Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Old Dogs

My dogs have been getting older for years now (okay, yeah, technically they've been getting older for as long as they've been), and as they approach their thirteenth year, I have to admit that they've arrived. They're not just getting older, they are old.

The other day on a walk a man commented on my old dogs. I realized that it was the first time that someone who doesn't know their age had identified them as old. He guessed that Bella was about 9, so she's still ahead of the game. It was Bella's pooping that clued the man in to her age. She's started doing that awkward old dog squat, the pacing and circling and shuffling of a dog who can stand and who can sit, but who has trouble with the in-between.

By old, I don't mean decrepit. My dogs are still healthier and more active than most people expect a 12 year old dog to be. But they are old. Their legs don't always work the way their brains want them to. They slip when they try to corner too fast on hardwood or tiled floors. They nap a lot. Sometimes when I invite them to go outside they say "no thank you."

Yet, they are in better shape than they were a few years ago. They spent some of their middle years being weekend warriors, snoozing at home or at my office most of the time, then playing wild games of fetch on lunch breaks and weekends. Then, their overall activity level was lower than it is now, and Bella needed pain killers to help manage her arthritis. Now, they require walks and playtime every day, and are moving more freely with no pain killers.

I attribute their good health and mobility to three things: high quality food, regular moderate exercise, and maintaining a healthy weight. No doubt the expensive supplements I feed them also play a role (they'd better!), and of course luck is part of the mix.

They haven't been completely untouched by age. Last fall Bella had surgery to remove parathyroid adenoma and a bladder mass. She's completely recovered now, with no after effects.

Sunny's also had surgeries to remove a couple of eyelid growths, and then to remove one again when they didn't get clean margins the first time. (Yes, that's the same collar, they share.)

Hopefully there won't be any more surgeries soon. For now, they continue to be healthy, and they enjoy their long walks with short breaks to play fetch on soft grass.

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Working dogs

They say there are no seasons in California, but if you walk dogs in the East Bay hills then you know there are three seasons: mud season, foxtail season, and goat season (with goat season being divided into relatively brief early goat season, and an extended late goat poop season which persists for months until the first heavy rain subsumes the goat poop into the coming mud).

I look forward to the goats every year, because they eat the foxtails that make the open space so treacherous for dogs, and because both Sunny and I are fascinated by watching the goats, and their dogs. The goats travel with both herding dogs and livestock guardians, plus a human or two to do the things that require opposable thumbs.

Sunny tends to behave herself around working dogs. It's probably because she's learned that in certain specific contexts, dogs aren't going to bother her, and so she doesn't need to get upset about them. But I like to imagine that she has a more nuanced understanding, and that she's the canine version of a law enforcement groupie who couldn't get into the academy and works in private security. In this scenario, it would be hugely important for her to keep her cool around working dogs, and to not do dumb pet dog things like barking uncontrollably or threatening dogs who could eat her for lunch.
Hey buddy how's it going? Nice goats you got there, I can see you take good care of them. Had much trouble from coyotes this year? Yeah, I saw a coyote over that hill just a month ago. Wiley bugger, but he knew not to mess with me. Sometimes I think about doing herd work, being out here all summer. But I've got a nice gig doing squirrel patrol in a private yard, not sure I'd want to give that up. You know squirreling is pretty specialized work, not just any dog can do it. Maybe when I retire from that I'll do a little herd guarding. Well, I'll let you get back to work now, don't want to keep you from your duties. You might want to keep an eye on that grove over yonder, a coyote could creep up through there and you'd never know it til they'd taken a couple kids. But of course you know that, I don't need to be telling you your job.  
And in response to this, the working dogs just roll their eyes.

Or at least they used to roll their eyes, but recently there's been a changing of the guard, and the new, young crew doesn't quite have the routine down yet. Two years ago I started noticing that the flock guardians were getting old, and that there was a new pup with them. The puppy was ridiculous, he'd be out of sight when Sunny and I first arrived, and then 10 minutes later, after the old guards had checked out Sunny and given her a pass, the pup would come flying out of no where barking his head off at her.

Last summer there was only one of the old dogs left, and the pup was physically grown up, but still figuring out his job. He'd leave large areas of the herd unguarded, while barking excessively at things that weren't actually a threat.

This summer the youngster is working all alone, I think. If he has a companion I haven't seen him/her yet. The youngster is learning the job, although he's still AWOL sometimes, and overly barky at other times.

Today on our evening walk the youngster was very alert, and started barking at Sunny when she was several hundred yards away. The goats and their guardians are confined by a portable fence; the open space outside the fence is open to the public and to leashed dogs. In the past I've frequently walked my dogs just feet from the fence (the fences often parallel hiking trails), but today I stopped when the youngster barked, and didn't walk any closer. I knew that Sunny could behave herself much closer, but I don't feel right ignoring the youngster's warnings. We won't get any closer than he's comfortable with, I figure it's the least I can do to further his education.

The border collies are not inside the fence with the goats; they stay with the goatherd, guard the goatherd's trailer, and help move the goats from place to place. Although they're unfenced and unleashed, they never interfere with passing dogs and hikers, aside from giving a bit of eye when Sunny looks at them.

Today, after the young flock guardian had successfully driven Sunny away from his charges, we passed near the goatherd's trailer. I gave it a wide berth, since it was starting to get dark and I didn't want to startle the goatherd or the border collies. But then something unexpected happened: one of the border collies started to bark and charged at us. I kept expecting him to stop, but he kept coming, until he was about 20 feet from us. I look down at Sunny, fully expecting to see her launch into a retaliatory strike, but she was calm. I said her name, and she happily turned towards me and heeled beautifully away from the still barking but now holding his ground border collie.

As the other side of the trailer came into view, I understood. There were two more border collies, shaking their heads and exchanging exasperated glaces with each other. The barker returned to them, perhaps saying, "Did you see? Did you see? There was a wolf and I drove it away!"

"Shut up, kid, you're embarrassing yourself," the oldsters must have replied.

It was clear now that the barker was just a pup, maybe 6 months old, all long legs and impulse, without much sense. Is that why Sunny was so calm when he charged? She knows that puppies are not to be taken seriously. Or maybe she kept her cool because the goatherd's border collies have never bothered her before, and so she had an expectation that everything would be okay.

It's also possible that she's getting better over all, not just with puppies or with working dogs.  After years of avoiding the problem, I've been working her around other dogs again, albeit in a very cautious and careful way. I still manage the heck out of her, and don't expose her to uncontrolled dogs. And I don't test her with questions like "What would you do if an unknown dog charged at you barking?" So I don't really know if her chill with the young border collie was a fluke, or something she might be able to repeat. And I probably won't know, since I would never knowingly expose her to that situation. Despite being out-maneuvered by a border collie today, I'm pretty good at not putting Sunny is scary situations, and so I'll never have the data to make sweeping pronouncements about how Sunny behaves when charged by a barking dog. But today, she was a very good girl.

I'm sure that in time the young flock guardian and the young border collie will learn their jobs, and not waste so much energy on yelling at Sunny. But I can't help but think that they need more time and training, and aren't ready to take over the big jobs yet.

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Spring at the Secret Swimming Hole

I never get tired of this place.

The dogs don't either.

 I have no idea why there isn't a dog sitting on this rock.

That's better!

Which way?

Almost there


Hurry up!

Throw it!

Happy dogs

No, we don't want to come away from the water

 I kind of love this picture, but I kind of hate it because they look like old dogs. 

There, now they look younger

What happens when I try to convince them to take a break

Monday, April 1, 2013

Coyote trail

A few weeks ago the dogs and I tracked a coyote. At least, that's what I thought was happening. It's entirely possible that we were only pretending to track a coyote, but even if it was make believe, it was one of my favorite walks with my dogs, ever. Almost as good as going to the secret swimming hole.

I frequently see coyotes in the open space near my house. Every single time I see one, I think "Where's that dog's person?" and then "That's a funny looking dog," and then "Oh." But slowness aside, I do eventually recognize them, and on this day I'd clearly seen a coyote crossing a grassy hill during my afternoon group walk. I went back in the evening with my own dogs, and after meandering for a while realized that we were near where the coyote had passed just a few hours before. I decided to let Sunny take the lead, to see if she showed any interest in the coyote path.

Sunny rarely gets to lead. Mostly I lead, sometimes Bella leads, and often our route is dictated by avoiding other dogs. But on this day the open space was largely empty, and even though Sunny had to stay on a long line, there was no reason not to let her pick our route.

Sunny sniffed and dithered and sniffed some more. She is not a brisk hiker. But eventually she started moving  towards the hill the coyote had crossed, in the direction I'd seen the coyote move. 

Sunny stopped and rolled in the grass almost exactly where I'd seen the coyote stop and turn and survey the park. I'd like to believe this was significant, but Sunny rolls in the grass a lot. Maybe she was just rolling in the grass. Maybe she was rolling in coyote scent. Who knows?

Then she took off up the hill, still following the coyote's path and moving quickly. Even Bella started getting interested in the trek. Whether they were tracking something or not, they were certainly moving with uncharacteristic speed and determination.

They kept moving, not stopping to sniff, not hesitating at all at a trail intersection, but forging on and telling me clearly THIS WAY!

I followed obediently until they abruptly turned off the trail and plunged into a gap in the brush. They were eager and frantic and clearly on the scent of something. Sorry girls, but this is the end of the road. 

It's one thing to let them follow an hours-old trail over open grass and fire roads, but hunting through the underbrush is not allowed. Critters need their privacy and safety, free from harassment by domestic dogs who've never missed a meal in their life. So when I thought that we might actually be close to a coyote den or resting spot, I called off the hunt and we went back to being domesticated and civilized.

As a consolation prize, I took the girls down to the far edges of where the open space abuts zoo property. There are well-fenced buffer zones between the zoo enclosures and the open space, but in a few spots you can get a decent view of some of the exhibits. On this day, we saw bison and Asian elephants. Sunny thought this was every bit as fascinating as the coyote, and could have stayed sniffing at the fence for hours.

On the way back, Bella pretended to be a wild creature streaking across the savannah,

and Sunny posed.

Best dogs ever, no question.

Monday, November 5, 2012


 This is a $15 bed from Ross:

 This is a $15 bed from Ross in a crate:

This is a pile of three $10 beds from various discount stores:

This is my bed:

This is under my bed:

and this is a $90 orthopedic foam dog bed:

Friday, October 5, 2012

San Lorenzo and Fremont DTC Obedience/Rally Trials

Saturday Novice A
Bella rocked it. She got her second novice leg and a first place ribbon, and never you mind that it was first place out of two qualifiers, and that her score was only 190.

6.5 of those points off were in the heel on leash portion, and the rest were minor deductions that I'm not worried about, and that frankly I'm not going to get rid of with this dog. (Not the she isn't the smartest, bestest dog in the whole wide world, but given her age and her temperament and her training history, I have no interest in training her to the level of precision that would be required to routinely score above 195.)

She started out wobbly and distracted, and on the first halt she almost kept going. But then she caught herself and came back to me, and from there just got better and better.

Saturday Rally Novice A
I made it over to the rally ring while novice B was running, checked in, grabbed a course map, and waited around for the novice A walk through. Only, there wasn't a novice A walk through, apparently both A and B walked while I was still over at the obedience ring. I only found this out when someone told me "you're up now!" (Bella was first in the class). I'd planned to warm her up after I walked the course, since I never need the full ten minute walk through. Instead I had to grab her and run to the ring, with neither of us prepared. Then there was a sign that somehow I've never seen before and I didn't know what it meant.

Somehow, we scored 91 and got second place. And that was the third rally nice leg, so she got her RN title.

I'm kind of embarrassed about the 91 score. Bella scored 99 and 98 in her previous two legs, and I expected something similar. Oh well.

Sunday Novice A
I was so sure that Bella was going to get her third leg and her CD on Sunday, but at the same time I was sure that I was too confident, and that something would go wrong. Before Sunday, she'd qualified and placed in every run in every class in AKC competition, and I knew that was a streak that wasn't going to last long.

Here's what went wrong: I've been experimenting with leaving jackpots in Bella's crate when she runs. I used to do this in agility and it usually worked well (except for the time that she tried to leave the ring to go to her crate early, which apparently I'd blocked out). I did it on Saturday with nice results. But on Sunday it happened that the crate was set up a little closer to the ring, and the jackpot was extra yummy, and I'd done some warm-ups with releasing Bella to her crate. So in the ring, instead of staying focused on me, she kept getting sucked towards her crate. On the heeling she lagged or forged or was wide, depending on our orientation to the crate. In between exercises she tried to break for the crate every time I praised her. On the recall she ran past me and almost out of the ring, before returning to no-man's-land somewhere in between heel and front. Despite all this she still would have qualified, albeit with an ugly score. Except that she lay down on the sit-stay.

Here's what went right: Bella was up and motivated and fast on a very hot day and on the second day of competition. True, she was focused on the crate instead of me, but that was my mistake. I love that she was motivated and energetic. I also love that she's starting to take responsibility for staying with me. When she almost ran out of the ring on the recall, I was frozen and didn't do or say anything -- Bella stopped herself and came back to me. She did the same thing several times over the weekend; she'd get distracted, but the she'd catch herself and come back to me with no prompting. I'm really starting to feel like we're a team! Of course, we've been a team for years. But somehow this obedience teamwork, this quiet, focused parallel attention, feels more powerful than the fast, noisy, drivey teamwork we had when we competed in agility.

I don't know how far we'll go in obedience. Bella has a bad shoulder, and she started limping during class on Wednesday. We've got an appointment with an orthopedic specialist in a couple weeks, and until then I'm taking it easy with her. She has the intelligence and the drive and the willingness to train and compete for years to come, but I don't know if her little body can keep up. I'm hoping that with lowered jump heights she can keep competing beyond novice, but we'll have to wait and see. Whatever happens, I couldn't be prouder of my girl.

Thursday, September 27, 2012


Bella was bored today, and will be even more bored tomorrow. Today she did a brief run though of her novice routine and had a short walk. Tomorrow she'll get another short walk and some puzzle toy play, but no training.

She's tapering.

Rather, I'm tapering her. She doesn't understand the concept, and I don't hear people in the dog sports community refer to it. But it's a useful concept, and I think it's a very good idea for Bella to taper before her trial this weekend.

Human athletes train for competition. They gradually increase the intensity of their training as the competition approaches, but only to a point. Some days or weeks before the competition, they reduce their training. They do enough to keep themselves in shape, but they focus most of their time on rest and nutrition and hydration. You don't prepare for a marathon or triathlon in the week or two before the event; if you're not ready two weeks out, you're not going to get ready in two weeks. Far better to use the final week or two to replenish and build up strength.

Bella's competition this weekend is more mental than physical, but I think the concept holds true. If she doesn't understand the novice exercises, there's nothing I can do in the few days before the trial to change that. Far better to use these final days to rest her and prepare her to be at her mental and physical best on Saturday.

I haven't tapered her before. I've always been one of those flaky and disorganized competitors who feels ill-prepared and tries to cram in too much training at the last minute. But this time I'm resisting that urge, and trying to trust in all the training we've already done.

We'll see how it goes.