Tuesday, May 31, 2011


On January 17, 1994, we were awakened by the bed shaking.  I thought it was Honeybear (my Novice A golden retriever) leaning against the side of the bed, scratching.  But a moment later Barbara said, "It's an earthquake."

Indeed it was.  We were in a Holiday Inn Express in Costa Mesa, California, and we had been awakened by the Northridge earthquake.  We had come to Southern California to compete in Open B at a show hosted by Shoreline Dog Fanciers of Orange County.  It was held on January 16 at the Orange County Fairgrounds.

Honeybear's run that Sunday had been uninspired.  Her piece de resistance of listlessness had been the heeling pattern.  She stayed about a foot behind me all the way -- except on the fast where she dropped back to two feet.  Our score was 189.5, one of HB's worst performances, ever.

When we arrived back in Phoenix, I told our story about the earthquake.  And about the other disaster, Honeybear's lackluster performance.  Several people ventured similar theories:  "Dogs have a sixth sense.  Maybe Honeybear sensed that the earthquake was coming and that affected her performance."

Nice try.  Had I chosen to buy that, it might have been a comfy excuse.  Time would reveal, however, that what Honeybear had sensed -- and there was nothing extrasensory about it -- was that I was boring the hell out of her with my training methods.  And it had come back to bite me in the ring in Costa Mesa.

Fast-forward five years.  Alameda Park is a narrow stretch of green in downtown Alamogordo, New Mexico -- if there is such a thing as a downtown in Alamogordo.  The park is flanked on the east by White Sands Boulevard and on the west by the tracks of the Union Pacific Railroad.  We had made the 459-mile trip as part of the final leg (we hoped) of OTCH Quest '99.  Honeybear needed one point to become a member of an elite club -- dogs who go from Novice A to OTCH.

There was another Phoenix-area competitor there that weekend.  In Remembering to Breathe I referred to her as Hangdog.  We'll stick with that here.

Actually there were two sets of railroad tracks flanking our ring, which was set up in the middle of the grassy area.  In addition to the Union Pacific tracks to the west, there was a kiddie-ride train running parallel to the boulevard.  Both sets of tracks were a considerable distance from the ring.

Several Union Pacific trains passed through that morning and didn't seem to bother the dogs.  Except that Hangdog came huffing out of the Utility A ring fuming that the train had caused her dog to bring back the wrong article.  Later, Hangdog swore the dog went went down on the sit "because that little train over there made her do it."

A few months ago a local club held an obedience fun match.  They had a special ring set up for Novice and Open sits and downs.  Late in the morning Hangdog had her dog in that ring.  She had been at the end of the line as the group filed in, which put her dog close to the side ring rope.  At the same time, one of the most astute trainers in our area brought her young Belgian Terveuren to a position just outside the ring, in line with the row of dogs but about 10 feet from Hangdog's poodle.  Standing close, her dog on leash, she worked quietly with her young dog.  Soft praise, encouragement, an occasional treat. Near the end of the long down, as usual, Hangdog's poodle got up.  Scowling, Hangdog quickly pointed to the handler with the Terv and loudly announced, "It's because she's out there!"

Oh, give me a break!

Hangdog, across more than two decades in our sport, has been one of the people who have heightened my awareness that we have in our midst a few poor souls who are perpetual victims.  Every time their dogs flunk it's clearly the fault of something external to their training, their competence, their self-eteem.

Somebody slams a car door. A squeaky-wheeled cart goes by.  There's a kid over there with a hamburger.  Someone drops their watch in the grass 100 yards away.

What we have here are fragile egos.  So fragile that the person's self-esteem is inextricably bound to their dog's success. The dog flunks.  The person has just been victimized by something, someone, far beyond their control.  It's inconceivable that the error emanated from a hole in their training.

Sorry, I'm convinced that when my dog, any dog, makes a mistake in the ring (assuming that dog is not sick or injured) 99 percent of the time it can be traced to a hole in that dog's training.

So after nearly every trial I listen to these poor souls' indignant ramblings about how they were victimized this time.  I listen but say nothing.

Inside, I'm saying, "Good God!  Stop whining and go train your dog!"


Thursday, May 26, 2011


For the dog who is ready -- really ready -- Home Depot offers a splendid environment for advanced proofing, a training site with no-nonsense distractions.

I learned a valuable lesson at Home Depot years ago.  Bebop (Ch. Bebop UDX2, my first border collie) was on a long sit in a side aisle in the lumber area.  He was off-leash near the end of that side aisle, where it joined the main aisle. I was standing some distance away, near the other end, the interior end.  Everything was cool; Bebop was calmly doing his thing.

Suddenly a power saw went off behind me.  Bebop took off, out into the main aisle, toward an entrance which opened onto the parking lot, then a major thoroughfare.  I was behind him, calling, "Bebop come! Bebop come!"  The panicked dog probably didn't even hear me.

I must have been living right.  Bebop tore right past the door and into the garden area.  There, several other people took up the chase and eventually he headed back into the main store, where I met him.

"DOWN!" I bellowed.  The poor dog dropped like he had been shot and the chase was over.

The lesson?  In that type of setting, always position yourself between Fido and the outside entrance.

The most unique proofing opportunities Home Depot offers are outside the store.  At least where I live, Home Depot opens at 5 a.m..  By 6 o'clock, contractors are clattering out of the store with building materials on large carts.  And, with a lot of crashing and banging, loading those materials into their truck beds.  Beyond the din of loading, many of those trucks are diesels, and they add their own special distractions as they leave the lot.

For the advanced dog, Home Depot is a wonderful place to work on focus while heeling, doing signals, practicing scent articles, and whatever else you can dream up.  I recommend short sessions (5 minutes?) with lots of rewards.

If Fluffy can perform well in that environment, you've got four paws up on focus.


Tuesday, May 24, 2011


Ray Lewis, 12-time Pro Bowl middle linebacker of the Baltimore Ravens, predicts a national crime spree if there's no NFL season this year.  "People live through us," Lewis told ESPN.  "Do this research.  If we don't have a season, watch how much crime picks up.  There's nothing else to do."

There's no dog show here in Phoenix next weekend.  Looks like I'll have to knock off a convenience store.


Saturday, May 21, 2011


If, from home, I drive eight minutes in one direction, I come to PetSmart.  Home Depot is about the same distance in another direction. Both stores offer excellent opportunities for competition obedience training.  I have used those opportunities for two decades as I have prepared my young dogs for the ring.

Both offer unique types of distractions, and timing is everything.  I don't expose my young dogs to the high-intensity distractions found in those environments until they are super-ready.  That means they've had a long period of work in the sanctuary of the backyard (probably a year) followed by incrementally more distractive distractions in city parks and similar environments.  When they are solid and comfortable in those venues -- and only then -- we're ready for exposure first to PetSmart.


Stinkpot's first training exposure to PetSmart is heeling on leash.  We begin in the back of the store where it's generally pretty quiet.  But we're gradually working our way toward our objective, the center aisle where all the action is.

We start on-leash for the most obvious reasons.  But there's one more.  I'm playing head games not only with the dog, but with the store management as well.  PetSmart welcomes on-leash dogs.  Ultimately we're going to be doing lots of things off-leash, and I want the store management to get used to seeing this oh-so-good little dog performing beautifully on-leash.  Then one day he's heeling with the same precision . . . only off-leash.

Once we've passed that barrier, we've opened up the opportunity to do signals and scent articles off-leash and right in the epicenter of all the activity.

The experience that I value the most at PetSmart is long sits and downs.  Again, I must emphasize that sits and downs at PetSmart come only after the progression of solid performance has passed through the backyard, parks and playgrounds.  How long does that take?   It depends on the dog.

At PetSmart, we start on a longline.  Not a flexi; a flexi pretty much requires me to stay in sight.  Besides, have you ever seen a 50-foot flexi?  Again, we'll probably start in a remote, quiet area of the store.  But not for long.  Stinkpot has graduated to PetSmart because he's solid.  I trust him.

Quickly we're in the center aisle where he'll have to contend with people, people with carts, people with dogs, people without the sense they were born with.  Yes, there are environmental problems that must be dealt with, but the proofing advantages are worth the trouble.

Here's this little (or big) dog parked in the center aisle, being so good, so cute.  Such an attractive petting object.  Or worse:  " I just wanted Fluffy (a 100-pound Rottweiler) to meet this good dog."  At which point, by the way, both of my border collies would excise Fluffy's Adam's apple.

To counteract the schmoozing reflex, I've printed stand-up signs.  One sits on the floor in front of the dog, the other in back.  Each says (in large bold type) "Please don't pet me.  I'm practicing obedience."  That stops most of the knuckleheads, but not all.

With the dog on the longline and eventually the line on the floor, I gradually back away to 50 feet.  Again, that line serves two purposes.  Of course it's there if I need it.  Its presence for a few sessions also reassures management.  In two decades of doing this, I've never had a store manager sqawk when the line disappeared and so did I.

I have one more piece of equipment in place while this is going on, a rubber mat.  PetSmart's floors are slippery and the dog's hind legs slide out from under him during the sit.  The type of mat used in a shower works perfectly.

Once I've moved back to the full distance, I begin disappearing behind the store shelves for brief then lengthening periods. I always find an out-of-sight spot where I can see the dog but Stinkpot can't see me.  Most recently, working with Bravo!, I found two rows of bird cages, back-to-back.  I had a clear view of Bravo! but he couldn't see me.

It's also fun to watch people as they approach the dog. Often they're intent on shopping, then suddenly they realize there's this dog sitting in the aisle all by himself.  They look back over their shoulder; maybe there's no one there.  That's when they realize what a good dog they're seeing.  And often they say just that as they pass the dog.

Coming in a few days, Part 2:  Home Depot


Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Verifying Jump Heights

When we heard that Sue Cox would be one of our judges at the Phoenix Field & Obedience trial last fall, we all began measuring each other's dogs.  We even took a yardstick to a fun match two weeks before the trial and had the judge measure our dogs as they prepared to enter the ring.

The idea was to desensitize them to being measured -- to having a stranger stop them just outside the ring gate, hang over them and use a measuring stick to determine their height at the withers.  That process can spook a dog who isn't accustomed to it.  And none of our dogs had ever been measured. 

Time was when measuring was mandatory under AKC regulations, but it became optional in 1998.  An AKC obedience judge was no longer required to verify a dog's jump height, but could choose to do so.

Sue and John Cox, well-regarded veteran judges, are among the very few who still measure.  So we got our dogs ready.

As expected, Sue measured every dog entering an Open or Utility ring.  Which elicited a fair amount of grumbling, particularly from those who got caught trying to sneak their dogs through at a few inches below the required jump height.

Let's face it.  If you don't know your dog's jump height by the time you'r ready to compete in Open, you're too stupid to be in the sport to begin with.  Either that or you're trying to pull a fast one.  I think mostly the latter.

"Neither John nor I prefer to think of any exhibitors as cheating,"  Sue told me when I talked to her in preparation for this item.  "But we'd be naive if we really thought that was the case."  She did allow, however, that "there seem to be a fair number of people who are confused about their obedience jump height versus their rally jump height versus their agility jump height."  Was that statement made with raised eyebrow?  I couldn't tell.

I asked her what percentage of competitors she catches with their paws in the cookie jar.  She said she's never counted, but concluded it's "not significant."

Then I asked why, when the overwhelming majority of the competition obedience world is on the honor system, she and John choose to measure?

She explained:  "We've decided that one of the minimum requirements is that (the dog) jumps the required height.  If we are also charged with making sure they meet the minimum requirements on all the other exercises, then certainly the height they jump has to be considered, too."

Then she added:  "We're aware that there are some people here locally who will not show to us because of our measuring.  That kind of tells us they aren't jumping the required height."

So while the Coxes may lose popularity points as a result of their principled approach, they're keeping everybody honest.  Think there's no need -- in any sport -- to keep participants honest?  Think again.  Think about the steroids scandal in major league baseball. Think about all the testing that goes on in horse racing, in the Olympics.

Why do I bring the subject up here and now?  Because of a little paragraph Linda MacDonald wrote in the May 2011 issue of Front & Finish.  Linda, too, is a veteran obedience judge.  She's also a darn good competitor in obedience and agility.  Which gives her a well-rounded perspective.  She writes a column, "Turnpike Trail," in Front & Finish.  Buried in her May column was this:
          What is taking so long to get the AKC to have jump height cards for dogs?  It's not rocket
          science.  Many folks already have permanent cards for agility that actually record the dog's
          exact height using a wicket (attended) by a certified person.  Have them copy the card and
          mail it to the AKC to record an obedience height. Then the AKC can mail (obedience jump
          height cards) to the owners.  Then have VMOs (volunteer measuring officials) certified to
          measure at trials.  How come the agility program at the AKC can be so progressive and get
          things done, and the obedience department is so slow?

Once the program was implemented, Linda told me in a followup conversation, the handler would be responsible for carrying the card to trials.  If Fluffy looked too tall to be jumping 18 inches, the handler could whip out the card and the matter would be settled promptly, with no furr flying.

Linda's right, this isn't rocket science.  So what's the delay?

Sue told me she was a member of the most recent AKC obedience advisory committee.  "We talked about (jump height cards) at great length," she said.  "The only answer (the AKC)  could give us was that there's no money available for jump height cards."

Anyone else find that hard to swallow? There's money available to fund the cards in agility, isn't there? Ah, but it turns out the agility cards program is sponsored by Iams.

Now then, Iams is owned by Procter & Gamble, one of the world's deepest-pocketed companies.  P&G has a strong relationship with the AKC -- as well they might if they want a leg up as they market their Iams and Eukanuba pet food brands.  And it should be noted, Procter & Gamble isn't the only pebble on the sponsorship beach.

What we have here are judges John and Sue Cox bolstering the integrity of competition obedience  by verifying jump heights -- albeit with a needlessy cumbersome process.  And we have a simpler, more efficient process already in place in agility.  And we have the AKC saying, "Uh, we don't have the money to extend that process to obedience."  Here we go again, obedience as a stepchild.

So I congratulate the Coxes and I join Linda MacDonald in saying, "C'mon AKC!"


Thursday, May 5, 2011


Now comes the New York State Health Department to warns us of activities which pose a "significant risk of injury to children."  Included are wiffle ball, capture the flag, freeze tag and kickball.

Missing from that list:  Bear-hugging the neighbor's dog.