little guy took off like a shot, right past me.  I turned and oh my God!  There was a guy with a huge, intact male pit bull on a leash.  I said, PRESTO! COME!  He spun and came directly back to me.  Whew!

Alice Blazer was training with us.  She said, "When Presto! saw that was a pit bull his entire life flashed before him.  That's why he came back."


Wednesday, July 24, 2013


Police in Florida have arrested a linebacker from Florida State University.  The charge?  Barking at a police dog.


Wednesday, July 17, 2013


Our neighborhood is crawling with rabbits.  Maybe hopping is a better word.  Ours are not the big jackrabbits you might associate with the Southwest.  They're the familiar cottontail bunnies I grew up with in Cincinnati.

They're everywhere around here, and our backyard is one of their favorite spots.  That's because it's mostly grass.  Here in Phoenix the (mountain) lion's share of yards are some kind of crushed rock with a smattering of drought-resistant plants. Cacti prevail.

So the bunnies think our well-watered grass is swell.  Actually, there's an exchange transaction going on here. The bunnies love basking in our backyard and the dogs love eating what they leave behind.  They go after it like it's a gustatory delicacy.  Which I guess is OK.  My vet tells me that rabbit poop is generally harmless; the parasites that come with it don't seem to bother dogs.

It's July here in the Sonoran Desert and the high temperatures have been ranging between 107 and 119.  Right now as I look out the window I see two bunnies.  One is stretched out full-length in the cool grass, hind legs stretched all the way back.  A flat bunny.  The other has dug himself a shallow bowl under a rose bush and he's luxuriating there.


He emerges from the back door.  Sees the bunnies.  They see him.  Nobody moves.  Presto! freezes.  High drama.  From the tip of his nose to the tip of his tail (what there is of it, given that as a puppy he chewed the white hair at the end unmercifully) his top line is low and flat.

His left front leg elevates, pointer-like.  Which is where it stays, suspended for a good 30 seconds.  Then, slowly, he lowers it.  Now the back right leg comes up.  It too stays suspended.  Meanwhile the rabbits remain frozen in place.

I've seen Presto!'s dramatic act go on for five minutes.  The bunnies fixed with his steely gaze.  Each of his paws taking its turn, raised, suspended, then lowered.  Across those long, theatrically charged minutes Presto!'s forward progress may approach six inches.  Or not.

One night a rabbit was stock still no more than 10 feet in front of my little guy as Presto! went through his stalking act.  The light was limited and my view of the bunny was partially obscured by a tall bush.  Cautiously I worked my way around to the side for a better view.  Only to discover that the bunny had his back turned to Presto!  The ultimate put-down!

Cheddar, my 11-year-old golden, occasionally gives the bunnies a half-hearted chase.  And Bravo!, my other border collie, can give them a run for their money.

One day I heard two of the rabbits talking.  One said, "Don't worry about the one in the red collar (Presto!), he's harmless."

Do we have herding instinct being manifested here?

The truth is the bunnies keep Presto! around for comic relief.