Thursday, February 27, 2014

On Vacation!

Yesterday we went to the Pocono Mountains for a short-ish ski vacation. With Dog Mob, of course.

We're renting a cabin near the Blue Mountain ski area. It has a nice backyard:

(Not pictured on that one: Crookytail, because he ran off into the woods to get eaten by bears.)

It also has a pellet stove for heat, which caused us to nearly freeze to death on arrival last night, because it was 2 degrees outside and about 40 degrees inside, and we -- being idiot clueless city types -- were hilariously unable to get the stove lit.

Eventually the spousal unit managed to figure it out, though. (For the record, the ultimate problem -- other than us initially not recognizing the pellet stove, then not recognizing the hopper, and then not bringing enough pellets into the stove -- was that the stove had a safety lock on the front window panel and we hadn't closed it all the way.)

And lo, so we were spared freezing to death.

This afternoon we attempted to brave Beltzville State Park and hike with the dogs.

This didn't entirely work out as planned, because there was over a solid foot of snow and crusted ice on the ground, making it impossible to spot the actual trails. We settled on a service road as a makeshift "trail," following the helpful advice of another hiker-with-dogs in the area, but we'd barely gotten started on the route when a sudden snowstorm came in and wiped out visibility almost completely.

Here's a progression of the storm blowing in on us. I took these shots over the course of about five minutes.

The afternoon sun is actually in frame in that last shot -- the camera is facing it straight on -- but the snow is blowing in so hard that you have to look pretty hard to see it.

So we turned around and went home... and, of course, the snow all went away as soon as we gave up. Oh well. We'll brave it again later, I hope, since the fake service road "trail" looked promising from what little I could see.

And that was our first day on vacation. Crooky spent the rest of the afternoon playing with Peter, who discovered some sleds at the cabin, and Pongu worked on his homework for a bit.

Monday, February 24, 2014

"Why Should I Title My Dog Before Breeding?"

One of the really common refrains that pops up on dog forums, along with "I don't want a show dog, I just want a pet," is "I want to breed my dog because she's the best dog ever and I love her. She doesn't have titles or health tests or any of that fancy stuff, but she's a great dog. How should I get started?"

Usually this is met with some variation of "please don't breed your dog." And usually, honestly, this is the correct answer, because if you have to ask the Internet whether you should breed your dog, 99.9% of the time the right answer is, and should be, "no."

But it's also usually not the answer that the asker wants to hear -- and this frequently results in a fair amount of rage and frothery if they interpret it as an insult to their dog -- and sometimes the answer actually is, or should be, "yes."

There are good dogs out there, particularly in the working breeds, who don't have any conformation championships or performance titles or working certifications for several generations back, or at all. There are sound, strong, intelligent, even-tempered BYB dogs whose genes and talents should not be lost to the breed. Some of these dogs should be bred, and in my opinion it is a mistake to always end the inquiry as soon as the asker reveals that the dog in question doesn't have any titles or health tests.


That doesn't mean the dog shouldn't get titles and breed-appropriate health tests before producing any puppies. In fact, I believe it's even more important when we're talking about a dog who doesn't have any titles for a few generations back in the pedigree. So then the issue becomes, how do you persuade someone that this is necessary, or even important, when they don't want to breed to produce "show dogs" and don't consider themselves "breeders" in any formal sense, but just want to preserve something about this one dog that is special?

I think the answer goes back to why titles and health tests are important in the first place: not so that the owner can charge more for the puppies, and not to show that the dog is "better" than some other dog. You can, if you are sufficiently determined, get titles on dogs who most definitely are not better than average (see Exhibit A: Pongu the Insane, who has many more titles than most actual good dogs).

The point is to signal to other people in the breed world -- puppy buyers and owners of stud dogs, above all -- that this dog belongs to someone who is knowledgeable and passionate about dogs, has tested their own dog's mettle through an objective evaluation process (trialing, showing, or earning work certifications), is serious about their breed, and has decided based on that knowledge, testing, and seriousness that this dog is indeed breedworthy.

And that's important.

Because let's assume, for the sake of argument, that the dog we're talking about is a legitimately great dog that just happens not to have any tests or titles. Let's assume that she has strong genes, is a truly exceptional example of the breed, and should not be lost to the breed pool.

Okay. So the first concern is finding a good stud dog who complements this dog's genetic package. Most responsible owners of proven, tested, high-quality stud dogs will not breed their dog to somebody's untitled, untested family pet. That knocks out a huge percentage of your best matches. Your choices will be narrowed down to commercially motivated owners (who just want the stud fee and don't care if it's a good match or not) and clueless owners who either don't know or don't care enough to restrict their dog's breeding activities.

In either case, your chances of finding the right stud for this dog are decreased -- clueless owners generally aren't going to have access to good bloodlines, and commercial ones don't care whether their particular dog is a good match to yours, so even if they do have good bloodlines (and many don't), they may not match up well to your dog's side of the pedigree. So even if the dog is AWESOME, the odds that her awesomeness will go down to the puppies is substantially reduced, because you will probably be breeding her to a dog with inferior or incompatible genetics.

But let's say you get lucky and manage to score a great stud dog anyway. And you produce a litter of great puppies.

Where do those puppies go? Most owners who are serious about doing something with their dogs -- showing, competing, or working -- won't take puppies out of untitled and unproven parents, because they are typically looking for particular traits in their dogs. Most owners who are educated and concerned about responsible breeding practices won't take them for ethical reasons. So that leaves you with a significantly narrower range of homes that are less likely to be knowledgeable about or involved with the breed.

Let's assume, though, that by luck or hard work you are able to successfully place all of your puppies in loving, caring homes where they are cherished as family pets. None of them has to go to a shelter and none of them winds up in a less-than-stellar living situation. They all get good homes.

How many of those good homes are going to breed them? Probably few to none, because most responsible owners have internalized that you do not breed your untitled, untested family pet. And if they did breed those puppies, then you would have to go all the way back up to the beginning of this post and consider the odds that they'd find decent, compatible studs, suitable homes for their own puppies, etc.

In all likelihood, within one or two generations, you would lose whatever traits made your original dog so special. And that's assuming the line didn't just end with the first generation because all of the puppy owners -- being responsible pet homes -- prevented their dogs from breeding.

IF a dog is truly something special, and IF she is a worthy addition to the breed, then the best way to ensure those genes stay in circulation is to elevate her to the upper echelon of breeding dogs and get her considered by other serious breeders. That means titling and health testing the dog, making connections in the breed world, and expanding your own base of knowledge so that you, the owner, can tell whether your dog is genuinely breedworthy after all.

Without that, the dog's genes are likely to be lost to the breed just as though she'd never been bred at all. And that is its own small tragedy, apart from all the other damage that may come from ill-considered breeding of family pets.

Saturday, February 22, 2014

Beach Visit

On Saturday, Dog Mob went out to Wildwood to run around the beaches while they're still allowed.

Pongu deserved a break from training -- he's been working pretty hard since I enrolled in Gold for Obedience Skillbuilding -- and Crooky, well, he just deserved a break in general, poor guy. He did not do so hot at his last agility foundations class (tried to run across the room three separate times to play with other dogs; still doesn't comprehend wrapping at all despite four weeks of trying) and I've been crabby with him for about a week now.

So it was good for all of us to take an afternoon off and just go to the beach. Sand! Surf! Dead horseshoe crabs with stinky stuff inside!

Crooky tried to roll around in that dead crab before realizing why it is not a good idea to roll around in hard, spiky, pointy-carapaced things. Poor dumdum, he had to actually give it a try before figuring that one out.

Also!, Crookytail got to play with his friend Ariella, who is one of the few friends he's got that can tolerate (and match) his obnoxious body-slamming play style.

Here they are pretending to be good:

...and here's what they actually spent their time doing:

Bunch of goofbats.

Not pictured: Crookytail running across the beach to hassle a white dog and a Golden Retriever (or mix), and totally blowing off my recalls until I got within 20 yards, whereupon he immediately pretended like he'd been listening all along; Pongu spontaneously offering some pretty decent Heeling because he wanted cookies and guessed (correctly) that I would give him cookies for offering this behavior; both dogs munching on WaWa "homestyle chicken balls" (a peculiarly named product if ever there was one) on the way home, then passing out in the car.

They had a good time. It was a nice break. Tomorrow: back to work!

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Ceilings and Dreams

What's the ceiling on your dreams?

For all of us, there is a ceiling somewhere. I will never win a Nobel Prize or become President. I'm never going to revolutionize quantum physics or write a song that endures through the ages. If these achievements were ever possible for me (and I doubt they were), they aren't anymore; my life has taken other directions, and those roads are now closed behind me.

I don't think about those dreams anymore. They just aren't part of my world. They certainly aren't among my goals. And so the fact that I will never achieve those things causes me no worry whatsoever, because failing to accomplish an aspiration you don't have is not a failure at all.

Failing to achieve something you do want, on the other hand, can carry a considerable sting. And if that failure comes in the context of a team sport, then... well, then things get very complicated very quickly. Particularly in dog sports.

Which is, of course, why I'm writing this post: because once again I'm recalibrating my aspirations for Pongu, and once again I'm wondering what it is reasonable to dream for this dog.

He is still fearful. He will always be fearful. I know this. My dog -- my crazy little nerdpuppy, my dog that I love more than anything in the world -- has some hard limits on his physical and psychological durability. He can't do what other dogs can, and I don't want to burden him with a freight of disappointments if he can't meet my aspirations.

And yet.

And yet he's come so far, and has achieved so much that I never thought would be possible.

Back in the beginning, when I was just struggling to find ways of helping my fearful puppy cope with the world, I thought Pongu would never set foot in the competition ring. I thought he'd never earn a Rally Q. I thought he'd never earn a Rally title. I thought he'd never do a Novice Stand For Exam, and I thought he'd never do AKC anything.

I was wrong about all those things. So badly wrong, in fact, that I fully anticipate we'll finish Pongu's ARCHMX, and beat the game in World Cynosport, before his fourth birthday. That's in about two months. And after those two months?

Well, we can do AKC Rally for a while. I'll enter trials whenever they're reasonably close and don't conflict with other activities, and I figure we'll get through Pongu's RE this year. Depending on how it goes and how much fun we have in that venue (and on whether I see value in proofing him in the noisier AKC environment), we may start on the RAE.

We can do CDSP obedience, too. Training the Open and Utility exercises will take a while -- probably the rest of this year -- but once we're ready, I don't see any reason Pongu can't succeed in that venue. It's as relaxed and welcoming as competition obedience gets, and since praise is permitted in the ring, I believe my dog can succeed there.

That leaves the great white whale: AKC obedience. The most difficult, the most strictly scored, the most notoriously unwelcoming in certain quarters. The venue where all your scores get posted in perpetuity for other people to Look Upon and Judge. Where at the high levels, you cannot win unless someone else loses. Where there is no praise, and no cookies, and not always that much by way of supportive sport culture for the people, either.

I think of throwing my little dog into that environment and I flinch. And yet. I wonder: is it reasonable to hope for that? Someday? Is it reasonable to dream? Or is that expecting a Nobel Prize out of a little dog who has already given all he's got?

With what I've seen of Pongu's progress in the last year and a half, and what I imagine might be possible with the help of FDSA's instructors, I'm finding myself tempted by those old hopes and wishes again. And I wonder if that's fair to my dog.

I'll have a clearer picture after we've done a few more runs in CDSP, I suspect. Until then... it's all just a dream. And a ceiling untested.

Sunday, February 9, 2014

Stepping Back to Rebuild

Friday night we went out to BVTC for another small, relaxed Friday night trial. Traffic was awful on the way over -- I'd budgeted 45 minutes for standstill traffic on 76, but it turned out that I'd needed an hour and a half -- so we got there 45 minutes late and had to jump in at the last second, just as the Level 1 and 3 rings were breaking down.

Considering that Pongu basically had to do his Level 3 run straight out of the car, it wasn't that bad. His other runs were mostly okay to good -- some minor bobbles but nothing too huge, other than a broken Stay on a Level 2 run that gave us an NQ. If I'd had any doubts, that trial confirmed it: we really need to work on our Stays!

And then we went home, having picked up one more QQQ (bringing our official tally -- now that I've gotten my records to match up with World Cynosport's -- to five). Pongu and I will take a month off competition to try and work out some of our more persistent problems, and hopefully we'll see some improvement when we get back to the ring.

Pongu and I currently enrolled in two online courses over at the Fenzi Dog Sports Academy, which I hope will help us develop our skills, fluencies, and confidence in the ring. I've taken FDSA classes before, but always while so busy with other projects that I wasn't able to devote as much attention to the courses as I should have. Hopefully this time will be different, and we'll be able to take full advantage of the material.

I'm reasonably confident that I could puzzle out solutions to our remaining Rally problems on my own. But if we ever want to venture into the obedience ring -- and, yes, that dream is starting to return -- then we need to get a lot better than where we are now, and that's something I don't know how to do without help.

So we'll work on our platform drills and we'll practice our pocket hand and maybe, someday, we'll take a trip to the obedience ring... depending on how far we get in the Rally ring first.

Monday, February 3, 2014

Groundhog Day Trial - Feb. 2 at DTCCC

In which I post pictures that have only slight variations from Danielle's versions, because I am Super Original like that (also, because absolutely everybody in the building with a camera and/or phone took a picture of that awesome groundhog cake. How could you not?!).

Groundhog Day, a/k/a Super Bowl Sunday, found us at the Dog Training Club of Chester County in Exton, where we nominally train (when I can get away from work in time, i.e., not very often these days) and where Pongu, historically, has consistently underperformed in what should be a fairly comfortable environment for him.

On this particular day, however, he did all right. I won't say flawless. We had our mistakes. But they were mostly the same mistakes I see when practicing -- which means they were the result of under-training, not trial stress -- and that meant I was getting more of my dog in the ring than I've ever been able to get before. He held his Stays! He took his jumps! He did his Downs and didn't need that many repeat cues!

Next to that, our actual scores were secondary, although they were pretty good too. 209/206/203 in the first round (we had some bobbles in Level 3, although I no longer recall exactly what they were, other than some creeping forward on the Stand/Down/Sit/Recall), NQ (missed sign, SIGH)/209/209 in the second round. One more triple Q toward ARCHMX, would have been two if not for Total Handler Fail. Oh well.

Between runs I took Pongu out to run off-leash around the empty office park, because it's lonely enough on Sundays that I feel pretty safe letting him cut loose in the parking lots. It seems to help him blow off stress and keep his spirits up over the course of a long day, especially when there's snow on the ground.

After the trial ended, we went back and took pictures with Molly and Ein for Team Unruly's Wordless Wednesday, since I am now Officially a member of the crew there (hoho!!) and still get a pretty good glow of satisfaction out of that.

And that was our day. Pongu managed to place in every run that he Q'ed, which is something we have never done in the B divisions before. Ah, if only I hadn't screwed up that Level 1 run...

Between this trial and our last AKC Rally Novice run, I am feeling good about where we stand today. There is a lot I'd like to improve and many weaknesses we have that need fixing... but Pongu worked hard for me this weekend, and he worked well, and I'm proud of him.