Author Archives: Diana

What constitutes “improvement”?

I’m quite competitive with myself. I like to see evidence of improvement when I’m working on things. I enjoy running, for example, but I also want to get faster and more fit as part of my running. I’ve been working on improving my fitness in many ways, including by losing weight, for years now. I’ve been training in dog agility for 13 years this summer and I’d like to thinking I’m improving. I run some races year after year, looking for improvement in my times.

All of which begs the question: how do you measure improvement in these areas? Take weight management and a healthy diet, for example: Is it good enough to maintain a steady weight if the average Jane gains a few pounds every year? Exactly how much (how little?) sugar should there be in a healthy nutrition plan? Should you judge healthy nutrition by blood sugar and blood lipid levels?

Or my race times? I’ve steadily improved my Mt. Tabor Tar ‘N’ Trail 5K times over the years. October 1st will be my fifth running. If I don’t improve my time, is that a sign of impending decline? Or is holding steady good enough at my age, when the world record progression shows a steady and inexorable decline with age (See this link.) (I’ll note here that, if I were 83 (and not about-to-be-62, tomorrow), I’d currently hold the world record. Obviously, I’m not world class.)

And how do I measure improvement in dog agility? More Qs? More interesting Qs? Not worrying about Q-ing? For a long time, when I first started running Rush, my goal for any given run was not to be barked at; Rush was inclined to yell at me if he thought I was late with a cue. These days I mostly get through courses without being barked at, and sometimes we run clean, and sometimes I measure success by not getting lost and sometimes I measure success by directing Rush through a course faster than dogs we normally lose to. More often, though, I try to think of each agility course as a unique challenge and not compare my success with anyone else’s including my own ideal self.

Low Carb, No Carb, Sugar, and More

My mother used to follow a low-carb diet, right up until, as she put it, “that woman killed her diet doctor.” She was referring to Jean Harris’s murder of Herman Tarnower in the early ’80s. Tarnower advocated for a relatively low-carbohydrate diet for rapid weight loss (called the Scarsdale Diet, should you want to do more research on this). I couldn’t tell, in all honesty, that the diet did my mother much good. Of course, my mother also hid chocolate bars around the house so that she could find them when she wanted them in the middle of the night (I inherited her insomniac proclivities, but I don’t eat chocolate at night).

As anyone who’s been paying attention to this blog for a while knows, I’ve been working on slowly, steadily, painfully losing weight for the last almost-five years. I’ve been maintaining a sixty-pound weight loss for about a year and half now (after losing for three and a half years), but I dream of losing another ten or so pounds. Maybe fifteen. But… I’ve been steady for a year and a half, which is not nothing.

I eat very carefully these days. I rarely eat sugar. I don’t drink much alcohol, maybe once or twice a month. My preferred beverages are seltzer, tea (hot or iced, no sugar), water. I eat very little bread. Some potatoes, some brown rice. I even eat quinoa. I eat lots of fruit. I eat nuts. Green vegetables. Avocado. I eat meat. I use olive oil and butter to cook with. I ask myself if I’m hungry or thirsty before I eat. Mostly I avoid fried foods and mostly we cook at home, whole foods that aren’t processed at all. I try not to eat unless I’m actually hungry. This seems to work to maintain my weight. There’s that word: “maintain.”

Can you tell I’m a little frustrated to be stuck at this weight? Just a little.

I’ve been reading up on metabolic biochemistry. A friend recommended  Nina Teicholz’s The Big Fat Surpriseas a study of the food industry’s influence on so-called scientific research on nutrition and health over the period since World War II. Some of it I knew because I was a biochemistry major (undergraduate) and Professor Gene Brown (of MIT) was a stickler for facts. I was advised, back in the early 1970s, that eating trans fats in the form of margarine and other hydrogenated oils were going to be a serious health problem. Prof. Brown was an advocate of liquid oils like olive oil and also for butter. His drawings of the membrane transport disruptions caused by trans fats have stuck in my brain ever since. (Of course, I went off to find illustrations, but could not.)

Teicholz covers trans fats. She covers the low fat high carbohydrate diet recommendations for the US government in detail. And she covers the reasons why low fat diets don’t work and are bad for you too. Very persuasively.

I went on from Teicholz to Gary Taubes’ Why We Get Fat, which also covers real science, very persuasively.

Both Teicholz and Taubes make convincing cases against sugar and refined carbs and in favor of a meat-and-fat-based diet with some greens thrown in for micro-nutrients. Taubes suggests that everyone’s tolerance for carbohydrates is different and that some people can eat lots and maintain a healthy weight, and others cannot. While I realize that this is a small-scale experiment, that’s exactly what I’ve noticed with Dancer and Rush. Yes, they’re dogs, not people, but dogs co-evolved with humans and pretty much eat what we do. Rush and Dancer get the same meat, the same oils, the same vegetables… and Dancer gets way less carbs than Rush. If I give her more carbs, she puts on weight.

I joke to people that, metabolically, I’m a Prius. I really don’t require a lot of fuel. I honestly would prefer to be a Suburban or a big truck, that burns a lot of fuel, but I’m just not. It appears, from these two books, that I may be better off further reducing my carbs (which means, mostly, less fruit) and increasing the amount of proteins and fats that I eat. It seems like something I can try.

Sleeping, a theory about the senses

I noticed one night a few months ago that if I emulated a behavior both my kids had as babies, I could fall back asleep more easily. Both my kids, as babies, rubbed their blankets between their fingers as they fell asleep. I was pondering that as I lay awake in the middle of the night, trying to quell my monkey brain (which was busy with to do lists at the time), and I decided to try it. I have a new plush throw blanket that I use because Jay sleeps cooler than I do and I need an extra blanket. It’s a very soft plush and feels lovely in your hand or when rubbed on your cheek. I tried rubbing it between my fingers, focusing on the fibers and how they felt–and the next thing I knew, it was morning and I felt refreshed.

I tried it a few more times, and the key seemed to be focusing on the sensations reaching my finger tips, focusing on that single sense of touch.

That got me thinking about the senses on a recent night as I once again tried to quell my monkey brain. Sleeping, to my mind, is about turning off those senses. We wake up from a deep sleep and we remember nothing of the previous hours–not what we smelled or tasted or touched or heard or saw. We close our eyes and disable our vision to sleep. We try for quiet and comfort. So that night, instead of focusing on touch, I focused on hearing. I listened to the regular sound of Jay’s breathing and the breathing of the dogs as well. Again, I went back to sleep easily. I sprayed my pillow with lavender a few nights ago and when I woke up during the night, I focused on that smell and tried to exclude all the other senses. It worked.

I have been thinking about the monkey brain that wakes up when I can’t sleep. Is it wide awake because it doesn’t have anything better to do? No senses to process?

 

Report from CPE Nationals

It’s taken quite a while to recover from CPE Nationals and the three weekends of trialing that I scheduled immediately afterwards. (This turned out to be a mistake, I should have rested more, but too late now.)

Rush double small for webYou can see from this photo that Rush was in peak condition for Nationals.

 

 

 

Nationals went pretty well. I was disappointed to find that there were only two 24″ dogs competing! Following a friend’s advice, though, I decided that I would compete with myself to challenge myself every run. In the end, Rush was first in 24″ standard and first in 24″ games. We got four Qs (all of them first places) and three near misses (a single bar down in each of the three runs). In Jumpers I completely forgot the course halfway through; Jackpot was just too challenging (only 8 dogs Qd of the 309 competing).

RushD_SatStandard_CPENAT_2017 was our best run; Rush had the third fastest qualifying run of all the dogs in all height classes.

I learned something from the Jumpers run where I forgot the course. The dog who ran ahead of me was distracted by the environment and ended up peeing mid-course, causing a delay. During the delay, I waited impatiently for my run to start–and forgot to review my plan as I entered the ring. I normally enter the ring and do a quick mental review of the course–I got distracted by the dog’s distraction and let it throw me. Later, when I saw it happening again, I started talking to myself, calling out my plan and ignoring the dog. Something like: Stay-lead out-jump-front cross-tunnel-sprint down the line-weaves-blind cross-pull to tunnel…

Videos of all four qualifying runs here:

RushD_Colors_CPENAT_2017

RushD_Fullhouse_CPENAT_2017

RushD_SatStandard_CPENAT_2017

RushD_Snooker_CPENAT_2017

 

Tuning up for CPE Nationals

I have spent the last four months obsessed with being ready for CPE Nationals, which begin in about ten days. Rush and I have been running. I’ve done intervals and hills and taught him to swim. He’s clipped down so his coat will look its best (one last cleanup groom just before we leave). I’ve got my clothes and my shoes planned.

As for training, I’ve been training everything I can think of: ten treats work (ten jumps, ten treats), jump lines for strength and jump curves to keep each lead balanced, threadles on a verbal, backsides on a verbal, contacts and more contacts, weird weave entries, his go-to-leash cue. I’ve worked startline stays to the point where he yawns when I do them no matter how far away I get. I’ve worked jump-weave openings and tunnel-weave discriminations. I’ve done zen circles on both leads and zen ovals and zen circles with doubles and tunnels, even. I’ve worked front crosses and rear crosses and blind crosses and pushes and pulls (he pulls way better than he pushes!). I don’t know what else there is to work, honestly, although I’m sure the judges will come up with something I missed. That’s their job, right?

I’ve got the fan for the car and ice packs in the trunk. I’ve got rain gear. I’ve got an ex-pen I don’t expect to need. I’ve got extra socks and extra shoes and all the shoes have been tested on grass and dirt and even turf.

I don’t think I’ve forgotten anything.

 

Fear….

This year, as part of annual self-improvement day (New Year’s), I joined two different “Challenge” groups. One of them is Daisy Peel’s 2017 agility challenge group; the other is a running challenge group called the Hadfield 2017 Challenge. They have a few things in common; the one that stands out for me is that they are both mostly women, and both mostly women who are afraid that they’re not meeting some arbitrary external standard. “I’m not that fast,” they say. They write: “I’m not a very good handler” or “my dog deserves a better handler.” On the running challenge, they ask for advice about riding a bike in traffic (for cross-training) because they’re afraid of riding in traffic. Or about dealing with dangerous dogs that they might encounter in a new situation. Or about how to get up the courage to try a long distance race or a triathlon.

I think for many of the women in these groups, the “challenge” is overcoming their own fears. It’s that inner critic again: the one who knows all our secrets, including how scared we are to try something new–and maybe fail–or maybe just look foolish–or maybe trip and fall.

When I am trial chair, one of the questions I always get from first-time competitors is “what happens if my dog poops in the ring?” My answer is: you leash your dog, then you clean it up, and then you take your dog out of the ring. Sometimes the ring crew will clean it up for you. Oh yes, and “it has happened to every single experienced competitor in this trial.” And every single new competitor is worried that they’ll be embarrassed. There is that horrible video that goes around the internet every few years, of an agility dog having a wonderful run right up until he stops to shit; I cringe every time, because that poor handler must feel so awful that she asked her dog to run when he needed to go.

We all worry about making fools of ourselves.

We all worry about our safety.

We all worry about appearing clumsy or inexperienced.

We all worry that people are judging us and finding us lacking.

But I’ve noticed that most people aren’t interested in judging other people. We’re watching because we want to learn. We want to be awed. We want to share our experiences with others. We’re not holding up signs with numbers. Really, we’re not.

The role of trust in dog agility

I have a friend with a worried dog. The dog worries when she’s in the agility arena at a trial, and so my friend worries too, and the net result is that my friend does not trust the dog when running in competition. This lack of trust means that the team struggles when competing in a trial. I’ve seen the two of them in training, and they are a lovely team when working  in a quiet training situation. In a trial, though? They’re both unhappy at trials. Her dog wishes she’d stay closer and let her know earlier what she wants; she wishes her dog could relax more at trials so that she could relax and run.

Watching them has made me think about trust and agility. I trust Rush to do his best to do exactly what I ask him to do–which is sometimes not what I wanted him to do (if I gave him an incorrect cue, for example). In turn, he trusts me to pay the entry fees and get him to trials on time. Well, partly that, but mostly, he trusts me not to get upset if he makes a mistake. He trusts me to make sure he doesn’t get approached by small dogs (who worry him, because he’s been bitten by several small white fluffy mix-breeds dogs). He trusts me to make sure big fluffy German Shepherds don’t bug him. At least, these days he trusts me about German Shepherds. For a while, he was convinced they were all out to rip his head off, and he got quite defensive about it. These days he’s much more relaxed.

So I’ve been thinking about how you build mutual trust with your dog.

Back when I was in high school and college, “trust-building exercises” were very trendy, and we would have games we’d play, like closing your eyes and falling backwards into someone’s arms. Or walking holding hands with one of us blind-folded. These were supposed to build trust, but always made me worried. Frankly, I didn’t really trust many people. It took building a true relationship with Jay before I got to where I trusted someone absolutely.

There are times when I don’t trust Rush. Around golden retrievers, for example. He’s had so many bad experiences with goldens that he has a tendency to assume they’re all nuts. Or around cats, all of who should be chased and treed, as far as he’s concerned.

In the agility ring, however, I absolutely trust Rush. I know that I can put him in a start-line stay and walk away from him. So I can walk away confidently and just toss his release word over my shoulder, no worries. I know he can get pretty much any weave entry. I know he almost never knocks bars. All of that means that if he makes a mistake, I don’t get upset–because I know he’s doing the best he can. How could I get upset with a dog that’s trying so hard?

All of which makes me think that trust-building with your dog is about a lot of things. It’s about protecting him from things he worries about. It’s about providing enjoyable exercise and good food and good vet care. It’s about consistent rewards and a consistent message in training, so that the same behavior gets the same response every time. You can’t tell the dog that taking the tunnel if your feet are pointing at it is wrong if yesterday you trained him to take the tunnel when you pointed your feet at it.

Lately when I go to the training barn, I’ve been thinking about building mutual trust, not about training the dog to obey orders. It’s a different approach, and I’m enjoying it.

 

Changing how I train

As a result of quite a bit of reading on what constitutes effective practice, I have changed how I train dog agility.

First, what is effective practice? Back in November, I read this book and found it left me with a lot to think about. I’d heard a Freakonomics podcast on learning new skills (this one) and also discussing the “10,000 hour rule” (from this book by Malcolm Gladwell). These sources collectively introduced me to the idea of effective practice and got me thinking about how I learn new skills.

Effective practice, as I see it, introduces new skills carefully and deliberately–not necessarily slowly, but definitely thoughtfully–so that they’re learned without error. In agility, it would be the idea of teaching a tunnel-contact discrimination as follows:

  • Tunnel and contact are ten feet apart and you’re standing between them, closer to the obstacle you want, with the dog on the side closer to the desired obstacle. You release the dog, say the name of the obstacle, and take a step toward the desired obstacle; in short, you make it fairly easy for the dog.
  • Next, you move a little closer to the middle, then repeat.
  • You move closer to the “wrong” obstacle, then repeat.
  • Gradually you make it harder for the dog, but you still keep the dog on the same side as the obstacle and take a step toward the desired obstacle.
  • Next, you put the dog on the other side and repeat the steps.
  • Now, you start moving the two obstacles closer to each other and repeat the steps.

For the dog, you’ve built the skill of differentiating the two obstacles by name very slowly and in a logical step-wise fashion; the dog’s practice has been gradually getting more challenging, but in small increments.

Now, let’s say that, you–the person–have identified skills you need to improve. You want to work on your timing of blind crosses, or the footwork of your front crosses, or giving cues to your dog earlier. Effective practice dictates that you break it down into steps. By working a sequence without the dog, in slow motion, you can learn how the steps feel without confusing your dog. Once you’re comfortable walking through a sequence–or doing that front cross–slowly, you can move a little faster, then faster the third try–and then add your dog. You can look at course maps and visualize how you will move through a course before you run the course; visualization has been proven to improve performance.

When I started thinking about effective practice and how I learn, I started breaking down the long sequences presented in my lesson and only doing seven or eight obstacles at a time. I tried different handling methods and different dog paths at critical points.

Today Daisy had this sequence in the middle of the course:

course mapThe question, of course, was which path to use for Rush when going from 13 to 14 to 15. I walked three different methods of setting Rush’s path* and Daisy timed the three methods. We worked on what to do with that segment, in detail, for about fifteen minutes. Then, we moved to the next segment. The course as a whole had 21 obstacles; it took an hour of analysis and testing to determine the optimal path for Rush. We worked entirely on the single course, without trying to do more.

 

We analysed it one segment at a time and I refined my handling one segment at a time, deliberately working my way through the course rather than flinging myself at it and biting off more than I could chew (to use a dog analogy). Rush repeated each sequence without getting frustrated–short sequences mean a higher reward rate for him–and paid attention to the differences in handling as well.

As a result of this change in my practice sessions, I have improved my course analysis skills, become more confident with using blind crosses, gained confidence in Rush’s abilities and his understanding of agility, improved Rush’s focus (which was considerable)–and improved my Q rate.

*For the curious, the fastest path, by more than half a second, was a front cross on the landing side of 13 followed by a push (“go round!”) to the backside of 14 on the side closest to the teeter (the top of the diagram above) followed by a push to the a-frame with the verbal contact cue (“climb!”), with dog-on-right over the a-frame. (The next obstacle was a weave-tunnel discrimination, believe it or not, with the entry to the weaves (the desired obstacle) about five feet from the tunnel entrance. Challenging course!)

Listening to your inner critic?

I have had nothing to say for about two months now. I wouldn’t say I’m depressed, but I have been stuck for things to say that belong here, where I try to keep politics and personalities pretty much out of it. I’ve been writing postcards to my elected officials. I’ve been obsessively reading newspapers. All of which is irrelevant to my readers, and I apologize for the long silence.

A few weeks ago, a friend, whom I have known since we were both seven and in second grade together, came to visit for a few days. We wandered Portland, ate some good meals, talked about drawing and art and dogs. We talked about our parents, who were part of a group that met every other Friday to take dancing lessons (at the house where I grew up). We visited Portland’s Pittock Mansion together (and I pointed out the pantry sink and yes, she remembered the pantry sink in the house I grew up in) and we wandered the Japanese Garden.

And Adrienne told me something that completely stunned me. She didn’t learn to read until she was ten. She still doesn’t see herself as a fluent relaxed reader.

You will have noticed that I said we’ve known each other since we were seven. Memories of Adrienne from our shared childhood are lodged deep in my memory. When we were ten and in fifth grade together–the year Adrienne said she learned to read–there was an assignment to illustrate a book we ‘d read. Adrienne did a set of three tiny three-dimensional dioramas of short stories from a collection by a writer whose name I remember as “Sake” but googling has drawn a blank, except for a British writer who used the pen name “Saki” who might or might not be the same writer. (I talked to Adrienne, yes, the author was Saki.) But I remember the dioramas so well! They each recreated a scene from the short story. One of them had a tiny black cat. There were tiny books on a tiny desk. Not dollhouse furniture. I think some of it was papier mache. (Sometime that year I tried unsuccessfully to make a papier mache dragon. Its head fell off on the way to school.) For the same assignment, I had created a badly drawn picture of a cat from a collection of short stories about cats. I can still feel today my astonishment at how wonderful her dioramas were. I was stunned at her creativity, her skill, her ideas–and it certainly never occurred to me that she struggled with reading!

The next year, when we were in sixth grade (1966 to 1967), the sixties and all that implied for fashion and clothing had begun in earnest. Adrienne came to Gisele’s birthday party–a wonderful summer day and Gisele had a pool and there was ice cream and cake–and she was wearing a pantsuit. A black and white op-art pantsuit. I just spent about fifteen minutes searching the internet for an image of anything like what I remember, but no luck. Use your imagination here. It was a black and white pattern with varying squares, like classic op-art of the time. It was a pantsuit, at a time when we still had to wear skirts to school. It was, in short, the coolest piece of clothing I had ever seen. Ever. Adrienne has a sense of style I can only envy. I visited her last year and tried on her shoes. I thought about stealing her shoes, actually. I didn’t, though. (Later that sixth-grade summer, a friend of my mother’s wore a Pucci halter-neck plunging-back one-piece bathing suit to a pool party at our house, and I fell in love with Pucci once and for all. There’s a photo below of that one.)

Adrienne drew a little watercolor of the dogs and me and mailed it to me after our visit. Here it is:
Dogs and me by Adrienne

So I hope I’m really clear here. I have admired Adrienne for many many years, for her sense of style, her ability to create, her art, her skill. When she came to visit, I pulled a new dress out of my closet (a Pucci I’d found used) and asked her how to wear it.

And while she was here, she told me she’d felt bad about her struggles with reading.

Struggles I had no idea about. I saw her strengths; she saw her weaknesses.

And that brings me to that inner critic. The one we all have, the one that talks to us constantly about our weaknesses, about how we compare to other people, about the areas where we want to improve ourselves, about how we’re too fat or too thin or too slow or a lousy dog trainer (I had to get the dogs in there somehow) or a boring writer or a mediocre cook. That little non-stop voice that we listen to way too much.

I’m not sure how to tell my inner critic to admire myself for my strengths as much as I admire other people for their strengths. I’m not even sure that would be a good idea–but I do want that inner critic to acknowledge that I have strengths!

Oh, and here’s the photo of the Pucci bathing suit. Awesome, isn’t it?!

pucci bathing suit

 

 

 

It’s New Year’s Day

Happy New Year! May 2017 move us all toward better health and greater happiness.

And I haven’t written a post in a month and a half. November and December have been devastating this year. I didn’t sleep well for about a month after the election. Deena, who is my barn training partner, has been busy with her work and so I’ve been bagging on getting to the barn at all. In short: poor motivation. I have been getting to a few dog things–Sarah Stremming‘s Perfect Patient seminar and my lessons with Daisy–but I’ve also been reading a ton of books, looking for answers in memoirs, mostly. For a bit I was even reading WW2 history, but that was just too depressing for words. (I will say, though, that the parallels with Nazi era Germany really aren’t that huge; the economy is mostly doing well and we do have Constitutional protections.)

So my summary for 2016 goes like this:

  • I neither gained nor lost weight. While I still haven’t lost those last few (13) pounds, I have maintained. This is excellent, since I have not been being obsessive.
  • I ran 639 miles, biked a lot, did two sprint (short distance) triathlons (3rd in my age group in both, although one was 3rd of 3 and the other was 3rd of 10), and learned more about trail running. Over the last four years, I’ve lowered my time in the Mt. Tabor Tar N Trail 5K from 45 minutes to just under 34. I did my best 5K of the year in January, though, in very flat Palm Springs (29:56). I’m hoping to better that this year.
  • I did a lot of dog agility with Rush. I had a 35% Q rate in AKC and a 61% Q rate in CPE. 3 double Qs and a lot of points toward a MaCH in AKC (we’re somewhere around 600 points now). About 2/3rds of the way to Rush’s C-ATE in CPE. Yesterday was our last day of agility for 2016 and we finished with a first and ten points in Time to Beat and a 4th in Jumpers in a very fast group of about 15 dogs.
  • I knit a few hats. I forgot to take pictures, though, with the exception of this one. Yes, it has a weird little who-ville thing going on the top. I was feeling silly.

pink-hat-12-2016So whither 2017?

Dare I write “lose those last 13 pounds”? It’s been a theme for some years now. Oh, what the hell, maybe this is the year.

Run more. I want to try to average 20 miles a week when I’m not doing an agility trial over the weekend. As I run more, I enjoy it more. I have been having moments almost every run where I find my inner 25-year-old and feel light and fast. It’s a joy.

 

I think that covers it. Happy New Year again.

(Oh wait! Someone told me yesterday that one of my hat photos inspired her to learn how to knit and make a hat of her own. Made me feel all warm and fuzzy.)