Prairie Volts

A volt is a unit of electrical force used to measure how much energy you have. volts move through transformers, which convert the energy into something you can use…Sitting by Big Stone Lake, on a dock where the boat access is, I feel grounded. I feel the volts of energy given off by the summer blue sky and feel the energy coming off the lapping waves.. My border collie won’t stay out of the water-he loves to swim-and the young lab won’t enter the water and the rat terrier runs along the shore to roll in a dead fish. They are grounded too! Such a peaceful, happy feeling…

Coming off the tough winter, the sunshine feels extra special. There were times, at -20, -30 below for an extended stretch, that it was hard to imagine what bolt of energy it would take for the trees and all green things to push their way up out of the frozen ground. I often wonder what power turns the switch on- to come alive again. It must be a cosmic volt-deep inside the ground.

When we say “grounded” it is a basis for measuring voltage-you go to the ground to see how much live voltage you have and you put a positive lead on that which you want to measure. There have to be receptors in my feet that ground me to the prairies of western Minnesota, and maybe my dogs -being lower to the ground-are receptors of positive energy too. When I pet them it releases their voltage and fills up my meter.

In competitive obedience, which I do, there are many seminars and professional instructors who have different ways of training your dog to be excellent, to “excel”. Past all that -I still think the number #1 thing is to “know your dog”. Really know and listen to how he/she responds to corrections, voice, leash? to ups and downs that learning a new skill involves, to repetitions, short practice, long practice-what does it take for you to be on the same page-the same wavelength. And what does it mean in the ring? Where is the voltage? Are you connected? After high scores have faded, my fondest memories are still seeing a little dog trotting alongside me-sometimes I can still feel the fur-the energy- of dogs long past-brushing my pants leg. Hug your dog and send that voltage UP THE METER!

Breaking

What happens when you break? When one incident shatters the glass facade through which you peer through and see life? If you train and show dogs, it will happen to you…It can be an ultimate disappointment and affect the way you go forward training and showing your dog. There are so many ways a dog can break our hearts when showing competitively…And people say “well, they’re just dogs”, but sometimes it seems more personal than that - painful. Breaking can also be from the vicissitudes of life: a divorce in the family or the death of someone close or just your normal temperament can break.

Perhaps with our dogs we feel more vulnerable - because it is just the two of us in the ring and we feel exposed. And we do love our pets so very much! So our clear glass pane, through which we see the world - cracks! A crevice forms and the defect is permanent. Then maybe we break again and another rift forms..the death of a dog you dearly love can break your heart…So now, instead of having a perfect sheet of glass to cover us as we march through life we have cracks. But bits of light can shine into us now, because the fissures, uneven and thorough, are letting the light of optimism and hope shine into us. We have a stained glass window now covering our soul. We can view the world through the hues; our wounds and disappointments, open ways for light to shine through…and our dogs are still here to enjoy the ride - still at our feet waiting for the ball to be thrown or the leash put on for a walk. So, I have to remember- disappointments are adding color to my life! I will try to remember that in obedience!

Class One - Beginners

Our class one instructor, Mike, is doing an excellent job teaching our beginning obedience dogs. It is a challenging class because some dogs have not learned good doggie behavior. Our training program and philosophy is to work with all dogs, treating none as deficient or unable to learn. It is a path of hope for dogs who desperately need guidance. Otherwise, their options are severely limited. It is wonderful to see dogs who 4 weeks ago were barking and lunging at other dogs now sitting respectfully side by side on a sit stay. Mike shows incredible patience and has a clear understanding of dog behavior.

When I'm 64

January birthdays are, by nature, solitary things. It’s not like a summer birthday, where you can meet friends by a lake to picnic or kayak. Or a fall day, taking the dogs for a walk among golden leaves and listening to the Vikings game…Or even April, with cobalt blue skies and the allure of summer around the meteorological corner…No, January birthdays are cold, snowy and gray…A perfect day to be inside and eat pizza! Which is what I will do.

I equate the years passing by to sitting on a train, looking out the window to see the years speeding past. At first, the scenery, the events of my life are so specific and the train’s pace so measured I can view the pictures in whole as I gaze out the windows… It seems we board the train in our 20’s and it goes pretty slow. Then you are in your 30’s which is pretty darn close to being in your 20’s- so technically you are still young. And then, in your 40’s the speed picks up and the images outside begin to blur - is that how fast time goes? And in my 50’s I felt I was on a bullet train - trapped by gravity in my seat. When I was younger, and I heard older (gray-haired!) people state they felt in their hearts they were 20 I felt sad for them and thought them delusional. But, you know what, when you board the train of life in your 20’s - even though the years speed by and the events of life flash by in a zip - your heart is the same age as when you got on.

A constant in my life, and durable picture outside, has been the constant love and companionship of my dogs. Some I have had to leave behind as the train moves forward and that is hard, but I have ones in the caboose right now - noses in the wind, tails wagging. The conductor has put them on board for me. So I feel lucky to be almost “64” even though every year right around by birthday, it seems my feelings and motivations get unsettled - it is almost like all my molecules get put in a blender and pureed. I think maybe my body senses there is a train junction ahead. I pick up the subtle vibrations of an electrical pulse signaling a change or a pick-up in speed. Where will we go? Knowing my dogs are along makes it a happy journey… I am so lucky to have a hobby where I can spend time with my dogs-teaching new exercises (we are learning scent articles now and it is an adventure) and learning how I can connect with them and reach their hearts and confidence center so we can learn a new skill and be happy!

Well, it is time to settle in, pick up the paper, adjust the blanket over my lap and set off again…Happy trails!

Merry Christmas!

Some of my best times have been spent traveling to dog shows…Laughter, looking at the map or Garmin for directions, eating gas station snacks and staying in all sorts of motel rooms - where sometimes the kind staff negate the light sockets without light bulbs or the cracked tiles near the bathroom door. Old tiles, but kind hearts.

Which is a round about way to mention that our fellow classmate and puppy instructor, Sheryl Juhl, recently drove to Florida and placed 8th in the Novice class in the AKC Obedience Classic. Great job Sheryl! She and her dog, Grace, did an outstanding job in a truly competitive class. If you like obedience or rally and get a chance to travel to a show, do it. It is a lot of fun. And, even when things don’t go as well as planned or hoped, remember: these are the good old days…Hug you dog tight. Merry Christmas!

Puppies

When I was young, I wanted to get a dog. My Mom said, no, we (mom and dad) both work and it wouldn’t be fair to the dog. So, I had lots of other friends: cats, parakeets, turtles and bunnies. On Saturday mornings, I would walk the mile to Adams Doggie Shop in Richfield to see and pet all the puppies in their cages with torn newspapers on the crate floors - smelling of puppy pee and energy…I thought it would be the best job in the whole world to work there when I was bigger!

My first dog was from Colorado. I got her at 18 when I left college and travelled “west” to explore the country along with 2 girlfriends. In 1973, it seemed a lot of young people were on the move, restless, traveling around the country forming co-ops and living in groups and communes. It was towards the end of the Vietnam war. Estes Park, where our car broke down, is at the entrance to Rocky Mountain National Park and the entrance to the Front Range. It almost acted like a funnel - as kids left home and poured across the plains they filtered through and up to the rugged mountain peaks. It was a very different time then. I got my puppy from some very kind owners and picked her up on Halloween - when they said she was old enough to go. I was so excited! I can remember holding her little body tight against mine, inside my zippered blue sweatshirt, watching the mountain evening close around us…I have not been without a dog since…

It seems that precious memories fall around us in fall, bathed by autumnal glows of remembrance. The faint fall sunshine seems to shine sideways-instead of straight down as in summer. In response, my soul kind of squints to remember things. I know that we are all being loved and accepted by our dogs and pets, they are on our tree of life. Even when they go, their memories hang on and float peacefully down.

State Fair

August air molecules feel different - larger, expanded, like the bubble in which Glinda, the Good Witch, drifted off. They expand to hold all our sweet memories of the summer, with cricket chirps and cooling summer nights crowding in...it is when we have accepted summer that the state fair begins.

This summer, to me though, has felt ill-fitting , like a coat you pick up where the buttons don't align and it feels a little bit tight across the shoulders. This is, I believe, because of our late spring blizzard! I still remember getting off work, looking out over the parking lot ledge - thinking, "I can make it!" and then praying on the way home down highway 100 - watching cars left and right go into snowdrifts and slide off the road. And because of this, the summer just hasn't felt right - a little rushed, kind of temporary. And now it is State Fair time. A time for nostalgia and folks wandering up and down lanes, just to be outside and together in our Minnesotan kind of way - before the leaves fall and football season starts. Our memories of years past and hopes for years ahead rise up together in our August air bubbles - all over Minnesota, hopes of our lives to come and remembrance of all the past that makes us "us". Good luck to everyone showing this fall - hold and hug your dogs tight - they are part of your precious bubble of life.

Running away into my heart

At first, I wasn't worried. Daisy had never run away before. I trusted her. and she had been loose up on the farmland before. But, after calling and walking the land, and looking out past our land to unplowed neighbors' fields I really could not see my little yellow lab, and the feeling hit me straight in my chest. Daisy was gone. I had called and searched for over an hour and a half. All the bad thoughts that I never give a voice to flooded over me - how will I find her? will the coyotes get her? How many miles will she wander - my little lab with the pink collar...

I put the other dogs in my van and left the spot where she'd been lost, and reluctantly drove to the nearest farm. The farmers were getting ready to get in the tractor - "no, they hadn't seen her - but she will show up!" I wasn't sure, but drove back to the spot north of the slough where she'd run away. Off to the right, 30 yards or so, I saw the butt end of a yellow lab entering the neighbor's CRP field. Another 3 seconds and I would have missed her. An act of God! Oh, we were mighty glad to be together...

And I saw her for the first time. It's funny, my younger obedience dogs seem to be in the shadow of an older obedience show dog - it wasn't until Chip was 3 that all of a sudden I turned around and noticed him. The older dog had taken my energy. Nellie, another OTCH dog, was 3 when I started showing her - again with an older dog by her side - this time Chip. I have trained Daisy, now 3, to the Open level of Obedience - but, now that time seems to have flown by, and I ask, "Did I even know her?" 

I think that a lot of successful dog training is honesty between you and your pet. An honest day of reckoning - here is where you are, here is where I am - how are we going to do this? Together. To learn the go-backs, scent articles, hand signals. I know I am not perfect with my dogs. Sometimes I lose my temper - which each dog interprets differently. The border collie just narrows his eyes and looks at me - the little Daisy lab gets stubborn and scared at the same time. And I think, for me, that is where honesty comes in. They see me at my raw self. And sometimes I say to them "I am not perfect but, neither are you - so let's try to figure this out together." Yes, I have apologized to my dogs verbally, and I try to mellow my approach. I would a thousand times have a connection with my dog, especially gotten while learning a new exercise or even perfecting one - based on honest trials and effort rather than glossing things over with treats. I really feel a connection with my pet when we struggle and come through and it feels like just an honest bond with me. I do use snacks to reward and have fun - but I try so hard to get to know my dogs and the basics of what makes them tick and how we can become a team and be successful. 

And that is another part of honesty. It is almost a high - to be in a run-off or to place in Open B. And, to be honest, with Daisy I was putting the cart ahead of the horse, because she had done so well in Novice, I assumed the good times could roll over into Open B...Maybe they will - when we really become a team. But seeing her, after I thought I'd lost her - it was like I saw her for the first time and she me.

Driving west into peace

The feeling always hits me with surprise. Such a deep, satisfying whine kicks in-as if my deepest sense of peace is awakening-my soul's "solenoid" is being energized. This starts as I drive west on highway 7, past Hutchinson, where I lose a lot of the city traffic I have been following. Thinking my own thoughts, I continue west onto the heartland, the prairie. It feels like I am driving into an envelope of contentment. It is a 4 hour drive to the white farmhouse where my mom grew up. I feel so close to the sky and God that it seems I am rising up in my seat to meet it!

I always bring the dogs along, and the kitty. They are good travelers, and I have trained in many little wayside stops and DNR boat access spots. I think they are better-or I like to believe it, for being proofed with geese swimming 10 feet away, or by anglers fishing and baiting hooks! I think if I am happy here they are-and being on the prairie anchors me to the world. I know I am very lucky to have a place which fills me with such contentment and peace-and, especially, to know my heart is safe...

Well, good luck to all of us starting out on the new Open commands. We are vanguards of a whole change in obedience. Congrats to us for trying!

 

We are so close to spring!

We are so close to Spring! I love to wear short-sleeve shirts and sit in the back and let the sun and warm winds sink into my winter bones...Also, with Spring coming, that means the start of the new Open exercises. I have a feeling that dogs' abilities will be divided into 3 groups:

1) Those that get it and do it consistently.

2) Dogs that kind of succeed, 50-50, maybe hope will pull them through.

3) Dogs that still haven't grasped or learned all the Open B combos.

Well, time will tell. I hope this doesn't discourage people from moving on through Open B to Utility... To me, it seems more like a trick than an obedience exercise, but I am going to try. The border collie gets it (yaa for innate smarts!) while the lab is in the 50-50 group. With hope, we will proceed on to the new shows and signal away...

Treats and Training...and Getting to Know Your Dog

The pendulum has certainly changed from when I started obedience training 30 years ago...Then, it was almost all collar corrections and praise. Gradually things have changed and now the pendulum has swung in an arc over to treat training: treats for a straight front, finish, about turns; treats are used as a positive reward for a "job" done right. But I think that lost in all that food - and I'm not saying treats don't work - cuz they certainly do, and it is the standard training for almost all high - achieving competitive dogs, is the fact that a genuine word softly spoken, a direct look in your dog's eye, and a feeling that passes between the two of you is effective, and in my opinion, is more genuine and fosters a true bond with your dog.

I feel that treats are motivating and I have used some, but to go to a deeper level where you really understand your dog and they are proud they pleased you and you smile at them and say, "Good Dog!" - to me, that is better than treats. When reading my latest magazine from Best Friends Animal Sanctuary, I saw an article about whether animals feel emotions. Gregory Berns, PHD, M.D., a Neuro scientist at Emory University, put trained dogs through MRI's to examine specific pathways in their brains when they experience things humans like. The focus was on comparing responses to food versus the responses to social rewards like praise. Of the 15 dogs in the study, 13 showed responses to praise in the brain's reward system that were equal or greater than their response to food. "As a result", Berns states, "we can say with certainty that dogs value the social bond, (praise) with people as much as the food."

Sometimes I feel I am swimming upstream in the present day current of dog shows. I do treat sometimes, but I value the deeper bond and feeling I get when I go below that surface snack and feel a connection. We exchange glances and I feel a feeling pass between us. That is why I dog train.

Christmas Present

Some people believe that time, instead of being linear, going in a direct line from A to B, is actually circular. What is was, and what was is. We visit the times in the past as we proceed along the circle of life, and the future is in us also. Perhaps that's why, as folks grow older, they remember so clearly visions of their early childhood-it is because the line is closing in on itself, completing and nearing the beginning where it all started. We are all in each others" lives. Neighbors, the country we live in, the times, our friends, and, of course, present in the lives of our dogs.

I don't know how many times training my dogs has helped me through tough times. Somehow just being on the training floor, doing figure 8's, or straight heeling, for that one half hour I am free of outside distractions and worry. It helps me be in the present, and relieve the stress of worrying. Thank God for our dogs. They are present and also a presence in our life.

Many years ago, on Christmas Eve, I took a cassette player, with a few Christmas songs on it, out to the small cemetery where our family lies.  Great-uncles, aunts, great-grandparents, mom, dad and cousins are all buried there. It is a quiet prairie cemetery, on a rise overlooking a large slough. A long time ago, Indians had a summer camp there. 

I went out to the graves about 7 PM: clear skies and a brisk December wind. I stood behind a tall obelisk, and pushed the play button, "O Holy Night" played by a clarinet, settled out among the resting. I could almost hear elbows nudged from grave to grave - "Do you hear that? Listen - someone came out to play us music." The notes hung over the snow and drifted down to join the departed. I left the cold and went back to the warmth of the present. But sometimes, when I visit the graves in the summer, I can hear, in the hot, soft air, traces of that music still playing - resonating out among the short prairie grass. Christmas Past is Present, and Merry Christmas to all!

 

 

Giving Thanks

When fall comes we wrap our memories around us like a soft, well worn coat. We take the coat out of our closet of memories and snuggle down for the winter. The trees have lost all their leaves and their branches extend into the sky like bristles on a hairbrush.

This season is for remembering and giving thanks. There is not a day that goes by that I don't remember my mom and I'm sure many others remember their parents now. I also can feel in my mind's eye the soft fur of many dogs who have heeled alongside me and now wait in heaven. How lucky we are to have found a sport and a training school that lets us be close to our dogs! Here at Canine College we are grateful for the new puppy owners who entrust their gentle pets to us for socializing and learning - thank you new pet owners! We are glad for the students who come to class week after week and whose presence helps us continue our spirit and reputation. And very importantly - we are grateful to our instructors! Mike, who takes the energy of beginning dogs and channels it into a dog who - gasp!- pays attention. JoAnna continues on in class 2 and Dean inherits us all in Novice - thank you! Pat helps with our novice dogs, Rose does the fun job of introducing and perfecting the jumping and fetching and Dorothy teaches our advanced class, utility with skill. We hope that some of your canine memories will meld with ours, then we can all wear our soft winter coats together.

Reminiscence

It has been a year since Marly died. I believe that each generation stands on the shoulders of those who have gone before - and Marly's shoulders must have been very broad because they have supported a whole host of students who have gone on to be obedience instructors, AKC judges, winning obedience teams and all around good canine exhibitors. We cherish her memory and are glad to carry on in the sport of obedience.