Monthly Archives: December 2014

Behaviors and goals

Yesterday I wrote a lot about my goals for the year, and a little about how I hoped to reach those goals. I thought about those goals this morning as I ran (without a dog!) slowly. I thought about that mantra of dog training: you can reward behaviors but you can’t reward a dog for something it didn’t do. That got me thinking about my own behaviors. I have a group of goals that will require me to change my behaviors if I am going to reach those goals. So this post is about behaviors.

  1. Goal: weight loss.
    Measurable Behavior: record everything I eat (corollary: measure and weigh what I eat).
    MB: eat fruits and vegetables when I’m hungry. (Alternative nebulous behavior description: make better food choices.)
    MB: follow Weight Watchers program.
    MB: attend 3 of 4 Weight Watchers meetings every month. (I’ve been doing WW for a while now. It seems to be working, even if I hate the whole “support group” vibe of the meetings. It’s not easy being an introvert.)
  2. Goal: run faster, more easily, for longer distances. Improve sprint speed.
    MB: build to twenty-five miles/week (which will help with goal 1, too) by adding 5% per week to current 15 mi/week. (Reduce mileage when trialing for a weekend.)
    MB: run 5x/week on non-trialing weeks. Run 3x/week when trialing on Saturday/Sunday.
    MB: do one hill/sprint workout/week.
    MB: add “tempo runs” to one run/week. (Tempo runs are short/fast/light twenty-second intervals in a regular run.)
    MB: build toward a weekly long run of around 6 miles.
  3. Goal: try ISC dog agility events.
    MB: enter ISC events. Evaluate results.
  4. Goal: work toward Rush’s C-ATE title.
    MB: enter CPE trials.
  5. Goal: improve our (Rush/me as team) performance in Jumpers dog agility courses.
    MB: train “go on” and “switch” cues. Learn to use them effectively.
    MB: train more effective use of blind crosses.
    MB: train toward handling at greater distances.
  6. Goal: build toward bicycling a Century (100 miles) in late 2015 or in 2016.
    MB: starting in April, ride at least twice a week, once on hills, once for distance. (NOTE: it may be necessary to modify running behaviors to accommodate the cycling behaviors.)
  7. Goal: write more articles.
    MB: write two articles/month (outside of this blog).

Looking back and moving forward

I’m really having trouble with the whole idea of 2015 being a real thing. I was born in 1955, mid-twentieth century, came of age when we didn’t trust anyone over 30, and next July I will be twice that. Of course, I know now how ridiculous the idea was–there must have been someone over 30 we could trust, even in the age of Nixon–but I’ve now come to the idea that one should hesitate to trust anyone of any age. (Especially politicians, but that’s not a topic for this blog.) Anyway, here it is, almost 2015, and the last New Year’s Eve I remember clearly is the panic of 1999-2000, when everyone was all worried about our software breaking down (Y2K and all that). Me, I was busy panicking about Jay being in the hospital that evening–he got his appendix out on the last day of 1999. (The hospital did have backup generators.) (And everything was fine, in the end. Just scary at the time.)

After that digression (I can hear Holden Caulfield’s classmates yelling “digression!” but I’m ignoring them), back to the matter at hand here. I’ve spent weeks thinking about my goals for 2015. I had huge goals for 2014–and I met most of them. I took Rush and Dancer to CPE Nationals in Minnesota (and Rush won his height class in FullHouse and Jumpers), Dancer got her C-ATCH in August and Rush got his C-ATCH in October, I beat my previous best time at 5K, and I lost a few pounds (not as much as I would have liked, but better than gaining). Jay and I did a long bike tour–Astoria, OR to Crescent City, CA–self-supported down the Oregon Coast. Four days (of the nine) were my longest bike rides ever. The longest day was 56 miles. And the last half-mile was uphill. My first bike tour. Not his first (nor his longest). I got asked to write an article about agility for someone else. (And they want more.)

Much of what I want to accomplish in 2015 is a continuation of 2014. I want to lose another twenty or so (or maybe a bit more) pounds, so I can focus that mental energy on maintaining instead of losing. I don’t think I’ll ever hit a point of not having to watch what I eat–or not being hungry–but there’s a huge amount of energy going into tracking weight loss and food right now, and I’d like to reduce that outflow a little. (Maybe I should write about losing weight instead of dog agility; it’s occupying nearly as much of my brain these days.) I read some research recently about visualization that suggests it’s important to visualize both the positive outcomes and the possible obstacles in the path. I know my obstacles; I need to think about how to climb over them. (I could imagine that I’m Rush, surmounting my difficulties in the same spectacular way he goes over the a-frame. There’s an image–clambering over a pile of body fat as it melts away….)

So continuing my weight loss is one goal. Last year I had pretty much the same goal… and didn’t lose the twenty-five or thirty pounds I wanted to lose…. but I didn’t gain. Sigh.

Next continuation is the dog agility goals: first, I want to work toward Rush’s CPE C-ATE title. It’s a time-consuming title, requires a lot of trials, and I want to do slightly fewer CPE trials this year, so there’s really no way he’ll get the title in 2015, as it’s not numerically possible. Rush will need twenty Qs in each class (and then some extras that can be in any class)–it already looks like Jumpers will be our biggest challenge. Second, I’m not going to try for Nationals in any of the venues. 2016, maybe, depending on where things are. Third, Jumpers. Jumpers needs work in any venue. It’s terribly challenging for me to keep up with him without the built-in pauses created by the contact obstacles. Finally, fourth is ISC. For the first time, I have a dog who can compete in the ISC classes, so I want to give them a try; I’m signed up for ISC at the January PAC trial, so we’ll see how that goes… (Last year, one goal I did not end up pursuing was trying to take Rush to Rose City to run the ISC classes there. I’m really not ready to run ISC in public. Maybe next year.)

The dog agility goals are all kind of nebulous and vague… Rush will turn four in May, and I’m pretty sure he’s amazing and brilliant (what did I do to deserve this dog?!), and Dancer is slowly retiring herself (no more AKC), and as she does that, I’m trying to figure out where I want to go next. A lot depends on achieving my running/sprinting goals (see below), which in turn are related to my weight-loss goals (as above). It sounds very intertwined, and of course it all is. I’m really glad to have a reason to get up every day and go out to run and play with my dogs. I’m contemplating (as I’ve contemplated in the past) doing some obedience or rally with Dancer. I did sign up for Denise Fenzi’s online precision heeling course. We’ll see. Dancer actually has a nice walk-with–it might be fun to work on a formal heel cue. She enjoys training and I enjoy working with her.

Running goals: speed and endurance. I want to go further, faster, more easily. I started last year with the Couch-to-5K program, barely able to run one minute (I started with walk-one-minute-run-one-minute and found the first few runs horrifyingly difficult). I’m starting this year able to run for most of an hour (as long as I walk about one minute out of ten)–albeit running very slowly–and I want to get faster and run more easily. Losing weight will help. Sprint work will help (and make a huge difference with keeping up with Rush in Jumpers, too). Hill work will help with strength. My knees are so much better than they were last year. I can sit down slowly without having to hold the arms of the chair and I can get up without holding the arms too–and without my knees hurting. That’s a flaming big deal. I bought a book on serious running training that I’m hoping will help. (This one: Daniels’ Running Formula-3rd Edition. I get a tiny commission if you buy through that link.) Since I like measurable goals–since you can measure whether or not you’ve met them (duh!)–the measurable goal here is a 11:30-pace 5K (a bit less than 36 minutes).

Jay and I are planning a weekend trip to bike Crater Lake. After that, I’ll contemplate doing a Century. Maybe 2015, maybe 2016. Eventually I’ll have to do one. Everyone else in the family has (although Stacia’s wasn’t a formal one) (which doesn’t matter, because Stacia wins this event anyway, since she biked from Portland (OR) to Williamsburg (VA) self-supported and mostly unaccompanied, which gives her the ability to one-up almost any cyclist).

So that covers dogs, cycling, running, and weight loss. All very boring. Finally… I want to write some more articles. Maybe even sell a few.


Day 26, post-neutering

I’m starting to understand why people have “always” neutered male domestic animals. (Apparently, the Scythians (7th century BCE) gelded their horses. It’s been done for a long time. One wonders how they managed to prevent infection, but that’s not the topic of this post.) Rush has become a much nicer dog since he was neutered. He’s easier to groom, less reactive to other dogs (he’s even ignored the neighbor’s obnoxious wandering poodle mix).

His first post-neutering trial is next weekend. I’m interested to see what (if anything) changes in his trial behavior.

Day 18, post-neutering

Behavior changes:
Marking is almost gone. Walking Rush now inspires a long stop to pee and maybe one more shorter stop, rather than five million short stops.

He sometimes makes a conscious decision to ignore dogs that are ignoring him when we are out walking. He still reacts to dogs that are reacting to him, but his reactive distance has lessened from around 25 feet to around 15.

At agility, he’s just as fast and focused as he’s always been. Haven’t been to a trial yet, so I don’t know if he’ll still lunge at me.

Product reviews: Garmin FR10 and Flipbelt

The FlipBelt Black Medium is an odd product. It’s a tube of attractive stretchy spandex that is, functionally, one big pocket. I put it around my waist, I tuck my phone in, I flip it over so the holes are to the inside, I rotate it so the phone is at the small of my back, and I’m done. My phone doesn’t flap around, it doesn’t bother me, and I couldn’t get to it before it stopped ringing, even if I wanted to. (I actually switch off the ringer, because I really wish I didn’t carry a phone at all, but it does mean I can call Jay after I trip and fall. (In the last year or so, I’ve tripped and cracked a rib, tripped and torqued my knee, tripped and scraped my elbow, and tripped and had no ill effects at all. I called Jay after the knee and he came and got me. That was when he told me I really needed to always have my phone. For his peace of mind.)

(Incidentally, if you click on that link, Amazon will pay me a tiny little commission on the sale of a Flipbelt. In the seven years I’ve been writing this blog, those tiny little commissions have added up to just over $10. Total. This is not a paying gig.)

The Garmin FR10 is a cool gadget that lets me track my running progress in detail. Since I’m a data-driven person and I love seeing steady improvement, it’s been worth every penny in terms of getting myself out onto the trail on running days. It’s GPS, so worthless for things like step counting or treadmill use. The link I gave is to DCRainmaker’s product review. He writes amazingly thorough reviews of fitness electronics. I couldn’t possible compete.

Day 8, post-neutering

Rush has been taking gentle leash walks every day since his neutering. His recovery has been uneventful. Rimadyl to prevent inflammation, Tramadol for pain. The surgeon (Susan Nolte at Pacific Veterinary Hospital) did three layers of internal stitches, and Rush has not been bothered at all by the stitches. No need for an Elizabethan collar at all.

I have already noticed some behavior changes. First, while he’s never marked in the house, he now marks during walks with much less frequency. On our standard evening walks-around-the-block, which are the same ten minute walk every evening, he has always marked about twenty different places; now he simply pees at the beginning of the walk and perhaps once or twice after that. Last night, when the obnoxious poodle mix around the corner started barking from his yard–an event that usually prompts Rush to lunge toward the noise and start barking himself–he turned toward the noise, then decided to just keep walking with us. Yesterday afternoon when the neighbor’s papillon started barking and lunging toward Rush from the end of his Flexi (alas, his person thinks he’s cute when he does this), Rush started to bark and lunge back… then didn’t. I was all set to brace to keep him from lunging, too.

This morning’s slow run? He mostly kept the leash just slightly loose.

It’s going to be interesting to see what agility is like when we get back to practicing next week.

Making the decision to neuter Rush

I had Rush’s testicles removed last week. He has been healing well, although he’s not thrilled to have his activity limited to walking on leash. Making the decision to neuter him was challenging, and I’m all too aware that I may regret the decision down the line.

Neuter and spay have been normal procedures, so commonly performed that most people I know–not dog people–wondered why Rush wasn’t neutered earlier.

Dog people, however, know that early neutering and early spaying–with “early” loosely defined as “before one year old”–is associated, in a long-term study of golden retrievers (referenced in this article) with an increased vulnerability to hip dysplasia, joint problems, and certain cancers. I knew I wasn’t going to neuter Rush before adolescence long before he was born.

Rush is part of a diversity project in poodles; his father is a poodle imported from Russia specifically because he doesn’t carry much Wycliffe genes (details of Rush’s genetic background are given in this article). His genetic testing has been excellent; he doesn’t carry any of the common poodle genetic problems. His hips are OFFA good and his elbows are normal. There are all kinds of good reasons to keep Rush intact and available for breeding. In fact, his semen has been collected and frozen, just in case Vikki thinks he could be used in a breeding program at some point.

So why neuter him now, at age three-and-a-half?

Vikki and I spent several hours talking about Rush and his suitability for breeding in October, when she came and watched us do agility at the Top Dog trial, the one where Rush got his C-ATCH and Dancer got her CS-ATCH. We went over his testing; we were both thrilled with the results. BUT we kept circling back to his temperament. Rush is driven. He lunges at me at the end of an agility run when he has to stop. He yells at me if I make a handling error. He growls at male dogs that look at him directly (which is considered quite rude in the canine world). He reminds me, in these moments, of a twenty-something male who keeps getting into bar fights. The kind of guy who stands around waiting for someone to say something.

This is not what people want from a poodle. I am hard-pressed to think of ten people who would want a puppy like Rush. He’s fast and he’s furious and he’s everything I’ve dreamed of for agility–and then some–but he’s fast and he’s furious and he yells at me when I make a mistake and he barks at dogs in the neighborhood and has attempted to get into fights with the poodle mix who lives around the corner (who is obnoxious, but really, so what?).

So Vikki and I decided to wait a while to see if we wanted to breed Rush, and I stopped for gas on the way home, and Rush was being his territorial self about the car, and the guy pumping the gas (this is Oregon, they pump your gas for you) says “I’ve never seen an angry poodle before.” (Rush was yelling at him for getting close to his car.)

I thought about that the next day, and then I went off and read–and reread–all the articles I could find about the effects of testosterone on behavior. My reading varied over a wide range of subjects, from gelding horses to castratos (Italian singers in the 16th and 17th centuries, who were castrated before puberty so their voices didn’t change) to articles about Lance Armstrong’s use of testerone while riding in the Tour de France. I read articles about the quality of steer meat as opposed to bull meat (steers have more fat and better marbling, but heifers are even better). I even ran across a few articles by veterinary behaviorists about behavior changes in dogs. This is one of the more sensible ones on that topic. I even found an article that did a double-blind research study on the behavioral effects of adding extra testosterone to the system of healthy young men (whom, I would assume, already had plenty of testosterone).

The consensus was this: late neutering wasn’t particularly dangerous for joints and cancer risks (and apparently is less of a problem in Labs than in Goldens) (and no one has looked at standard Poodles, yet). Neutering before puberty in cattle, horses, dogs, and humans delays closing of the growth plates and makes the male fatter, taller, and easier to deal with. Adding testosterone definitely can cause anger and hostility issues in humans. In dogs, neutering does appear to make a difference in the behavior of male dogs, especially with regard to marking and fighting. In horses, even late gelding generally works to improve behavior and reduce fighting.

I went off and thought about all that for a few days, and then I took Rush for a walk one day and had to drag him backwards, using all my strength, to keep him from getting into a fight with another male dog who also wanted to get into a fight with him–as far as I could tell, they both were pissed off about how they were looking at each other, and neither of them was willing to back down.

I went to an agility trial and I talked to a few trainers who had decided to neuter their mature male dogs. I didn’t hear any regrets. I heard “more focus” and “easier to deal with” and “needs to eat a lot less” and “needs to be brushed more often” but I didn’t hear “I wish I hadn’t done it.”

I made an appointment for Rush for a month out and I kept reading. It really seemed like Rush would be easier to deal with once he lost the testosterone. His joints are mature.

Last week he was neutered. So far, I haven’t noticed huge changes in his behavior, but it does take four weeks (or a bit more) before testosterone levels go down completely. He is, however, considerably less interested in marking every telephone pole and fire hydrant in the neighborhood.

His interest in squirrels is unchanged.

A rant: just because it ain’t broke doesn’t mean it can’t be improved…

In the last few days, it seems I’ve heard too many people say “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” Enough that I’m hereby launching a rant.

There are things that aren’t broken that still can be improved.
There are things that you think aren’t broken, but that’s because you’re being willfully blind to the need to fix them.
There are even things that you and I both think are broken and in need of fixing.

If people genuinely thought unbroken things shouldn’t be changed, we’d still be hunters and gatherers, wandering the land in search of the next meal.

Yes, the definition of a problem is important. If you’re going to take a system that appears to be working reasonably well, you should definitely start by figuring out why you want to make changes and what you want to change and how you are going to start making those changes. Not to mention when you’re going to start.

But really, denying the need to change is a really piss-poor place to start.

My education, my dogs’ education

This post is part of the Dog Agility Bloggers Network action day on Continuing Education. If you click on that link, you’ll be taken to a page that provides links to other bloggers’ posts.

I have paragraphs of details below about why and when and how for continuing education. BUT… frankly, that got really boring and kind of rambling. You can read it after this announcement:

In any field of human endeavor, there’s always something new to learn. Ask WHY? when you’re told to do something. Use research and other people’s knowledge to figure out a NEW way or a BETTER way or a DIFFERENT way to teach something. Read books and magazines, watch video, look at photographs. Sit back and THINK.

I think the hard part of deciding to work on your own knowledge base is deciding what you need to learn. Here’s my advice on that: ask people you trust to tell you where your skills and understanding are weakest. Start with those areas. If you find yourself saying “I don’t like doing front crosses” (as just one example of something I’ve said lately) or “I’m just not comfortable doing blinds,” you know that’s a weakness. Start there.

A few days ago, I was watching the brand-new, first-trial-ever dogs at a CPE trial. A very pretty golden retriever didn’t quite understand what the handler wanted, and kept going around a jump instead of over it. A woman standing next to me said, “what would you do about that?” Without even pausing to think, I said, “I’d go back and shape jumping from the beginning.”

“I’ve never done that,” came the immediate reply. Neither had I, before Debbie showed me how to shape the tire jump with Rush (and the broad jump, and the single-bar jump, and more). With Elly and Dancer, I’d used luring. Honestly, shaping worked much better; Rush seeks out jumps and jumps with enthusiasm. Further, I now know two different ways of teaching jumping. I’d bet there are more I just haven’t learned yet.

In agility, there are a lot of tried-and-true ways to train dogs obstacles and handling skills. There are new ways. There are old ways that have become new again. There are new ways and old ways to handle courses. There’s lots of room to learn and train new things.

I think many humans neglect their half of the agility team in favor of the dog. These are the areas where I commonly see human weaknesses:

Nutrition for stamina at a trial and for overall health
Running the course: training for sprint speed, speed off the line, sustained running, turning
Front cross mechanics
Proprioception (the ability to know where your body is in space and how you are moving)
Course memorization skills

These are all subjects where there is research. You can go out and find it. You can look for a trainer to help you. You can read books. You can develop your own plan to help with your own weaknesses.

Here’s the boring part of the post. I thought for weeks about what continuing education means to me, both in the agility world, and in the rest of my world. I have a biochemistry degree (ScB) from MIT and I learned a whole lot of science while I was getting that degree–but I graduated almost forty years ago. Many of the questions that were raised in my biology textbooks as “more research is needed in this area” have been resolved, and new questions have been raised as a result. We know an enormous amount about human genetics that was utterly inaccessible in the 1970s. We understand some of the biochemistry of cancers and new drugs are being developed that block pathways to cellular cancers.

I have a degree in Curriculum and Instruction (MEd) from the University of Massachusetts at Lowell as well; that degree is only twenty years old, but I’ve already seen changes in how educators approach students. Not enough changes, in my opinion, but changes nonetheless. Educators are beginning to understand that the keys to dog training–“what gets rewarded gets repeated” and the corollary “what’s rewarding is determined by the subject”–applies to humans as well as dogs. (It also applies to hermit crabs and orcas. In fact, I’d bet it applies to single-celled organisms but I have no idea how to prove that.) (Actually, as soon as I started thinking about single-celled organisms, I figured out how to reward an amoeba. I bet you could train an amoeba to go to one side of a container if you just always rewarded motion in that direction with food in that location. Developing a reward-delivery system at the microscopic level would be a challenge too. Observation would be a challenge, too. For now it will remain a thought experiment.)

So my first thought on “continuing education” is that it’s essential. Cliches spring immediately to mind: “you snooze, you lose” and “if you think education is expensive, try being ignorant.” (I do believe those go beyond cliche and all the way to bumper-sticker, but such is life.)

I enjoy formal educational structures. I like online courses; I think Coursera is one of the great public services; I am pleased that Daisy Peel and Denise Fenzi have created online learning environments for dog trainers. I am especially pleased that those schools are relatively affordable and offer enrollment options. I also like ClickerExpo, precisely because it’s not online and thus gives me no opportunity to procrastinate or lose focus. It’s also a pleasure to join those who share my love of talking about dog training. Finally, there are a number of online discussion groups on dog training, including two favorites of mine: AgilityPoodle and ClickerSolutions.