Wednesday, April 17, 2013

They Told Us We Couldn't Do It

Jax isn't a "perfect" dog. He's got some conformation issues that make me cringe when I see them, but that's because I pick him apart. He's a gorgeous dog in his own right, and I get compliments on him all the time. What he does have is a fabulous temperament and working ethic. I cannot deny that his personality is stellar.

Because of these faults, I have heard that I would never win anything "big" with him. I was told he's not worth breeding. I've been told he's not worth showing. I've heard the whispers about my dog, including the "I can't believe that dog won over those other dogs!" I've heard the snarky comments behind my back. I've heard it all. And I've only been showing Jax for about a year and a half.

I always say, "Jax isn't a perfect dog, but he's perfect for me."

I love this dog. He tries so hard for me. He is a saint with my toddler daughter. He may not sweep all of the best in show events, but we don't need to.

I like to focus on the dog sport end of this dog show stuff. We are working on advancing through the levels of rally and obedience, and eventually we'll tackle agility. So, Saturday's show was nothing but something fun for us, and experience for me. I am a ball of nerves no matter what show ring I step into, but I want the experience. I want to be able to show off my dog to the best of my ability, and I will only get better the more I do it. And that's what I went to do this past weekend at a UKC show in Ann Arbor, MI.

It was a normal day for us. Honestly, there were no other APBTs in the ring that day, but he won the terrier group handily, and won over a couple of multi-best in show winners. Group 1 ribbons always make me happy. I was pleased with those.

UKC Show - 4/13/2013 - Ann Arbor, MI
On Saturday, the judge's eye fell on us. I managed to show off my dog in a way that made her smile, that caught her eye, and I held my composure and convinced her that my dog was the best dog in that ring. Jax and I were the perfect team.

There was much rejoicing. I started crying. The other dogs who made it to the final show-down congratulated me, and in between my happy tears, I thanked them. Because I was truly grateful. I wanted to grab the judge and give her a big bear hug and thank her for seeing my dog, the dog I see every day at home. My best in show dog.

They told us we couldn't do it. And still, after having my ribbon in hand, there were nay-sayers who spoke ill of my dog and our accomplishment. But there were several other people who congratulated us. And I am grateful for both of those people. I am grateful for the nay-sayers because they give me the push to prove them wrong; I am grateful to the people who cheer us on, because without them we wouldn't be where we are today.

Thank you, to everyone who supported us this far.

Friday, February 22, 2013

Our First Competition of 2013

This past weekend, Jax and I ventured out into the Michigan winter weather to compete in our first trial of the year. This was a C-WAGS Rally and Obedience trail hosted by Wolverine Dog Training Club, and held at Northfield Dog Training Club. I mention all these venues because they are all incredibly wonderful people who truly love the dog sports and work to improve them. I love competing with all of these groups.

First, C-WAGS is a rather laid-back venue. They are a group of people who love to train and compete with their dogs, but their trials are not as competitive as UKC or AKC. There is one huge difference in this organization, and that is you can reward your dog during a Rally or Obedience test. For this reason, I recommend the venue to my students as a place to get your feet wet; it's also great for new dogs just getting into competition.

This was my first time competing with Jax in this venue, so we entered Starter (level 1) Rally and Level 1 Obedience. On Saturday, we had 2 Rally tests and 2 Obedience tests. Both of our Rally tests were phenomenal, and I was incredibly proud of the way my boy performed - first place in both classes! Our obedience tests left something to be desired, but we did pretty well, considering.

Their level 1 obedience test is a basic obedience test with a few simple tasks. On Saturday, I missed the walk-through for the test due to being in the rally ring, and bombed our first test. Completely my fault. But, our second test was much better, since I already bombed a test and being able to attend the walk-through. First place in the second test. Success!

Our winnings from Saturday!

Sunday was a bit different. We showed up, and we competed in Rally, Obedience, and a fun class called Rally Zoom - it's rally with not stops, sits, or pausing signs.

In our rally test, we had a PHENOMENAL run. I mean, it was perfect. I left the ring beaming because we had done so well. I ran Jax back to his crate, gave him a big kiss and few cookies....and turned around just in time to see the ring steward right a big "NQ" on the board. WHAT? Our run was perfect! The gentleman I was crating next to must have seen the shock on my face because he came over to me and said, "You looked beautiful out there, but I think you missed that sign..." He pointed to the Down-Walk Around sign I had clearly missed. I sighed, admitted to my mistake, and we moved on.

I was still elated with our performance, and chose to focus on that rather than the fact I was the reason we NQ'd. The woman who did win the class was also elated to have won, because it was her first time showing in rally. If I had to lose, it was great to see her be so happy to win!

We placed third in our obedience test, because when I changed into a slow pace, apparently Jax did not change his pace. Still, it was a good test, he did really well!

Rally Zoom was fun! And it was also a great test! We placed 2nd, missing first by only half a point.

Our debut weekend and a tough contender with Team No F.E.A.R. was a success!

In other news, I had two judges tell me that Jax was ready to learn OPEN exercises. My little man proved that was was ready to move up to bigger and better things. Watch out, he's going to be a tough contender!

Friday, February 15, 2013

Let's Talk Dog Food

What does your dog eat? How did you come around to feeding your dog that particular diet? Do you feed raw or kibble? Dog Chow or EVO?

It's a trend now to guilt people into feeding "better" diets. You are criticized and chastised if you feed your dog anything less than a $100 bag of The Best Dog Food on the market. I was there - I used to be one of them. I am not happy about it. I am not on the receiving end a lot of the time. I know how to read god food labels, when I am looking for a food I frequent sites like and It is important to watch what is in your dog's diet and I am a big believer in feeding your dog a good, healthy diet.

Feeding your dog as a member of the family is important. A healthy diet will limit vet bills, as it contributes directly to your dog's health. As a friend of mine told me, "No one criticizes you when you're doing something right, but they will dog-pile when they think you're doing something wrong." And feeding your dog is one of those things that everyone has an opinion about now.

But, a lot can go into choosing the right food for your dog. There are a lot of factors to consider.

I am a supporter of raw food diets, but understand the limits of feeding such a diet. If you don't have any room for storage of frozen foods, it can be cumbersome and often expensive to buy foods once a week. It can be expensive to feed compared to kibble, in general, if you don't have any bulk suppliers in your area. It might just make you squeamish to handle raw foods.

As much as I want to feed Jax a raw diet I: 1) lack the storage to buy in bulk, and 2) Jax refuses to eat raw meats. I've tried all the tricks in the book. Weirdo dog.

When it comes to kibble, you might be dealing with one of two things: 1) lack of knowledge or 2) a budget. At least, these are the two I come up against the most.

One of my current students has a Golden Retriever who is 11 months old that came from a breeder. The old knowledge says to feed a "puppy diet" until the dog is at least one year old, but often until the dog is 2 years old - this isn't true, and more and more companies are coming out with "all life stage" diets. The breeder told her to feed Purina Puppy Chow. She's an older woman, and since the dog came from a breeder she didn't question the quality of the dog food. She was working with a budget, and so we settled on a better product within the Purina Pro Plan line - not the best, but there was an almost immediate change (within a couple weeks) in the dog's weight, energy level, and over-all appearance.

Dog food with goodies!

However, in some circles, I would be considered a horrible dog person for not recommending EVO or Taste of the Wild to my client.

I have fed everything from Diamond brand dog foods to EVO, trying to find something that would suit my dogs well. My older dog, Howie, had food allergies to contend with, so he was fed mostly raw with a hypoallergenic kibble to supplement. As I mentioned before, Jax won't touch raw, but I contend with an added problem of high metabolism and trying to keep weight on him. I tried Taste of the Wild, I tried EVO... but what he did best on was Purina Pro Plan beef formula. The former dog food critic inside me cringed with each bag I bought, and I was always in search of a "better" food, but each new bag I bought of "better" food would result in a 5-pound weight loss within a week of being on it.

We landed on Dr. Gary's Best Breed. No, it's not the "best". Yes, I've gotten flack for feeding it. But, my dog does fabulous on it. My dog needs grains to keep weight on. So, I end up giving up so-called "quality" to keep weight on my dog. And yes, I've tried Merrick and other foods with "quality grains."

In another scenario, my Aunt's dog could only hold down Beneful. She tried several times to switch him to better foods, but each time it would cause him to vomit - and so, she had to weigh the pros and cons, and in this case, a lower quality food was better than no food at all.

Another friend's Golden Retriever seems to be allergic to anything and everything he eats. She has been in and out of veterinary clinics for the past two years trying to figure out what was wrong with him. The only food that has brought some balance to his life as been the hypoallergenic Royal Canin veterinary diet.

In the end, it comes down to the dog (and human) in question. For families on a budget, Pro Plan is a perfectly acceptable mid-grade food, usually priced around $40 for a 50-pound bag. For others, they are feeding what they're feeding because nothing else works.

I do my best to educate about dog food. I know what "good" dog food is, and teach people how to read labels - what's good to have? What's bad to have? But, it ALWAYS comes down to the individual dog and their families. After all, as a dog professional, you are always schooling the humans, not the dogs.

Monday, February 4, 2013

When You Feel Like Giving Up

For much of January, I was in a rut. I was unmotivated. This tends to happen this time of year, when Michigan winters blanket us with grey skies, cold weather, and icy roads. I'd rather hole myself in my room, under my heated blanket, with Jax curled up in the crook of my knees.

It's tough, because it's so hard to get out and TRAIN my dogs. I have a tiny house, so I have limited indoor space to train in. The dog club I train out of has limited nights that I can stop in to work him, and it's 45 minutes away. And this is the first time that I've had scheduling conflicts with the local training club that is only 10 minutes away.

All excuses. None of them good.

I have never been much of an emotional person - except when I over-react. Except when I work myself into a panic over nothing. But over the last year, little things make me cry. I blame the residual baby hormones that haven't left my body (and probably never will, because I cried when my baby said "Mama" for the first time, and when she toddled toward me, taking her first steps). I cried at last night's Super Bowl Clydesdale commercial, choking back tears.

This morning, I was fighting back many urges to just give up and quit. This is hard stuff - being a grad student, working full-time, being a parent, AND trying to advance in dogs. Most nights, I just want to curl up on the couch with a cup of tea and a warm blanket, but a baby needs tending to and a dog needs entertaining and homework needs to be done.

You might not have heard of Lauren Sprieser. She's a horse trainer who has been successful from a young age. She's inspiring, for having reached such high levels at a young age. Last night, she posted a blog titled "Before You're Good":

"I don't want to go through the learning part, the part where you futz around, making dumbass mistakes, then fixing them only to have something else go, and then try to fix that while the first mistake you made comes roaring back. I want each movement to feel easy, not like a mechanical process, where I'm reading myself a checklist in every corner - off my hand, legs forward, prepare, right bend, left thigh, neck down, eyes up, GO, repeat. 
And that's just too damn bad, because there's only one way to the other side of Being Good, and that's by Not Being Good for a while. 
... when the promise and the mission become really annoying, I will remember that everyone who's any good at anything was, at one point, not."
In addition to this little bit of enlightenment I had reading this this morning, I had an amazing training session with Jax last week before getting hit with the stomach flu for a second time this year. Jax loves to learn, and I love teaching him. he can be frustrating, because he is SO EAGER to do whatever it is I'm asking him to do, but this same trait is why I love working with him so much. What Lauren posted last night hits home - Sometimes it's frustrating to go through all the practicing of Being Good. A lot of times you want to throw in the towel. Often, there are very few people who are willing to give you a good kick in the pants to keep you moving along. Because sometimes, it is so frustrating that it just stops being enjoyable.

And who wants to do something that isn't enjoyable?

But the thing is, everything is not enjoyable sometimes. The key is remember all of those good times, all of those moments that make this all worth it - whether those moments are winning ribbons or "lightbulb" learning moments or great times with friends, or simply cuddling on the couch with your best friend. We all have off days. We all have hard days.

The key is, having the strength to push through, remember the good times, and get to the point of Being Good.

Monday, January 28, 2013

High Value Rewards Make For the Best Training

I came across another blog post today that urged owners to use their dogs' meals as rewards for training. The author writes,
Our pooches love to work for their meals, by doing something that will reward them with food, or make them search for their food. You have to feed your dog everyday anyways, so why not use this time that is required as a training reward?
Now, I'm not telling you that you shouldn't use your dog's meals as rewards. I know people who do and who use it successfully. The bigger piece of advice to I took away from this post were the great tips regarding meals vs. free feeding. In fact, there are a lot of instances in which you should use your dog's meal during training - such as when your dog has a health problem such as allergies and cannot have commercial treats, or if your dog is overweight and using his meals will eliminate extra calories.

However, the problem that many people run into during training is when you have to find a high-value reward. I always put it this way to my students: If you eat chicken every single day for your meals, are you going to also want chicken for your desserts? When I use treats they are delicious, they are stinky, and they are not always good for you, but there you go.

I use cheap stinky treats. I use expensive, healthy treats. I use hot dogs. I use cheese. I use things that are going to make my dogs bounce off the walls. I want them to work hard to earn the super deliciousness in my hand. Sometimes I have a mixture in my treat bag, other times (usually on my "lazy days") I have just one, but it's usually not the same thing every single day. Variety makes life more interesting, right?

I am blessed with a dog who will work for just about anything; I am also blessed with a dog who has very little food aversion or allergies. He loves his food, he loves working for his stinky treats - but what he REALLY loves working for is his ball. And he will do just about anything for a good game of tug. Jax is an enthusiastic dog.

With him, I use food to begin the introduction of a behavior. Food is great because I can reward quickly, praise often, and continue; rinse, lather, repeat - over and over. I can't do this as well with a toy (the "quickly, often, let's try that again!") because we then have to play the game, release, and focus again. Once he's got it, though, I will play the game all day long as long as he's doing the behavior correctly.

That said, I prefer a toy-driven dog. I use tone-of-voice a lot in my training - I use less tone of so-so work/effort, and BIG HAPPY tones for great work/effort (with behaviors he already knows, not behaviors I am teaching). I can offer a variety of rewards with a toy - if the work was done so-so, I can offer him the toy and the praise in accordance with the level of his effort; if he performs excellently, he gets a bigger, happier tone and a bigger, happier game. More often than not, he works to earn that bigger, happier game.

But not all dogs are toy-driven, and toys do not work well in a class setting because it is highly distracting to other dogs, so what to do you do? I still encourage the use of stinky treats and tone. I use a quiet "Nooooo" as my "try again" cue; I also use a sharp "aht!" if needed, but it's rare. Reward(food) is withheld until the behavior is executed - and the accuracy of the execution will also depend on the dog's knowledge of the behavior, whether he just has the idea of what you want, or whether you have been working toward cleaning it up. But, rewards still have to be worth it. This is where the "yes!" and "good boy!" and "good!" come in play, and again, the use of your tone is going to be key. But tone is not the reward, tone/words are the marker that the dog did right and then he has to wait for the reward - much like a clicker. The food/toy is the reward. So, when you're using food as the reward, you can offer one treat in the event of a so-so effort, and a JACKPOT! in the event of exemplary effort.

**When I'm first teaching a behavior, I use a lot of jackpots (toys or food). It is not until I feel comfortable that my dog knows the behavior that begin to back off on the level of my tone/rewards.

The trick is, finding your dog's "high value" reward.