Blessing in Disguise

What do we say for comfort when we find ourselves in an undesirable situation?  “It’s a blessing in disguise”, “There is a silver lining to this cloud”, and so on.  That’s what I’ve been repeating to myself since realizing that from Tai’s perspective, I have a number 10, humongous DISTRACTION living next store.  Prior to a few days ago, I was able to play all our puppy games outside in my beautiful fenced backyard…with it’s attendant squirrels, birds, neighborhood noises and activities, etc.  Occasionally, I’d have to kick it up a notch to keep his attention and enthusiasm but was always successful.  When we go for a walk together, I work through lots of distractions including the fun of running with Lacey and Breeze or finding a puddle to play in…

But in the last few days, Tai has turned on to our next store neighbor’s dog.  She is a lovely English Setter who actually pays little or no attention to Tai but who loves to run back and forth through her yard which is adjacent to ours.  She moves beautifully by the way and would probably make an amazing agility dog.  But  sadly, she doesn’t get much attention from her owners.  She’s left alone a lot in her yard and has beaten a figure 8 shaped path back and forth near their back door.   When we first come outside, she comes to the fence hoping for a little human attention but never even acknowledges my dogs.  Because he’s a kind man and loves dogs, my husband has taken to giving her a cookie and petting her across the fence.

You would think that since she doesn’t pay attention to Tai, he would have diminished interest.  But Tai – who is right on schedule at 17 weeks old to turn his growing confidence to things other than “mom” — has fallen in love with the Setter and her movement.  The first thing he does now when going outside, is to whip his head in her yard’s direction.  From his vantage, I have fallen off the face of the earth in the face of this distraction.  When I realized this…I knew our days of walking outside off leash (again in my beautiful fenced in yard) were over for now.   Yesterday, the Setter was outside all evening so we did several sessions of attention training – on leash and head halter.  To match the reinforcement with the level of distraction, I needed to use steak – fortunately I had some handy (apologies to my husband who may have wanted to eat those leftovers).  The usual mix of training treats (cheese, puppy kibble, etc) was not even close to cutting it.   Even though Tai’s toy drive is very good…there was no way I could get far enough away to work this and drop the leash.  I tried once and one part of me admired how fast Tai is getting as he shot across the yard to see the Setter.

I may be in danger of whining now, but for those of you have known me for a while, you only have to think back to all the challenges I had with my very confident and independent-minded sheltie Lacey when she was a puppy to understand how my heart sank.  She was a year old before I could get her to play with me in the yard – and that meant the only “work” we did in my yard was attention for that whole time.  But I know a lot more now – thanks to Lacey — and Tai is a different dog so it will be interesting to see how it goes with him.  So for those of you who need to go looking for that number 10 DISTRACTION, think of me…I am lucky enough to have it right outside my back door.

A Good Dog

Many people say that getting a puppy is a “crap shoot”…meaning of course, that when choosing a puppy you are taking a big chance on whether the puppy will develop into an adult dog with a nice temperament, good health, sound structure, work ethic, etc. Then others say that getting a puppy gives us an opportunity to shape the puppy into our dream dog through our nurture and education.   I guess the reality is somewhere in between.

But a couple of weeks ago…just before I started a crazy (but good) 2 weeks of travel,  it just came to me out of the blue and with total certainty.   Without a doubt Tai – who is now 16 weeks old – will be a “good” dog.  Using the term “good” in my mind is in no way limiting – substitute “great”, “super”, “fantastic”, “phenomenal”.   To me those descriptors are synomous with “a good dog”.

It happened during a trip to our local rehab facility – TheraVet –  where Breeze was working out in the underwater treadmill.  Tai came along for some socialization.  He gave his usual friendly greeting to the staff – but this time with some self-control, waiting to be asked before giving his “bear hug”.   He sat on the scale nicely to be weighed.  He cracked us up with his antics while Breeze was working out – testing out all the toys in the box and darting from one end of the room to another, occasionally poking his head between the technician’s knees to get a look at Breeze .  He checked in with me every few minutes.   He walked nicely into and out of the facility.  And I thought watching him – here is “a good dog”.

You could explain this away with the fact his behavior is the result of relationship building and training over the last 9 weeks.    But does it matter why I believe that he is a good dog?  The fact that I do believe it is what really matters.    It  opens up the potential for greatness by eliminating any restrictions on my belief in what he will become as an adult.   That belief is all up side as it provides self direction for achieving my goals with Tai – that belief enables hope, commitment, motivation, confidence and excitement for what will come.

As for Tai…he’s growing like a weed as he should be.   Here’s a picture showing all the leg on a nearly 4 month old puppy.

As for training…we are working on the basics – relationship, motivation, self-control and socialization…with a sprinkling of agility based training too.   I spent a great two days at Susan Garrett’s Say Yes training facility this past weekend at a phenomenal workshop called  “Critical Elements for Sport and Life”.  Check out some of the pictures at Susan’s blog:

Demon Dog?

I’ve been asked by a bunch of people how my border collie puppy Tai differs from my shelties.  Of course, he’s only just 3 months old so it’s still early days but the most obvious answer is “He’s BIGGER”.  In fact, it appear he’s going to be on the larger size of the border collie range judging from his “mitts”.  He blew past my petite sheltie Breeze a few weeks ago and has also edged past my more moderate size sheltie Lacey and is quickly moving on up.  And he’s exhibiting stronger herding behavior as you might expect.

The other indicator of the difference between Tai and our shelties is the nickname my husband has given him.  Lacey became “Lu Lu Bell”, Breeze became “Twinkie Toes”.  Then there is the moniker my husband chose for Tai — He affectionately refers to him as “Demon Dog”.   Yes, he sometimes seems rather devilish, in a sweet sort of way and if Breeze could talk this would be the most polite way he would ever refer to Tai.  But really he’s just a normal BC puppy – busy, curious and of course, bigger.  So he can get into more stuff and boy, does he.  Whenever I forget to close my closet door…he manages to find my most expensive shoes first.  Why is that?

On our recent road trip to a 3-day USDAA trial in Virginia,  Tai spent a lot of time in his crate and had very little freedom to run around.  On leash (of course) at the trial site.  Small hotel room.  Late days so no opportunity to find a park.  You get the picture.  The solution?  Crate games, hand targets, and Sit-tug-Sit games in the hotel room.  What a difference a little mental activity can make to a border collie.

When we arrived back home at 1:30 am, my husband crashed in bed (he had done all the driving) and the puppy (and the shelties) reveled in being back home.  The puppy ran from one end of the house to the other, playing chase games with Breeze and reacquainted himself with his favorite toys.  After a few hours of sleep (in the crate again!), we were all up early (except my husband) and there was still a lot of pent up energy.

But then a curious thing happened.  For the first time, 10 yr old Lacey engaged with a long play session with Tai.   It was fun to watch.  Tai was up for the mouthing games that shelties like to do and they tugged and tugged together.  I guess there was a built up need to play after all that confined time.  Who would have thought.

In the moment

It seems to me that dogs are superstars at being “in the moment”.   Watching Tai running across a stream for the first time or playing with a same-age puppy friend last week underscores that point and it’s something I love about my dogs and try to learn from.  They don’t seem to dwell much about what just happened or what is about to happen.  I don’t mean to say they can’t anticipate good things coming – like mealtime, a walk, an agility run or any other favorite activity.  I just mean that when they are engaged in an activity of their choosing or an activity that we have built value for through our training…they show all signs of LOVING it, no regrets.     I guess that is what good dog training is all about.  Creating moments that our dogs love and look forward to and immerse themselves in for that time. Dogs seem to have a capacity to reach a sense of playfulness and joy that we humans have a harder time reaching.  That may be one of the reasons why we love being with our dogs so much.  Just watching them be in their moments, helps us be in our moments – if that makes any sense.

Last weekend I competed in the AKC Nationals with my sheltie Breeze.  After all the course analysis, walk-through, planning, visualizing and watching others, when it was our turn to run, I was striving to be  “in the moment” with Breeze.  As I prepared to run, I mentally revisited some of our more playful moments together.  I looked at his happy and anticipatory face.  To do our best, I had to let go, to believe that we would be together and in sync…using a finely honed handling language that would keep us in tune.  It would build on years of living, training and just plain fun…that he and I have had together and I could look to him to keep me centered.  We did well at the Nationals, making it to the Finals and placing 3rd overall.  To celebrate, I’ve posted a picture of Breeze in a “moment”.  I’ll continue looking to him and my other dogs  to teach me, hoping more and more of that magic will rub off on me!

The State of Play

Defining play in words is tough – although we usually recognize it when we see it.  Here is one definition: Play is something that’s done for its own sake, it’s voluntary, it’s pleasurable, it’s something that takes us out of a sense of time and it includes a diminished consciousness of self. I love that.  Achieving that State of Play is what attracted me to dog sports.  And it certainly defines what we see when our puppies … and our kids….play.

That definition comes from Stuart Brown, M.D. , medical doctor, psychiatrist, clinical researcher, and the founder of the National Institute for Play.  What I love is that he has made “play” the center of his work since retiring as a clinical psychiatrist.  Why? Because in his practice he had the opportunity to study the developmental background of a group of mass murderers, finding the absence of normal play to be a distinguishing feature from the control population.  This began a clinical interest and passion in the topic that led to the formation of the Institute of Play.

We’ve all been told how important it is to give our puppies opportunities to play with other puppies.  A session of play between two well matched puppies is dynamic, intense and by all appearances fun!    Research shows that it’s also critical to the development of social animals. Play aids the development of emotional regulation, social competency, the ability to be flexible with something that is happening that’s unexpected, and the capacity to adapt to a changing world.   Depriving rats from just one form of play – rough and tumble play — results in adult rats that do not have the capacity to tell friend from foe, they don’t mate properly and they don’t handle stress well.

I’ve been lucky to have friends with same age / same size puppies.  and we have been getting the pups together regularly.   Next time you see puppies play…smile at their antics and enjoy watching all the neural connections that are being made!

Link to podcast with Dr. Brown:

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