All 3 of the Mush Puppies could easily fall under the “pit bull type” based on their appearances. Thank god my city is too sane to require me to pay $450 in fees, muzzle them whenever they’re out of my yard, and keep them on a THREE foot leash – which would make mushing impossible. Come on, Montreal, get your shit together.
So, yeah. Rehoming a pet you still love deeply is a weird, grieving-not-grieving experience. Watching them thrive and be happy is amazing and wonderful and terrible and confusing. I find myself vacillating between desperately not wanting to be a creepy “your dog used to be my dog” stalker and longing to ask how he’s doing. Add to that the dismal feelings of failure and shame, add a dash of paranoid feelings that people you know and respect now despise you, and it’s all very mentally exhausting. So it’s not surprising, really, that after Toast left us I spiraled down into one of the worst depressive episodes I’ve had in a good long time. (Well I’m pretty good at faking it so maybe it is surprising to some people.)
Thank god for the other dogs, because they forced me to at least go through the motions even if I wasn’t enjoying things. It’s hard to completely skip activities and classes when you have a squirrelly polar bear in your face. They need stuff even when you don’t feel like doing stuff. So we marched on through the summer together. The weather (alternately blazing hot or pouring rain) kept us from mushing regularly, and then later in the summer a minor but nagging injury sidelined Squash from agility.
But the one vaguely positive thing about these episodes for me is that I develop a sort of not feeling, not caring, invincible recklessness that can pass for bravery if you don’t look too hard. In my younger days that led me down some questionable roads but acting out is a little different in my 40s so it looked more like this: After a few years of not trialing we returned to the ring and finished Squash’s RL1 in WCRL rally (and subsequently registered for additional trials), I bought some rollerskis after learning that my regular cross country ski boots would fit the bindings, and signed Squash up for a novice tracking class as an alternative to agility until he could return.
The potentially most dangerous of these was rollerskijoring. In retrospect I kind of wonder what I was thinking. I’ve only done it with Maisy so far, at first because even I wasn’t reckless enough to go with both dogs right out of the gate and later because of Squash’s injury. It was hard to get my rollerski legs under me; it’s like and not like skiing. Once we get some momentum going it feels exactly like skate skiing to me but getting started felt so hard. Still, once Maisy decided the rollerskis weren’t going to eat her and got into it, it was fun. Like, really fun. It felt fun. I think that’s when I might have very first started to feel more like myself again, to feel like anything at all, after our first few runs.
I was really missing agility when I signed up for tracking, and it was mostly a way to keep Squash engaged in an activity while he was taking a break. But I’ve come to not only like it for itself, but love how it has changed up my sleeping habits and typical morning routine as well as re-energized my interest in and enjoyment of a number of everyday tasks. Most days I work an afternoon/evening shift, and traditionally I was a stay up late, sleep late person. Now, on my mornings off I typically get up early to take Squash tracking, stop and do an errand on the way home (grocery shopping, pet supplies, whatever), do some chores when I get home, +/- take Pip and/or Maisy out, and take a short nap before going to work. I feel better. I’m cooking more. Chores are small tasks here and there rather than dedicating a day to them all. I’m writing a blog post for the first time in forever. All because I found something enjoyable and reinforcing enough (tracking) to get up early for.
I barely know what I’m doing here. We’re doing very short, young, heavily-rewarded tracks for the moment. But it’s fun and we’re doing it together and it’s getting me out of bed and back into the world. Into enjoying the world. As Squash’s exercise restrictions get lifted we’ll probably shift back towards mushing again, but for now we’re having fun.
Ain’t dogs and dog stuff grand?
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.