Sunday, December 29, 2013

Farewell, 2013. Onward to 2014!

2013 was a Pretty Good Year.

Pongu, my crazy fearful little pound puppy, finally became a Real Competition Dog (kinda-sorta). In 2013, he finished his RL2 and RL3 titles, both with Awards of Excellence for high scores (making him three for three on those). He earned his ARCH, ARCHX, and ARCHEX, along with a couple of variations on the RL1X/RL2X/RL3X level championships, making him one of the 50 most accomplished mixed-breed dogs in the history of our dorky little sport. We ended the year with 1188 Championship points (or something reasonably close to that, I hope...), which should be sufficient for a pretty solid divisional ranking and possibly a break into the Top 20 Overall.

On top of that, Pongu finished all the titles in the Trick Dog progression, from Novice to Champion, over the course of 13 days in March. He earned his Novice title in CDSP obedience with all three qualifying scores of 190 or better.

Less formally, Dog Mob put together a couple of goofy tricks this year:

...and they took a couple of nice vacations: Lake Placid (winter), Nantucket (summer), Nantucket (fall), and assorted day trips.

 And we hit our goal of fostering and placing five dogs this year, with considerable help from Crookytail in his role as Guidance Counselor to Homeless Mutts:

Foster Dog 18: Penny Lane (later renamed Skunky Mushmellon)

A St. Bernard/Golden Retriever mix, Skunky was a stray on the streets of North Carolina. A kind-hearted woman in the neighborhood had been feeding her for several months, but when the woman was faced with undergoing a medical procedure that would likely require lengthy hospitalization, she reached out to a local rescue to take Skunky. That rescue in turn sent her to Wags, and I agreed to foster her for the group.

Skunky was adopted by an art gallery manager who met her in our neighborhood dog park while dog-sitting her employer's poodle. A couple of months later, in one of life's minor coincidences, she moved back to North Carolina when her owner relocated to that state.

Foster Dog 19: Foozie (later renamed Lolly)

This little dog wound up in Robeson County Animal Shelter after an area woman spotted her trying to get into the backyard trash cans and called Animal Control to take the "fox" out of her yard. I pulled Foozie and brought her up here, where her cute looks, sparkling personality, and small size drew a lot of attention immediately. Foozie had a number of great homes to choose from; because she seemed to enjoy and do well with children, I placed her with a nice professional couple that had two young sons and had trained their previous dog at my old club.

Foster Dog 20: Serenity

Another pull from Robeson County, Serenity (whose shelter name was Serendipity) was a sweet little mystery mix who ended up going farther afield than any other foster dog of ours this year. She was adopted sight unseen by a friend-of-friends: the couple who adopted our foster dog April had a friend who was looking for a dog of her own, and she clicked with Serenity from afar.

And so we packed this little dog up in an airline crate and mailed her to Minneapolis, where she lives happily ever after.

Foster Dog 21: Florence (later renamed Dori)

Found scavenging on an illegal garbage dump in Robeson County, Florence was a clever, affectionate dog who had only been here for two days before she got an adoption offer from a young professional couple who happened to see her walking around town wearing the Homeless Dog Vest of Shame. I kept her for another couple of weeks to do a complete evaluation and get started on some basic training (where she showed some real potential), and then she went on to her wonderful forever home.

Foster Dog 22: Ashling

This little Yorkie/Wheaten Terrier mix was confiscated along with three siblings from an unfit owner. Because of their history of neglect, all the dogs quickly became sick in the shelter. Ashling pulled through, but not all of her brothers were as fortunate.

Miraculously, her unlucky history left no scars on her personality. Ashling was a happy, bubbly, gentle dog who loved children, and that combined with her small size and (above all) low-shedding coat made her a very high-demand dog. This little Cinderella dog had her choice of fairy tale endings, and went home to one just before Christmas.

So much for 2013! We'll see what 2014 brings.

Thursday, December 26, 2013

Christmas with Cousin Chilton

This year, Dog Mob spent their Christmas with the in-laws and their Cousin Chilton, a purebred Standard Poodle, in Delaware.

They had a lot of fun ruining the landscaping in the pool yard (where they had to do most of their playing because neither Chilton nor Crookytail is entirely reliable on their recalls, so the big unfenced yard is off-limits to everyone but Pongu, who gleefully lords his nerd superiority over the other two every time he alone gets to go out there with me).

Chilton, who doesn't often get a chance to goof around with other dogs, looooved playing with Crookytail (and pretty much only with Crookytail, since Pongu made it clear early and often that he was not interested in making friends). Crooky was also thrilled to play with Chilty... at first. By the second day, and definitely by the third day, he was plainly getting tired of Chilty's endless puppy exuberance and frequently obnoxious pestering. Still, being a good sport, Crooky did his best to humor Chilton whenever he could.

The rest of the time, poor Chilty lay outside the closed door of the basement room where Dog Mob was staying and complained about not getting to play with them.

Snow falling outside the windows on Christmas Eve:

It took me seriously over ten minutes to get that picture, and that's the best version I ever managed. Putting Dog Mob in a Down-Stay was no problem, but Chilton wasn't accustomed to posing for pictures, so luring him into frame and then persuading him to sit still long enough for me to hit the camera button took a LOT of doing.

On Christmas morning, the dogs each got their own dollar store stocking (there was a dollar store in the same strip mall that housed the facility for Pongu's last Rally trial, so between runs I stopped over and grabbed three stockings for the furballs). Their presents were wrapped in plain brown paper and stuffed inside for them to tear open.

(That time I gave up on getting Chilton in the picture after about 5 to 10 minutes. It just wasn't happening. So I did it with the other two and called it a day.)

He had fun opening his presents along with Dog Mob, though.


Sunday, December 22, 2013

Final Rally Trial of 2013 - Let's Speak Dog, 12/21

Yesterday we went up to Nazareth PA for our last Rally trial of 2013. This was originally scheduled for Dec. 14th, but due to a severe ice storm in the area, it was postponed for a week.

I dressed pretty lightly for this trial, because it's been an unseasonably warm weekend in Philly and I figured my usual winter getup would be major overkill. What I forgot (because we had only trialed at this venue once previously) was that Nazareth is both north of Philly and at a considerably higher elevation.

So we got to the venue and it looked like this:


Anyhow, the trial itself was pretty uneventful. Pongu was a stressy shaking mess for the first few hours, which is about what I expected since he was a mess the last time we were at this venue, too. It's a perfectly nice facility, but it's on the small side (single ring with the crating area only separated by about 5' to 10' of floor space depending on how crowded it is) and it's relatively unfamiliar, and Pongu doesn't exactly need a lot of prodding to have stress issues.

This trial marked the beginning of our quest for ARCHMX triple Qs. To earn the ARCHMX, which is the final and most difficult championship title in World Cynosport Rally, you must (a) have earned all prior combined championships; and then (b) earn 10 separate QQQs with scores of 195 or better in Levels 1B, 2B, and 3B, all at the same trial.

So it's a lot like the RAE and UDX in that you need to get multiple Qs in separate runs, but it's three Qs and you have to score high in all three, whereas for RAE and UDX you just need to Q, it doesn't matter what your score is. (That said, getting a Q at all in Open and Utility is plenty challenging already!)

Our scores were 207, 200, NQ for the first set (sadface), and 207, 207, 203 for the second set (first ARCHMX leg! yay! nine more to go! less yay!).

The only run I got on tape was our Level 3 NQ in the first trial. For the last few trials, whenever I've asked somebody to tape us, we've gotten a really crappy score and/or NQ. I think it's a sign from above that I should give up my hopes of getting a good run on tape and just accept that we're always gonna look terrible when I try to record things for posterity.

But in the interest of failing massively in public (and demonstrating just how hard it is to get the ARCHMX), here is our crappy NQ run and a breakdown of why it sucked. Even if I hadn't NQ'ed us, we would have gotten a terrible score and no triple Q on this one anyhow.

0:00 -- good attention while waiting for the timer to get started; no stress scratching! yay!
0:27 -- my shoulder tilt pushes Pongu back and out of position (at least 1 point off there if it was just scored as a crooked Sit, or 5 points off if it was scored as a double Sit. Either way, that was my fault for bad handling. Hnnnrrrgggghh)
0:37 - 0:40 -- good backup, I'm happy with this. Liiiittle close to an auto-Sit at the end there. His butt doesn't touch the ground so we're okay, but I need to fix that for later runs, because I don't need to be losing 5 points on a dumb mistake like that
0:47 -- slightly out of position Sit, borderline scoreable; it would depend on the judge whether we got a point off on that or not
0:48 - 0:50 -- good pivot, I'm happy with this
0:53 -- front paw movement on the Sit-Stay, probably not scoreable but I'm not thrilled with it
1:04 - 1:07 -- we were getting a bunch of sloooowww Downs this whole day. Pongu's position is correct and there's only one cue, so it's not scoreable, but the slow time would hurt our placements on a tie and I'm not happy with that
1:14 -- what even IS that way-leaned-back Front position? I think that's a weird stress manifestation. A really tough judge might hit us for a point on that -- most judges wouldn't, because his feet are close even if his body isn't -- but even if it's not scoreable, blegh, that is not something I want to see for multiple reasons

1:20 -- Pongu notices the person filming him, stops to stare. No serious lag in positioning (because I caught him doing it and stopped moving) so not scoreable, but that's another time hit
1:31 -- another spider brain moment. I was actually surprised Pongu gave me a good Front after this (even with me helping him out a little with my hands) because usually he will pull out of position to keep an eye on whatever imaginary threat caused him to stare, but nope, that one's straight and close. Progress or a fluke of luck? Who knows, but I'm happy to see it!
1:34 -- smooth movement into Heel position, I'm happy with this too
1:50 -- I was super nervous about Pongu breaking his Stay on this one because that was a Major Issue for us the last time we trialed. We had been working on this, but it had only been two weeks since our last set of trials and he was clearly nervous in this venue, so I wasn't sure what to expect. But he was good!
1:58 - 2:03 -- distraction from the puppy squealing in the waiting area. Pongu self-corrected for missing his Front, kinda, but that's still massively crooked. 1 to 3 points off there.
2:10 -- this is where we NQ. Sign #17 was an About Turn away from the jump, while Sign #19 was right next to it and was a re-take of the jump. So I did #19 instead of #17 and skipping a sign (let alone two!) is an instant NQ. OOPS. I registered the correct sign and had a "dur" moment at like 2:11, right after I sent him.

2:13 -- from this point on we already NQ'ed and I knew it so whatever, we're doing the rest of this run just for practice.
2:31 -- that's what we were SUPPOSED to do. lol/sigh, oh well
2:36 -- wide on the turn, a persistent issue for us. A little bit of lagging coming off of it. This would probably have been 1 point off, maybe 2.
2:47 -- spider brain moment. Pongu did not hear my first cue to "Down." It wasn't that he heard me and ignored me; he is so stressed that the sound just does not register in his crazed little brain.
2:50 -- so we will make this a Teachable Moment since we already NQ'ed. Pongu does a MUCH faster Down with a finger point to help him along, which was what I had hoped for. Look! You CAN do a Down in the ring at something more closely approximating a reasonable speed! Wowww!! This would have been 3 points off for a re-cue if we were still counting.

2:59 to 3:00 -- I have no idea what is happening here. You can see Pongu start to go into a nice straight Front and then he makes a split-second decision to veer into Heel position instead. Why? Who knows. I'm not giving any mixed signals that I can see. This is a straight-up Crazy Dog Is Crazy moment.
3:02 -- I tried to reset him but he thought it was a sidestep so, welp, I guess we're done here. Pongu was so stressy at this point that he was just not thinking, so that was the end for us.

Because of various point losses, that complete disaster of a bonus exercise, and the re-cued Down, our final score would have been below 195. Therefore this would not have counted toward our ARCHMX triple Q anyway and it doesn't matter that I NQ'ed us. Personally, I'd rather have the NQ than a crappy score.

Then we went back to the car and Pongu took a nap and cleared out some of his brain spiders.

All the gray that's starting to show on his muzzle makes me feel a little sad. I spend a lot of time thinking: He's not even four yet! Why is he starting to look old!

Life is unfair.

Anyway, after that we went back in and our second set of runs was much better, so we did get one triple Q to kick off our Grand Final Championship Quest of 2014.

And that's it for us this year. 55(-ish) NQs! Some slightly larger number of Qs! 1188 Championship points! (...according to my extremely sophisticated "scribbled on the back of a course map" recording method, that is; actual official results may vary.) Three combined championship titles! Some other number of little ones that I'm not counting anymore!


Onward and upward. I'm hoping we accomplish some good things in 2014.

Saturday, December 14, 2013

Foster Hunting

Now that Ashling's gone home (and her new family hasn't called me in tears to say the adoption was a terrible mistake, so hopefully she'll stay gone...), I'm on the hunt for one last foster dog to finish out the year.

There's a sweet-looking Golden Retriever mix in Georgia that I'm considering, although it would mean reaching out to a new shelter where I don't have any contacts, so I'm not sure it'll work out. I've sent a message to a volunteer there, though. It remains to be seen whether that dog needs help and, if so, whether the power of social networking will reach that far.

And there's another shy-but-sweet Lab mix in North Carolina who might be a possible candidate if the Golden doesn't work out. That's in Sampson County, where I haven't pulled a dog since the previous shelter manager was forced out. I don't know anyone on staff there anymore, although I do know a local resident who's been a huge help in the past.

And there's a pretty red Beagle at Robeson County whose time is slowly trickling down...

Flipping through all these faces -- just pictures on a computer screen for me, connected only tenuously to a real dog shivering in a chain-link kennel somewhere tonight -- is always a little bit of an exercise in masochism. I know what the save rates are at these facilities. I know that there is a huge, unfathomable gulf between the possible fates that lie ahead for these dogs. Not just who lives and who dies, but how they live, and where, and with whom.

Over time I have grown ruthless in weeding out prospective candidates. There are many dogs I don't even consider: too big to fit in my crate, too small to avoid being bullied by Crookytail, too old to make it up and down our three flights of stairs constantly, too young to hold their bladders in the crate. I won't take puppies anymore. I seldom take dogs that come up through the rescue network. I avoid behavioral cases.

I still find way too many dogs.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

The Little Ash Girl Goes Home

In old fairy tales and folklore, Cinderella's original name is "Ash Girl" or "the little Ash Girl." Folklorists often refer to the archetypal Cinderella protagonist as "European Ash Girl." Even her Disney princess name, Cinderella, means "little cinder girl."

She lived in the ashes and cinders of the hearth, seeking warmth in a house that offered none. The Ash Girl was thin and dirty, forgotten by her father and mistreated by her stepmother. But she had a good heart, and in all of the stories -- sometimes with the help of magical birds, sometimes by the love and guidance of her departed mother's spirit, sometimes with the gifts of a benevolent fairy -- she found her way out of the ashes into a new life where she was safe and warm and beloved.

"Ashling" was not this little dog's original name. Her first owner called her something else. I don't know what it was, and I don't want to know, because knowing would taint whatever name it was.

When she came to the shelter, she was given the new name of Ashling, because the hope was that, like Cinderella the Ash Girl, she would find her way from a loveless home to a new, safe place where she could have her own Happily Ever After.

Today she did.

This morning Ashling went to her new home (and, as she did the first time, immediately ran straight to her people upon spotting them at the park). She'll be there, waiting, when her kids come home from school.

Hopefully it'll be the first of many, many such joyous greetings. Hopefully it'll be Happily Ever After.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Another Day in the Snow

Tomorrow Ashling will go on to her forever home. In the meantime, a picture dump of dogs in the snow:

And a video of assorted dimwits playing the winter version of "Find It":

So much for Ashling's adventures here! In the morning she will go on to her real home, and hopefully live Happily Ever After.

We didn't get as far with training as I usually try for. Ashling will go home without knowing a single formal cue, not even Sit. She has a basic familiarity with clicker training and the beginnings of focus work, including attention in moderately distracting environments (city sidewalks, a half-empty dog park, etc.). She is well on her way to being fully potty trained and is pretty good on leash (still working on ignoring a few things, but clicker marking and rewarding for attention and a loose leash has proven highly successful with Ashling and she's about 90% of the way there). She knows her name and has a better-than-average untrained recall.

And she's pretty eager to teach herself to go up the stairs backwards, so there's that.

But mostly she's still a blank canvas. A primed one, ready to start work, but largely untouched beyond that.

I expect that she'll do okay despite this. She's a sweet, friendly, stable little dog by nature, and that's the most important thing for a future family pet.

Her suitcase is packed. She's ready to go.

Monday, December 9, 2013

Pongu Gets His ARCHEX, Ashling Gets a Snow Day

After a crazy three-day marathon of Rally trials (Harrisburg on Friday --> NYC on Saturday --> Exton PA on Sunday), Pongu finished his ARCHEX championship this past weekend.

He is the 47th mixed-breed dog to earn this particular title, the 341st dog overall in the history of the world, and the sixth or seventh to get it this year.

We also broke a thousand Championship points, which means we have a chance -- by no means a sure thing, but a chance -- at not only being nationally ranked within our division, but cracking the Top 20 Overall standings.

This would be pretty nifty if it happens, because Pongu was only eligible for 1/3 of the possible Championship points at each trial for the first third of the year, and only 2/3 of them until October (this is why there are divisional standings -- the dogs in the lower divisions are rarely eligible to earn all possible points). Plus he's insanely fearful and a lifelong rehab case and this is his first full year in competition in any sport. So if my little crazy dog actually manages to weasel his way into the combined standings, well... that would be something.

And if not, we might aim for it next year. I was planning to make that one of my big goals for 2014, but while I do still intend to finish Pongu's ARCHMX, I'm having second thoughts about doing an all-out chase for national rankings that year. We might end up shifting focus a little to do more AKC Rally and CDSP obedience. Pongu might benefit from doing other stuff for a year or two before we make a hardcore run for WCRL points. I dunno.

I was actually pretty demoralized about Pongu's performance this weekend because his scores were not very good and by the last day they were outright crappy, so I was feeling frustrated about how Crazy Dog Is Crazy and melts down all the time at the smallest provocation. Pongu's come a long way in many respects, but he's just a genetic trainwreck of a dog temperamentally, and as such, he crashes and burns because of teeny tiny things that more confident dogs don't even notice.

But then we had a great practice session tonight and so I am feeling stupidly optimistic once again. NEXT YEAR. Next year will be the year we do Great Things.

Another thing that helped me feel better was, perversely, the blizzard that came down upon us yesterday afternoon. True, it made the drive home into a miserable three-and-a-half-hour slog through 2 mph traffic on 76... but once we actually got home, there were six or seven inches of snow on the ground, and deep fluffy snow + dogs = instant magical happiness. You just can't be sad when there's fresh snow and a playful dog around. It's impossible.

I don't think Ashling had ever seen snow before. I took her out with Crookytail (Pongu was so exhausted that he just needed a nap, so he stayed home), and at first she was tentative about plunging her feet into the cold slushy stuff. But when she saw how much fun Crooky was having with it -- prancing along and shoveling up mouthfuls of fresh-fallen snow every few steps -- she decided that she wanted to have fun too.

So off to the dog park we went.

In this one you can see Ashling doing her favorite Bad Thing (jumping on people) and Crooky doing his (peeing on stuff he's not supposed to pee on).

They had a good time.

Then, still not tired out, they went home and played biteyface.

Later I took all three of the dogs back out to the park to romp around in the snow one last time before it got ruined (which it was, by today). Pongu and Crookytail played a variation of the "find it" game where the treats were buried in deep snowdrifts (this was around 11 pm so we had the whole park to ourselves, no worries about other dogs getting possessive over the treats), and Ashling joined in as soon as she figured out what they were up to. She is very quick to learn by watching other dogs.

This evening, Ashling met Prospective Family #2. The first family withdrew their application over the weekend because one of the parents had earned a new work opportunity that made it impossible for them to adopt a dog this winter, so that was a gracious resolution to my dilemma.

And I was glad for it, because Ashling really seemed to like this family and particularly the kids, so I am grateful to the whims of fate for making everything work out so neatly. I don't have to disappoint anyone and Ashling gets a great family and maybe someday when their schedule allows, the other adopters will be able to give another needy dog a home.

Friday, December 6, 2013

Before the Weekend of Insanity...

...a couple more Ashling updates.

There's probably going to be radio silence on this blog for the rest of the weekend (at least up through Sunday evening) because I will be scurrying all around the area doing Rally trials, so here's a slightly early Weekend Update on the Temporary Dog.

Ashling met Prospective Family #1 last night. I thought the meeting went quite well: she seemed to like them and they seemed to like her. I was secretly half-hoping that they'd turn out to be terrible so my placement decision would be much easier, but alas, no such luck. So we'll roll on till Monday, when she meets Prospective Family #2, and then I'll have to figure something out by Tuesday.

Ashling's leash skills have improved to the point where I have switched her from the EasyWalk harness to a plain flat buckle collar. I can now walk her simultaneously with the rest of Dog Mob, which I don't often do because a three-dog crowd is a little unwieldy and we end up hogging the entire sidewalk when I'm wrangling the entire mob at once, but it's possible. This is handy when I'm feeling especially lazy or it's rainy and I don't want to do two separate 20-minute potty waddles.

She's still far from perfect on leash: she continues to pull toward children and other dogs (particularly small light-colored fluffy dogs who resemble her siblings), although not as hard or with quite as much whining as before. Ashling also tends to cross sides behind the walker, which can wrap the leash across your back (although I'm so inured to this that I honestly didn't even notice it until her prospective adopters pointed it out yesterday -- I just switch hands automatically without thinking about it -- so obviously I haven't done anything to curb it since it's something that doesn't even register to me anymore). But as long as you keep a brisk pace and a clear direction, she's happy to trot along; it's when the person slows down that she starts drifting off to sniff and wander.

Ashling still really hates being wet. This is what she did immediately after coming in from this morning's walk through the (extremely light) rain:

I'm pretty sure that's the first/only time I've heard her growl. Of course the one thing on Earth that would make her growl would be water. Of course.

On the training front: we finally had a breakthrough on Sit this morning.

I wasn't making much progress with it earlier because, while Ashling does occasionally Sit of her own accord, she does not do it when I'm around with a bag of treats, because excitement overwhelms her to the point where all she can do is (1) skitter from side to side doing her little happy-feet tap dance; (2) jump in the air and wave her front paws around; or (3) veeeerrry occasionally stand still for a second. No offered Sits = no opportunity to clicker capture the behavior.

So then I tried doing it via lure-reward, and promptly ran into a roadblock because Ashling's initial lured Sit was an incredibly exaggerated, stretched-out hip Sit. She looked like an upside-down question mark. And while I realize that this dog is probably not destined for Seriously Serious competition and it therefore might not matter that much if she has a lopsided Sit, it was so extreme that it just looked really uncomfortable.

I have no idea why she opted to Sit that way. It is not something I've ever seen a dog do before, at least not that consistently. She did this for two sessions.

But then this morning she started reverting to something more closely approximating a normal Sit (it still looks pretty wacky, but not as wacky), so hooray!, we might actually be able to progress past the luring stage and get this on cue by the time she goes home.

Ashling seems to be much more into self-education than directed education. For as much trouble as we've had getting her Sit off the ground, she's been really quick to pick up other things she sees Dog Mob doing.

The most spectacular example of this is that Ashling has been slowly teaching herself to go up the stairs backwards.

For a while now, I've been trying to teach Crookytail to do the stairs backwards. Pongu mastered this trick over a year ago, but Crookytail is a considerably slower learner so he's still working on getting the whole flight in one go.

Impromptu performance from this morning (this is a fair illustration of where they both are, although Crooky is a little slower than usual in this clip because he's already gone up four flights of stairs backwards before this and is tired):

Because Crooky is still working on this one, we practice it occasionally when I happen to have a treat in my pocket. Because we practice it occasionally, he has learned to eagerly offer the backwards-stairs behavior if he knows I have a treat in my pocket, instead of waiting for me to ask. So a lot of times I'll just be coming in from a walk and Crooky will spontaneously start going up the stairs backwards because he wants a cookie, and I've been potty training Ashling so he knows I have a cookie.

It did not take long for Ashling to notice that Crooky got cookies for doing backwards stairs. Around the third or fourth time they came in together, she began orienting herself backwards in the start position too. I never asked her to do this, it was pure imitative learning. But, once she offered it, I gave her cookies for doing it because I thought it was funny.

Around the sixth or seventh time, Ashling began offering a partial version of the backwards-stairs behavior. Right now she cannot hoist her back feet up to do a complete step (she's managed it once or twice, but I don't think she has either the rear-end awareness or the core muscle strength to do it consistently), but she can jump backwards with her front feet to do a half-step.

So I give her cookies for that too, because again, it makes me laugh.

There's basically a zero percent chance that Ashling will have this behavior completed before she goes home -- she just doesn't have the strength or foundational skills to finish it -- but I'll encourage her to go as far as she wants with it.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Quick Video Dump

Busy day for me today. Hiring interviews in the morning, hopefully catching up on some briefs throughout the day -- the entire computer system has been down at work for the past two days, causing incredible woe and consternation as people (including me!) blow Superior/Supreme/federal court deadlines right and left -- and then Pongu's Open class tonight. So today's post will just be a very quick video dump. None of these are particularly stellar videos but they work okay as today's blurry lil' snapshots in time.

Handing out buffalo jerky last night -- the goal here was to encourage Ashling to wait patiently with the other dogs and not jump all over me to get her treat. She doesn't know Sit yet (we're working on it, but that's a story for a longer post) so at this point I am only looking for and rewarding "four on the floor": all four paws on the ground and no jumping on my legs.

Sadly when I made this video, I was holding the camera and therefore unable to actually look at the jerky bag while handing things out, and so the last piece I had left was WAY too big for Ashling to eat. Oops. (She got a different, more appropriately sized piece after I turned off the camera.)

But she didn't jump while disappointed, so that's nice.

The other two videos document some of my attempts to see if Ashling was familiar with any interactive toys (in these clips, balls and Tugs). This is sort of an artificially stupid version because I thought it was funny to contrast Pongu's super nerd pushiness with the other two dogs' more laid-back and/or confused attitudes (not hard to tell which one's the competition dog in this bunch!), but even when I removed the element of conflict by putting Pongu in another room while showing Ashling the toys, she still had no real interest in them. There was a flicker of nibbling at the Tug rope when I dragged it along the floor, but that was about it.

Given what is known about her background, it's really not too surprising that Ashling doesn't know how to play with people, but it's still sort of sad to see a dog who had an owner in the past, lived in a home, and still doesn't seem to have any training or interactive play history. Dogs are thinking creatures; they enjoy and benefit from learning, playing, and doing interesting things with their people. To me, neglecting those aspects of the human-canine relationship is like having a child and never teaching her how to read or giving her crayons to draw. Whole worlds of experience and creativity are shut off from someone so deprived, and I have Very Strong Feelings about that.

Anyway, rant aside, Ashling is young and curious and has a bright little mind, so I think she'll really blossom when she moves on to a home that is more nurturing and less neglectful than the one she came out of.

Speaking of which!, I have narrowed her pool of prospective adopters down to two homes that are very similar in overall profile (two kids, two parents, walkable city neighborhoods, possibility of fun dog-friendly vacations and lots of outdoor activity, etc.). Each home sounds absolutely wonderful and I think Ashling would be terrifically happy in either. It is going to be incredibly difficult to choose between them and I wish so much I had two dogs so that I could give one to each, because I'm sure both would be stellar owners (as would many of the other homes who were interested in Ashling).

It's a good dilemma to have -- would that all dogs could be so lucky! -- but I do not relish the prospect of having to disappoint one of them.

In any case, Ashling will meet with both groups of prospective adopters over the next week or so, and then we'll figure out where she's going to live, and hopefully by next Friday or thereabouts she will be off to a happy new life.

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Ashling Starts Training and Gets a Bath

Yesterday I took Ashling and Pongu out to Seger Dog Run, our local dog park. (Crooky did not get to go, because I did not want to have to worry about wrangling his obnoxious butt while watching Ashling.) We went at about 7 pm, so it was well after nightfall and much too dark to get any pictures or video, but she did really well. The park had a mixture of dogs ranging from a small Jack Russell Terrier to some pittie mixes that probably clocked in around the 70- to 75-pound mark.

Ashling behaved nicely with all of them, although she didn't really play much. She was more interested in jumping on all the people (who, of course, stooped down to pet her and thereby reinforced the jumping -- argh! -- but I can't really blame them, and certainly it's preferable to most of the alternative things they might have done). That initial unsureness is normal, though. Virtually every dog I've ever taken to the dog park has been hesitant and a little timid on their first visit, because they are the new kids at school and they typically want to take a couple visits to get the lay of the land before they relax enough to start playing. I interpret this as indicative of good canine manners and a sign that the dog is a "go with the flow," not-too-pushy type. A dog who came to a strange park and immediately proclaimed himself King of the World, by contrast, might be a great competitor in certain sports (oh, say, IPO...) but might not be an ideal house pet for the average family.

(Aside: I was also pleased with Pongu's heelwork when we practiced at the park yesterday. He was on. Sharp, precise, fast. Tight left turns, made me really happy. Hit all his jumps and did good retrieves, although he's still a little far back on his return Fronts. We'll work on that. But overall, he was great. Now, if only we could get that in the ring... /tangent.)

After returning from the park, it was time for Ashling to undergo the dreaded BATH.

And oh, she did not like that.

I've had dogs who disliked baths before. Lots of them. I have had many, many dogs who were sad and deeply resigned and went into the tub as though walking up to the guillotine. Crookytail, in particular, is a master of the pre-bath Parade of Sadness guilt trip. But I have never had a dog who reacted to water and shampoo with as much flailing shrieking scrabbling drama as Ashling.

Truly, it was something to behold. It really made me comprehend why people might take non-poodle dogs to the groomer's for a bath, and why said bath might cost $35.

Alas I did not have a groomer at my disposal late yesterday night. What I did have was a heart of absolute ice and stone when it comes to the theatrical misery of small, filthy terriers. And so poor, woeful Ashling got shampooed despite her struggles.

Truly, that night she was the Saddest Dog in the World.

Despite her complete and abject horror of the whole ordeal, however, Ashling never once tried to nip or scratch at me. This cements my growing conviction that she'd be a pretty darn good family dog, because it was clear that in her mind she was surely going to drown and/or get dissolved by caustic dog-destroying soap bubbles, and yet her response was not to fight back or bite me, but just to try to wriggle away. So, while it is absolutely true that any dog can be provoked to bite eventually, it appears that Ashling's threshold for biting is quite high, and that she'll do everything in her power to run away from a conflict before she resorts to that.

Anyway, she survived the bath (despite her considerable doubts) and afterwards we started clicker training. In this session I'm just loading the clicker (i.e., building up Ashling's association between the "click" sound and the magical delivery of treats, so she comes to understand that the "click" noise operates as a signal that treats are coming) and rewarding for eye contact, which is the beginning of focus work. I'm tossing the cookies away from myself instead of hand-delivering them so that she has to turn away to get the treats, because I want to see how quickly she chooses to return her attention to me and resume eye contact (answer: pretty quickly -- she likes this game and is actively attempting to prompt me to do it again).

As sort of a Point A-to-Point C contrast, here's what Pongu's been working on most recently: Utility scent articles, metal version. (For the non-competition-obedience people in the audience: the goal of this exercise is for Pongu to pick out the article that I touched on the bar -- not the ends, because I touched them all on the ends to move them -- and bring it back to me. He has to distinguish the correct article by scent alone, as he does not know which it is, and this version is more difficult than the other version [with leather articles] because most dogs do not like the sensation of metal against their teeth.)

It's coming along nicely. It took us about three weeks for Pongu to hold the metal articles at all, but once we got over that hurdle the rest was relatively fast. It's going to take forever to get this ring ready (oh, all the innumerable pieces that are going to fall apart when crazypants dog is stressed...) but at least I know we have it when he's relaxed.

All this stuff begins with focus work. Who knows whether Ashling will ever get there (at the moment, her life path seems to be headed toward "beloved family pet" rather than "ribbon-collecting competition dog"), but the first step down all those roads starts with attention games and learning how to learn.

On the socializing front, as predicted, this morning Ashling started engaging in active play with Crookytail... at least until Pongu gets tired of waiting for me to praise him for holding a nice Sit-Stay (which I didn't ask him to do, btw, he just volunteered that one) and yells at them to stop distracting me so I'll pay attention to him again. Nerd.

So, on Day Three, I think I have a good enough sense of who this dog is and what she likes to start matching her to a home. There will be lots of other things for us to discover -- and for her new home to discover as well -- but the big obvious contours are apparent.

Ashling's a good dog. She'll make somebody very happy, I think.

Monday, December 2, 2013

Ashling's Adventures, Day Two

In which I continue assessing Ashling's responses to different environments and make another picture dump post.

Last night I took Ashling out to Cianfrani Park, a "pocket park" in our neighborhood that is routinely used as a potty ground by so many dogs that the grass, despite the best efforts of the park's volunteer maintenance cadre, is pretty much perma-dead. Out of pity for said grass, I hardly ever go to this park... except when I have a new foster dog and really need to encourage it to potty outside. The park ground is so inundated with potty smells that it's basically lit up in neon to dog noses: "THIS IS A BATHROOM. GO POTTY HERE."

Ashling hadn't pottied since her arrival that morning, and while this is not unusual -- the majority of my fosters are shy about going to the bathroom for their first few days -- I wanted to give her a little more encouragement, so off to Cianfrani we went.

She did not potty outside. Instead I just tethered her to the park's big holiday light display and took a picture, both because I thought it looked neat and because I wanted to see what Ashling would do. Being tethered in an unfamiliar environment with other dogs wandering around (within 30'-40', so a generally safe distance, but still visible) and a big ol' light display right next to her is fairly stressful, and Ashling was clearly uncomfortable with it (as you can see in the picture), but she handled it well and did not freak out.

I take that as a reassuring sign. If she's going to live with kids, particularly small kids, then a certain amount of chaos just goes with the game, and so I like to expose my prospective family-dog fosters to some stress so that I can see how they do with it. A dog who freaks out mightily (like, oh, Pongu...) is not a good candidate for living with small children or a busy household. But Ashling handled it appropriately, which I interpret as promising.

This morning we went out to the same park and the same decoration in daylight. This time Ashling pottied. She still hasn't peed in my house yet. I've been crating her for a few hours between potty breaks and whenever I can't directly supervise, so she hasn't had many opportunities to mess up, but so far it seems like she should be pretty easy to housebreak if she isn't potty trained already.

We also took some pictures in front of one of the Magic Garden murals. I picked this one because I thought the fallen gingko leaves added an interesting splash of color. What I failed to notice, until I was back at home editing the pictures, is that there's a giant pink mosaic butt behind Pongu's head. Oops. Oh well.

Both of the dogs are looking at a big, noisy city maintenance vehicle on the street to the right of this picture. There were a lot of construction vehicles going around today, plus some street repair work, so LOTS of extremely loud, jarring noises and unpleasant smells -- but Ashling was less troubled by them than either Pongu or Crookytail, and she hasn't even been in the city for two days.

So, again, I take this as a good sign of her nerve strength and stability. She's still easily distracted and her manners need considerable work, but her underlying temperament is very promising for a family dog. The other stuff is relatively superficial and can be trained in; courage is born in the dog, and you either have it or you don't. Ashling does.

However, despite her relatively bombproof response to environmental noises, she is also what you'd call a "soft" dog. She quails at any sign of displeasure and responds eagerly to any sign that you're pleased with her (maybe a little TOO eagerly, since her current response is to pop up like a wire-haired Jack-in-the-Box and jump on your knees). I think Ashling's original owner may have hit her, because she ducks away from sudden gestures and cowers if your hand passes over her head. But I don't know for sure. What I do know is that anything beyond a simple "no" would be too harsh for this dog. She'll do her level best to do what you want, if she can only figure out what it is. All you have to do is ask (and if you happen to have a cookie, bonus!).

Bombling around the condo:

(She's reluctant to go in my office for the moment because Pongu yells at her and bites her in the face when she tries. So for now she's just hanging out in the hallway there.)

Also today, Pongu stole Ashling's bully stick (I gave her a new one to replace it) and while I was not thrilled with Pongu's reliably terrible hospitality, I was pleased that Ashling didn't respond except to wag her tail uncertainly and look at me for cues. No signs of resource guarding here -- another thing that would be important for a family dog living with children.

Later today we'll try a bath. I meant to do it yesterday but was too tired by the end of the day. Hopefully this evening I'll be able to get around to that. Poor girl needs one.

Finally, as an unrelated coda, Pongu's ribbons from Saturday's Rally trial up in Washington NJ:

Not one of our best performances overall -- these runs pointed up a number of trouble spots we need to work on -- but we picked up another QQ toward ARCHEX and a couple of decent scores (207/first place in Level 3 [lost 3 points on a three-step forward creep during the Stand-Stay/Down/Sit/Recall]; 207/second place in Level 2 [lost 3 points on a repeated cue]), and finished Pongu's RL3X level championship. And overall his heelwork was pretty good, and his Right turns have improved substantially (although the Left turns, particularly the Left 360, are wider and bumpier than I'd like), so... there were some good things mixed in with the "meh."

Next weekend is our insane three-day run at capping off Pongu's ARCHEX this year. Three days! Five trials! Fifteen runs! Harrisburg to NYC to Exton PA! Woooo it's gonna be crazy. But we only need two more QQs so I think we can do it. GO PONGU GO.

Sunday, December 1, 2013

Ashling Goes to the Park and Discovers Toys

After taking a nap this morning to recover from all the craziness of last night, I took Ashling out to Palumbo Park this afternoon. Many of the families that had expressed interest in her had kids, and so I wanted to take her out to a place with children so I could see how she reacted to seeing different ages of kids at play.

She was very interested in the toddlers playing in the Tot Lot (that fenced-in area with the blue matted floor behind her) and tried to approach them several times with relaxed, playful body language. She was interested in the strollers that occasionally rolled past outside the park, too.

Of course, being a dog, she was also really interested in rolling around in the mud and dead leaves (and as a result will have to undergo the Horrible Experience of a bath later today, but that's okay -- I want to see how she reacts to being bathed anyway).

I got an early version of a Sit out of her, too, so hopefully in a couple of days we'll have that somewhat reliably on cue. Behold: Ashling attempting a very tense Sit in an effort to hold her spring-loaded butt down to the ground long enough to get that chicken treat out of my hand., okay, her Sits last about .03 nanoseconds right now, but it's a start.

Then a girl (looked about maybe 12? I don't know, I'm terrible with kids' ages) came over and asked whether she could pet Ashling, so I said "sure!" and asked if I could take her picture as photographic documentation of how this foster dog interacts with children. The girl agreed, and so I gave her some cookies and she in turn gave those cookies to Ashling.

So, yep, I think this dog definitely likes kids.

Afterwards we went back inside and Ashling spent a while sniffing curiously at Dog Mob and being sniffed curiously in return. I showed her some toys and she expressed mild interest in the cloth-covered squeaky toys but didn't seem entirely sure what to do with them.

Luckily, Crookytail was around to help her out, and by dint of ceaseless play-bows and other invitations, finally got her to tentatively try playing with him (and the zombie toy) a little bit. I imagine in a day or two they'll be playing full throttle and our much-battered furniture will sustain a little more abuse.

Also, I got our first Fake Family Portrait with Ashling:

Now everybody is snoozing again.