When I started this blog, I promised myself I would always be as transparent about my lows as I was about my highs. On the internet, it’s so easy to get the sanitized version of everyone’s lives and think everyone else is doing everything right while you’re the only one bumbling along. I wanted anyone else beating themselves up for not being perfect to know that they weren’t alone with their bloopers and mistakes.
In that vein, I am very sad to tell you that soon I will be driving Toast back to his breeder. My head knows this is necessary, the best thing for all of us. But my heart isn’t quite convinced, and it’s breaking over and over.
It’s not because I don’t like him, or love him, or he’s not good at the things I want him to be good at. He’s a fantastic dog, an amazing athlete, an incredible mushinois and discinois. He grew into a bit more dog than anticipated, but that’s not really it either (although I’ve felt some low level guilt for some time that he might be happier in an IPO home). I don’t have the energy or the desire to explain the situation in minute detail, but briefly: Toast and Squash aren’t safe together right now. They had one major fight earlier this year but were completely fine with one another the next day. They had another major fight last week and this time, they cannot even see each other without wanting to fight. I don’t have either the physical space or mental fortitude to manage them via crate/rotate and don’t have the training chops to safely and effectively help them fix their relationship.
I find that I simultaneously want to rip off the bandaid and leave yesterday, but also wish the day we leave would never actually come. Squash is staying elsewhere for now. I miss him, but both my and Toast’s stress have decreased significantly which has allowed us to spend as much of the time we have left as we can just having fun… mostly playing a lot of disc, a little mushing, lots of hiking and swimming, some flirt pole, and plenty of snuggles.
To my friends, family, and coworkers who have been supportive and kind about this decision, thank you so much. It helps, probably more than you realize. I don’t know how people make hard decisions or live with those hard decisions without people like you.
To people who think I’m making a crappy decision, I haven’t tried hard enough, or some other variation thereof, I’d like to gently remind you that I haven’t shared everything I’ve tried. And I’d like to invite you to try to separate these two very large, very strong dogs (who, by the way, do not diffuse if physically separated during a fight but continue to try to reach each other [or redirect] until they are completely separated from one another’s presence out of one another’s sight) during a fight. Or worry every single day that your management will break down and you’re going to go through it all again and wonder if next time it will be even worse.
For those of you experiencing some schadenfreude right now, I hope it’s delicious. I get it, I don’t wear a halo myself, and I probably deserve it.
And for anyone who wants to tear me a new one, go nuts I guess…. I’m pretty sure you can’t think anything about or say anything to me that I haven’t already thought about or said to myself, though. I don’t, however, want to see anything negative about his breeders. They were completely transparent about his breed, his parents, and his litter from the beginning, have been nothing but supportive of and kind to me throughout his time with me, and are providing him a fantastic place to land in preparation for the next chapter in his life.
So we’ll have one last road trip together before we have to say goodbye, my sweet, best boy. I’m so, so glad you were my Toasties, even if it was just for a little while. I love you so much and I always will no matter where you are. I’m so sorry I couldn’t give you what you needed to stay here with me, but I’ll always be grateful and happy for the time we spent together. We had such a good time, just such really good time, and you taught me so much about so many things and forced me out of my comfort zone many times in the best possible way. I know you’re going to go on to do amazing things in all your adventures to come, but I will miss you, best brown dog. Very best brown dog.
The second of our spring Mush Puppy birthdays is upon us, this time our honorary MP Pip. So I suppose we might as well continue making 2016 the Year of Telling MPs’ Stories.
The first dog I got as an adult was a retired racing greyhound named Desire. She was a really fantastic dog in a lot of ways, but in particular she came into my life at a time when I was really lost and helped me put some things back together.
She and I, and later my husband, navigated all the changes of young adulthood together; school, graduation, first “real” job, marriage, first house. I can’t recommend these retired racers enough, but when she died I couldn’t bear the thought of having another dog too like her so I started looking on Petfinder for the most un-greyhound like dog I could find.
I found Pip.
That was 2005, and like all the dogs I’ve had in my life I’ve learned many lessons from Pip over the years. Though incredibly sweet and cuddly with people he knows, he’s shy and wary of people he doesn’t know and has taught me a tremendous amount about advocating for your shy dog. He came to me a severe resource guarder, and we slowly but steadily transformed that from a bite risk to a “listening to Pip complain” risk. When Squash was a teenager, Pip’s fun policing escalated to an attack and he taught me an enormous amount about repairing dog/dog relationships: Desensitization, counter-conditioning, management, and rebuilding trust. And he’s the very best bed warmer on a cold winter day.
We’ve come a long way together and we’re both 11 years older since we first met. He’s not drivey; we don’t mush or play agility or disc or any other sport. But he’s the dog who quietly sleeps at my feet at the end of the day, still loves to hike and swim, sleeps in and takes naps like a champ, and can always calm and quiet my heart and soul. So I hope there are many more Pip days to come.
And I think I’ve told her story before, but since I’ve been so bad at updating and I’ve been feeling so sentimental lately I’m going to tell it again as penance.
It hasn’t always been easy for Maisy and I to find our groove. When she came into my life, I had recently lost a really amazing dog, what the kids these days sometimes call a “heart dog” or what one of my neighbors calls “the great ones.” Her name was Roxy and she was a rottweiler/GSD mix.
In retrospect, I started scouring Petfinder too soon after losing her. My heart was broken and although not aware of it at the time I think subconsciously I was desperately looking for Roxy V2.0. One by one I met all the rottweiler mixes I could find; Maisy was the last because her name at her foster was Roxie and I’d been avoiding her. But when we finally met her, she was so incredibly sweet and cuddly and got along along so famously with our cats and with Pip (who was our only other dog at the time) that with a name change everything seemed perfect.
Except as it turned out, this little hound was definitely nothing like Roxy.
We struggled in obedience classes because she was incredibly distractible and obsessed with the other dogs. We struggled on walks because I could not for the life of me teach her not to pull on a leash. Frustrated, I thought she was stubborn; I’m sure she was overwhelmed and confused.
So. There we were.
But as it turns out, while she wasn’t what I was expecting Maisy has turned out to be one of the most important dogs in my life. She has taught me more about dogs than any dog I’d had before. I learned that rather than being stubborn she can be incredibly soft and difficult to motivate, plus she disengages easily when she feels pressured or stressed. I learned about thresholds and attention games and how to build her confidence. I learned to adapt and adjust my expectations, and most importantly I learned how to work with the Maisy in front of me instead of the Maisy in my head. Slowly but surely, we “got” each other.
After we learned how to work with each other, I dabbled in several different activities with her but nothing really stuck until Squash came home.
Squash was the reason I got involved in dryland and skijoring in the first place, but when he was a wee lad just starting out on training walks he had very little interest in getting and staying out front. One day I randomly wondered if walking him with Maisy might help because she is such an incorrigible puller.
It was a smashing success. Honestly, without Maisy’s help I truly don’t know if I would have continued mushing. She has incredible natural talent, drive, and focus. She keeps Squash on the trail and has been invaluable in helping me train Toast. Many of the things she does (like the Maisy Bump, where she body blocks Squash from going off trail) I never taught her at all. She just… does them.
I don’t know how much longer she’ll be running. The good news is that despite some gray hairs and surgery for a torn cruciate ligament almost two years ago now, she doesn’t show any signs of slowing down. She still dances with joy at the back gate when it’s time to go load up, she still runs her heart out, and she’s still sad if she’s left behind. So hopefully for many more runs to come.
Not so very bad for a little houndy thing. Not bad at all. Happy birthday, my sweetest old lady, helper, and teacher. A very happy birthday to you.
I’ve been horribly neglectful of the blog but in my defense the winter here has been pretty crappy for skijoring so there hasn’t been THAT much to write about. The temperatures, amount of snow (or lack thereof), and my work schedule have conspired to converge in truly awful ways to largely keep me from skijoring this winter. I did get out a few times with Toast and Maisy locally, and took a trip up to Gunflint Lake with them in January which was amazing. Toast and I have kept busy learning how to play disc. And I promise that I will post pictures and videos of all of that soon.
But this post is really to brag about Squash. It seems like it’s about agility but it’s mostly about our relationship and trying to communicate with him effectively, which really translates to any sport.
Squash is a perfect first agility dog for me because he’s very forgiving when my handling is clumsy (which is often) but amazing when it’s not. The biggest thing I struggle with is giving him the information he needs WHEN he needs it. He’s not lightning fast, but he’s a tall guy with long legs and a long stride so he really needs to know as soon as he is taking one obstacle which one will be next. And sometimes I get so absorbed in what cross I need to do or how we’re going to wrap that jump or even just not getting lost on the course that I forget to tell him in time.
The next two videos show Squash and me doing the same sequence with vastly different handling and vastly different results.*
In this video, I’m not communicating to Squash what I want him to do next pretty much throughout the entire sequence. As a result, we look awful. He’s getting frustrated with me for it, too; if you turn up the volume you can hear him roaring at me (some dogs bark when they’re frustrated, polar bears roar) before he starts goofing off. It would be easy to get annoyed with him and blame him for being stubborn or naughty, but what he’s really doing is saying WHAT IN THE EVER LOVING F$%! DO YOU WANT FROM ME LADY? FINE, I GIVE UP! and who can blame him?
In this video, I am connecting better with him out of the tunnel and for the most part remembering to verbally cue the next jump while he’s still taking the current jump. That wrap could have gone better, but it was because I didn’t do my cross in a timely manner. And I missed the tunnel the second time, but the rest is so much better I don’t even care.
It’s easy to blame the dog when things aren’t going as planned. And sure, sometimes it is their “fault.” But time and time again I realize that a lot of my problems would be solved if I would just be sure my dogs have actually learned what I’m asking them to do, then actually tell them what the heck I want them to do in a timely manner. And not just in agility; when we’re mushing, my team’s GEEs and HAWs are much sharper, smoother, and more enthusiastic when I give them plenty of lead time to the turn. When I cue properly, I can actually feel the moment they stop hesitating and kick in some speed going into the turn. When I don’t give them enough notice, it’s often choppy and hesitant. And why wouldn’t it be? They’re reacting on the fly instead of being prepared. Do you like it when you are driving and your navigator yells “turn left HERE!” as you are half passing the turn? Neither do I. There’s no reason the dogs should, either.
Running this sequence the second time so much more effectively after the dismal first performance makes my heart grow three sizes and appreciate this dog so much. He doesn’t give up on me; no matter how frustrated he gets, he gives me another chance and comes back with a stellar effort and so much heart. Our dogs put up with so much from us, let’s all try to be the handlers they deserve.
*I really suggest getting video of any training you do, by the way. It’s embarrassing to see how ridiculous you look when you run an agility course, or realize that you talk WAY too much to your dogs when you’re on the scooter, or wonder wtf you just clicked when you’re training a trick. But it also gives you a lot of insight into how and why things go wrong and what you can do better.
Actually his birthday was yesterday. But it took me some time to pull all my musings together into coherent enough thoughts to write this.
Toast came into my life during a time of growing concern among people who love his breed. It had been publicly known for some time that the dog involved in the raid on Bin Ladin was a malinois. A malinois was on the cover on National Geographic as part an emerging pattern of celebrating military working dogs in the media. The movie “Max” was released during his adolescence. The concern, as when any breed finds its way into the spotlight, was that this trend of publicizing the breed would take a breed very few outside of certain working situations and dog sports anyone had heard of and thrust it into the American consciousness, where it would become too popular with all the wrong people for all the wrong reasons.
Some people in the breed circled the wagons, assuring the outside world that this was simply not a breed for the masses. Others decided that demonstrating what it is like to live with a malinois via graphic pictures of dog-inflicted injuries (which, as I sit here in a knee brace due to a malinois collision-induced strain I can confirm will most likely happen) and videos of high drive puppies hanging off clothing like Christmas ornaments as they are evaluated for work would scare people off. Still others took the time to engage with people showing interest in the breed, asking questions and educating to see if the breed was the right fit or a passing fancy.
Fortunately for me, Toast’s breeders fell into the third category.
I’m not going to lie, Toast is unlike any dog I’ve known or lived with. In some ways he was an incredibly easy puppy – smart, very handler focused and eager to learn. But he’s also full of quirks, can become obsessive about certain things, and has a “react first, think later” mentality. He’s busy and noisy and oh, those pinch-bites. So many pinch-bites while we worked on redirecting his default target to toys rather than my arms (a mission that was eventually accomplished). There were weeks during his early puppyhood that I could only wear long sleeved shirts or risk constant side-eyes and polite concern.
We had days when I wondered what I had gotten myself into. Days when I was plagued with self doubt and questioned if I were capable of this dog, if I should drive him back to his breeder and let him go live with someone who could truly handle a malinois and where he could be happy. But we also had days of such pure joy and connection and partnership, accomplishments and laughter and chest-bursting pride in each other. And as we slogged through it all, the latter began to outpace the former. I climbed up my learning curve and Toast climbed up his. And while we’re not at the top yet, we’re getting there. Now I can’t even imagine my life without him, his enthusiasm and vibrant energy are infectious and color every part of my life.
And here I find myself standing firmly in that third camp of malinois owners. Because I’ve come to firmly believe that “Can you handle a malinois?” is the wrong kind of question to ask people showing interest in the breed. Honestly, I think almost anyone can be capable of owning almost any breed, just like it is possible to eventually force that square peg into a round hole with enough force. It’s not that it can’t be done, but the real question is – why would you want to do it?
So I think the more important approach to take, instead of trying to scare people off the breed, is something like “Are you really going to be happy living with a malinois?”
(Note: There is both truth and humor in what follows. I’ve tried to qualify where I think people may misunderstand my humor and dive in with helpful advice but the point of this post is not to provide a expert, comprehensive breed guide. It is meant to be a humorous recap of the first year of my experience as a first time malinois owner and some food for thought about what beyond YOU CANNOT HANDLE A MALINOIS is actually useful to discuss with new people showing interest in the breed.
I have had and will always have a tremendous amount of support and good advice whenever I need it from Toast’s breeder and am happy with where we are and where we are headed. Some of these things will resonate with other malinois owners and some won’t – because like us, our dogs are all individuals.)
Can you emotionally detach and not have your feelings hurt by getting bitten by your own dog? Those videos of puppies hanging off clothing are no joke. These dogs have been bred for generations to bite things and for many it is their default when they are excited or stimulated by anything. If you don’t want your malinois to do that, get used to repetition because you will probably be redirecting your puppy’s mouth from your person to toys all day, every day, for literally months and months before you successfully countermand their programming and “get your toy” is a thing that happens consistently. If you DO want your malinois to do that in some circumstances (e.g. bite work or protection training), you need to find a reputable training club and put in an enormous amount of time to teach your puppy when, where, and how it is appropriate to do so.
Honestly, does it make you happy to participate in sports or other physical activities with your dog AND train at home nearly every single day? Because I’m not sure it is physically possible to exhaust a malinois’ body without also working their minds. They are not like a jogging buddy, they are like a jogging buddy who then needs to go home and complete a 1000 piece puzzle every day or go Renfield on the world creating bizarre elaborate schemes only they truly understand but are definitely creepy. In case I’m not being clear, these dogs need mental exercise every day. If I’m in a time crunch and have to choose, I’ll pick training over physical exercise most of the time, or try to work on balance and conditioning exercises that do both (bookmark FitPaws now).
So let me be even more clear that by “does it make you happy” I mean NOT sure, I can take that up for the sake of a dog but I need a dog who can fill the horrible yawning void that encroaches when I don’t spend a chunk of time every day playing with and teaching a dog to do things.
Can you behave in a clear and consistent manner, and have clear and consistent expectations for your dog’s house manners (if you expect any)? If you can’t, can you live with whatever behavior you create? These dogs are smart and learn fast. Unfortunately, that means they learn bad habits just as quickly as good habits and they will pick up on any inconsistency on your part and stretch that inch into a mile before you can even start to think about regretting your folly. Toast acts completely different when my husband is around, because my husband is a very no nonsense kind of guy. I, on the other hand, tend to cultivate a certain amount of what can only be described as circus-like behavior – but honestly I enjoy that. If you don’t: Be like mushbaby’s husband, not mushbaby.
Can you live with “that dog?” Some malinois are very social with other people and dogs, some are neutral, and some are reactive or aggressive either selectively or across the board. Most have at least some degree of stranger suspicion.No one on this earth can love harder than a malinois, but a reacting/aggressing malinois is a scary sight. I’ve had more than one person in Toast’s circle of friends tell me that if they didn’t know him, they’d be scared of him. I’ve had incidents where he has reacted badly to strangers and scared the bejeebs out of them. Your malinois might be a go-anywhere, do-anything dog. He might not be. Are you ok with the latter or do you need the former? If you need the former, then maybe a breed that has been bred for generations for military, police, and protection work isn’t a good choice for you.
If you forge boldly ahead, you need to be prepared for any of the following that might be necessary to keep others AND your dog (who will pay the price for any serious incidents) safe: Properly socialize (not forced associate, which is a pet peeve of mine) your puppy, manage, train, desensitize, counter-condition, teach alternative behaviors, and grow a thick skin. You simply cannot allow your feelings to be hurt by your dog’s behavior and other people’s reactions to it. You absolutely need to care more about your dog than a stranger’s feelings and tell them NO when they ask to pet your dog if she is in fact not safe for strangers to pet. You need to not force your non-social dog into uncomfortable social situations because your ego demands a dog who can go to a kids’ soccer game. If a behavior problem crops up, you need to figure out what you need to do and do it.
Do you like a dog who acts a little bit like a stalker? Because this is your life now. Even if your dog has a good off switch there will likely be eyes following your every move and muscles tensed to spring into action if it looks like you might possibly be getting up even though that last 5 times in a row you were only reaching for your water to take a sip. You will have toys and other gifts dropped in your lap which will then be stared at until you politely acknowledge and/or toss them. Some are very busy in the house, is that going to drive you nuts? If so, can you teach a dog to settle?
In short: You will never be alone again. Unless you leave the house. Which sometimes, I admit, I have done specifically to escape the suffocating adoration for a few hours.
Do you value your hearing? Because I think possibly the people who mispronounce mal in wah as “malinoise” might actually have the right idea. There are times I wonder when the DNR will show up on an anonymous tip to confiscate the hyena I’m keeping illegally.
In all seriousness, do you live where a noisy dog is going to cause serious neighbor disharmony? The amount of noise they are capable of is no joke and if your dog is noisy you’re going to need a plan to address that.
Do you value your stuff? Honestly I think as a breed their destructiveness is a bit overstated. A good malinois isn’t shouldn’t be a mindless shredding machine, and ANY dog can and will redirect pent up energy and frustration onto your stuff if you slack off on the exercise and training. But with malinois it takes so little to slack off and they are capable of a tremendous amount of damage. They also seem to make weird and intelligently quirky choices about WHAT to destroy. But remember, it’s pretty much your fault if you didn’t work your dog (of any breed) for four days. Remember #2 up there? Go read it again and get mad at yourself instead of your dog.
Does versatility, amazing handler focus, utter devotion, joy, enthusiasm, drive, intelligence, problem-solving, and a sense of humor make your heart go pitter-patter? Mine, too.🙂
I will always be so grateful that my introduction to malinois was from people who were kind, supportive, and truly love the breed. Without their faith in me I wouldn’t have this tremendous dog who has challenged me so much, and I might never have experienced such highs and lows that have taught me, humbled me, lifted me up, and made me so happy. Happy birthday, my Toasties. Let’s go screaming and flailing into the future together, for many more years to come.
I’ve been pretty neglectful of the blog while I’ve been raising and training a Toast, among other things. I do try to post pictures regularly on our Facebook page (Mush Puppies) in case anyone missed us too much.
Toast is taking short runs a couple of times a week. He tends to live up to Maisy’s expectations and down to Squash’s but overall is a solid mushing dog with a lot of strength, smarts, and drive. In between runs we are dabbling in tricks, disc (don’t worry, no fancy/big jumps on the menu at this stage), rally, and strength/ balance/ conditioning exercises.
Here are a few videos from today. I’m quite proud of this first one because as you can imagine this maneuver can be a real cluster if poorly executed:
I was going to title this video ON BY FAIL but then I realized that I never actually said “on by.” So technically they did exactly what I asked – EASYed up to the tree. Whereupon I dropped the handlebars but came away with only a single bruise which is not bad when the scooter is on the ground, sideways, and moving.
Here’s a nice recovery from that. Such good boys.
And here’s what happens when two tall boys go fast.
That’s all for today! Now that Toast is almost a year old and the weather is solidly cool, we should have updates more often.