Pip Day the 11th



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.


Best Girl

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.


First day home.

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.


Camping on Lake Superior



Yes, I baked him a cake.

Posted in Not Mushing, Pip | 1 Comment

Maisy is 8

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.


The grand old lady.


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.


Maisy’s first day home.


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.


I’d say it worked.


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.


Also: Still incredibly sweet.


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.


Posted in Dog Talk, Maisy | 4 Comments

Squashgility: Timing is Everything

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.

Posted in Not Mushing, Squash, Training | 1 Comment

Toast is One

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.

Then and now.

Then and now.

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 stalkerBecause 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?

I brought you this bottle cap. I heard you love bottle caps.

I brought you this bottle cap. I heard you love bottle caps.

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.

If two bears are happy in the woods, does it make a sound?

If two bears are happy in the woods, does it make a sound?

  1. Should have a mushing picture in this post on my mushing blog, I suppose.

    Should have a mushing picture in this post on my mushing blog, I suppose.

Posted in Not Mushing, Toast | 6 Comments

Fall Update

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.

Posted in Scootering | Leave a comment

Forgetfulness and Laziness: Parents of (my) Invention

Recently my husband and I took the mushvan for a short road trip, an opportunity I used to clean it out very thoroughly which meant temporarily moving all the gear onto the back porch. Usually if I forget to put something back in the vehicle after cleaning it out, it’s my helmet. So I was really proud of myself today for remembering it until I suddenly realized about halfway out to the trail that I had forgotten my usual tugline.

I have plenty of extra lines, connectors, and snaps in a toolbox I keep in the van, but the one thing I do not have a duplicate of is the noodle. The noodle, as many of you know, protects and prevents the line from tangling in the front tire in the event of any slack. This can be annoying at best and dangerous at worst (think of suddenly braking the front tire and flipping over the handlebars). My usual noodle is made of a short length of PVC pipe attached to the near end of the tugline.

Toast and Maisy (who I was taking out today) tend to keep the line tighter, but nobody’s perfect. So here I was with a choice: Go back (grooooan), keep going but canicross instead of scooter (booooo), or keep going and just take my chances without a noodle.

Then my eye fell upon a couple of empty pop bottles in the drink holders, and a fourth option opened itself up to me. I was about to turn my Diet Dr. Pepper addiction into something useful.

My tools: Empty pop bottles, a screwdriver, keys, and (not pictured) a rubber band.

My tools: Empty pop bottles, a screwdriver, keys, and (not pictured) a rubber band.

Normally I carry a small utility tool and a tiny pocketknife with my gear which would have made this easier, but I used what I had on hand. I poked a hole near the bottom of each bottle with the screwdriver, used a key to saw a bigger opening, and just threaded the bottles onto the line. A rubber band to hold the forward bottle in place, and we were off!

Goldberg. Rube Goldberg.

Goldberg. Rube Goldberg.

It wasn’t pretty and it was kind of noisy, but it was effective and it is now safely nestled in my toolbox with the rest of the extra equipment. And THAT’S how you DIY. BOOM.

Posted in Equipment, Scootering | Leave a comment

We Plan, Dogs Laugh II

So, that was humbling. But back to mushing. As chronicled elsewhere, my original 3-dog plans had to be shuffled around a little but it seemed we had found our sweet spot. I thought everyone was happy and all was well.

But they weren’t. And all wasn’t. At first I thought I was imagining things, but it seemed Maisy was a little off. Then as I reviewed video and pictures I realized Maisy definitely didn’t seem as confident in harness and had a lot of slack in her line. In retrospect, she also wasn’t as excited to load up in the car and wasn’t even that relaxed on our water breaks.

Tight lips, body tight and crouched. Unhappy Maisy.

Tight lips, tight pinned ears, body tight and crouched. Kind of like she’s waiting for a shoe to drop.

Physically, I couldn’t find anything wrong. So I started to wonder if maybe she just wasn’t that into it anymore. And if she wasn’t that into it anymore, was it time to retire her? Intellectually I know the day will come when each of the dogs in turn retires. But mushing has become almost a defining feature for Maisy. Since her serendipitous start, it’s become what she loves best and what she does best. There are days I’ve been pretty sure she’d rather mush than eat. So the idea that she wasn’t enjoying herself anymore was actually fairly heartbreaking.

I never want to force my dogs to keep doing things they hate for my sake, but I decided to learn the lesson learned from rearranging the dogs’ positions and experiment a little bit before throwing in the towel.

More relaxed ears and posture, head high, loose mouth. A happier Maisy.

More relaxed ears and posture, head high, loose mouth. A happier Maisy.

Normal, relaxed posture, loose mouth, ears back but not pinned. A happy Maisy again.

Normal, relaxed posture, loose mouth, ears back but not pinned. A happy Maisy again.

The common denominator turned out to be that 3 dogs = tight, tense, mopey Maisy and 2 dogs = happy, enthusiastic, loose Maisy. I don’t know exactly why, but I have some ideas. It might just be that she doesn’t like how the different setup feels; she doesn’t like change. It might be that I have to do a LOT more micromanaging and disentangling with three dogs. Maisy is a very soft dog. Heavy sighs hurt her feelings. And with three, there are more opportunities for heavy sighs.

In any case, I’m fine with running two at a time. It will actually give me a lot of flexibility with what days each dog is exercised and allow me to incorporate mushing more easily into days when Toast and Squash have classes in the evenings without feeling like I’m overworking them. Nobody will get too used to running next to or in front of or behind anyone else.

So once again, Maisy’s exceptional leader skills have come into play. She’s just leading ME this time instead of a couple of unruly boys.

Posted in Dog Talk, Maisy, Scootering | 3 Comments

Of “Max” and Malinois

So I saw the movie “Max” today, the one about the military dog who suffers PTSD after his handler is killed in action. It’s a tale of good guys, bad guys, healing, and redemption, but there’s (rightly) a lot of concern among the malinois community that it will spark a little too much interest in the breed from people who would be a bad fit for it.

Let me just give you a too long;didn’t read version of my thoughts first: I hope to god that people understand that basing what kind of dog you get solely on a movie starring a highly trained dog who got as many takes as he needed to look perfect and who had FIVE stunt doubles is a really poor idea. Even if you get a malinois, you’re not going to get a dog like Max because there is no such thing as a dog like Max. Like ewoks, Indiana Jones, and the Stay Puft marshmallow man, Max does not really exist. So instead, please get a dog based on what kind of dog fits you.

I have been a malinois owner for just about six months now, so there are a lot of people in the breed a lot more experienced than I am. But I have a few things to say anyway and this is the internet where you can’t stop me saying whatever I like on my own blog although you can certainly roll your eyes out of your head or stop reading if you like.

There’s a movement in some quarters to discourage interest in the breed by the general public by posting bite photos and photos of property destruction on social media in order to prove how unsuitable they are as family pets. I think this is well intentioned but misguided. I’m not going to lie; malinois bite. So far it’s been my experience that Toast has a heaping helping of react first, think later in his psyche. But honestly, I think some people are going to see the bite pictures and just think “ah, I can handle getting bitten because I’m a badass/ master dog trainer/ whatever.”

And besides, a well-bred, stable malinois should not be a raving lunatic randomly running amok; for my boy I’ve found that there are relatively predictable and recognizable situations/triggers that can be anticipated, managed, and worked on. There’s more to these dogs than their teeth. The bigger challenge I see for most people is not the biting, and not even their exercise needs (which are enormous), but the sort of constant vigilance and awareness this breed requires. Really, ALL dog owners should be aware of the environment, how their dog is reacting to things in it, and prepared to manage the dog appropriately. But realistically I know that if my attention wanes a little Maisy or Squash is never, ever going to react to being surprised by a jogger coming up behind by lunging, barking up a storm, and scaring the bejeebers out of some poor stranger. You need to pay attention, always, and you have to be prepared for some raised eyebrows, side-eyes, and scowls. Yes, you are now that person with that dog. Is that what you really want? Will it hurt your feelings?

Make no mistake, I love my Toast. He has solid genetics and got a great start in life from a breeder who bred his litter thoughtfully, placed the puppies carefully, and continues to provide a great deal of support to us puppy owners as they grow and mature. He is smart and focused, a very great pleasure to train and work, and with people he knows/trusts he is indescribably sweet and funny. He learns new skills so fast and he loves to work and train. He works for all kinds of rewards, not just food. He loves to mush. He adores the other dogs. He doesn’t like to let me out of his sight.  And let’s not lie, he’s gorgeous.


But he’s also full of more mental & physical energy and drive* than he always knows what to do with. He’s currently an adolescent, and he’s still figuring out how to handle himself in the world. We have good days and bad days there; on the bad days, he’s “that dog.” When he’s happy, frustrated, confused, or excited his default is to bite and/or scream. It’s taken about 5-6 months of practicing every single time I come home that although he’s super excited to see me, he needs to grab a toy to play tug instead of biting my ass for toy grabbing to become his default. (As I open his crate I still need to shriek TOY! though.)

Yes, it really took that long to countermand his programming.

Yes, it really took that long to countermand his programming.

I’m not sure it’s possible to physically exhaust him, and his mind is always racing. One night after a rally class some of us were sitting around chatting and someone remarked, “He seems so calm, I thought they were higher energy.” And to be fair, he DID seem calm. He was lying quietly. But at the same time, his eyes were alertly locked onto me. And he seemed calm because that day we had been mushing, he had played outside in the yard alternately with Squash and with the sprinkler for over an hour, and we’d just spend an hour in rally class. He’s always ready to do more. I’m not even sure if he sleeps.

Having said all of that: We’re a perfect fit. I love his vibrant energy even if I still get an overexcited bite here or there and even if I wonder when the police are going to knock on the door investigating the bloodcurdling screams or if the neighborhood kids call us the murder house. But the reason why we’re a perfect fit is not that he is badass or I am badass but that at some point after Squash came home I morphed from “a lady with dogs” to “a dog lady.” I live a very dog-centric life and I love doing so. I play mushing and agility and obedience the way some people play fishing or video games or fantasy football. A lot of my day is spent working with my dogs. These activities are my hobbies, things I do because I love to do them rather than because I have to do them, and he’s a dog who needs an owner who loves to do things like that with him so we’re a good match. When I’m not doing things with my dogs, I’m thinking about and planning things to do with them. When we hit a training snag, I like to problem solve.** I’m perfectly ok with knowing that if I don’t have a toy handy to redirect him onto when he’s so excited he’s lost his damn mind, Toast might bite me instead because his brain is telling him to bite something. I need to manage the dogs fairly heavily because when he gets overexcited he screams in the others’ faces which has led to some scuffles.

But if this movie sparks your interest in the breed, I’m totally cool with that. Malinois might be the perfect breed for you, too, who knows? Everybody has to start somewhere – I wouldn’t have Toast if his breeder hadn’t had some faith and taken a chance on me even though I’d never owned the breed before. But please, please spend some time around them before thinking about actually taking the plunge. Find a local IPO training club or breed club and ask if you can observe some training days. Attend some trials. Find a mentor, volunteer with a breed specific rescue. Hang out with malinois owners. Network to find a breeder who isn’t capitalizing on this movie, who loves the breed and will help and support you long after your money has exchanged hands. And for god’s sake be honest with yourself; if you’re not ok with anything you’ve read here about living with Toast, it doesn’t make you a better or worse dog owner than anyone else but please get another breed or no one will be happy. Not you, not your dog, not your family or your neighbors or maybe even your local animal control or police.

All people deserve a dog who fits them, and all dogs deserve a family with whom they fit.

*What’s drive? It’s word that gets thrown around a lot among dog people without ever really getting pinned down, but this quote from The Terminator kind of sums it up for me: A dog who is motivated to do what needs to be done until it is done (or you relieve them): “Listen, and understand! That Terminator is out there! It can be bargained with. It can’t be reasoned with It doesn’t feel pity, or remorse, or fear. And it absolutely will not stop, ever, until you are dead.”

**If I were posting a bite picture, it would be accompanied by (for example) this text: “Here’s a redirected bite from Toast I got trying to break up a minor scuffle between him and Squash on the back porch. The mistake I made was approaching him when he was backed into a corner and trying to physically move him instead of just opening the door behind him so he could run into the house. I learned that I really need to manage resources and dogs coming in and out of the house better and not physically intervene if I don’t want this to happen again.”

Posted in Not Mushing, Toast | 11 Comments

We Plan, Dogs Laugh

I think we all make plans for our dogs, from humble to grand. Plans that might work out or might get sidelined by health, temperament, time, training, or other circumstances. I’d like to think I do my best to roll with the plot twists we encounter, the ones I can’t overcome anyway.

When Toast joined our household, initially my only plan was to run the three dogs together until Maisy retires. Then I was envisioning Maisy and Toast up front and Squash behind, since Squash doesn’t seem to enjoy being in lead all that much. Then Toast kept growing and growing and I thought that’s cool, I can run Maisy up front and Squash & Toast together and Squash will have a partner as big as he is. It was easy to roll with because Squash has to alter his gait a little bit in order for Maisy to keep up, so I thought having two tall boys next to each other might turn out to be a good thing.

Then I actually tried that arrangement and it didn’t work out so well. Maisy didn’t understand and wasn’t comfortable with staying out in front by herself, so her line kept getting tons of slack which the boys kept getting tangled up in. Once we all got moving at a decent speed it worked out ok, but starts were a nightmare.

I resolved to work on LINE OUTs and try to build Maisy’s confidence up front, but really… she just doesn’t like being up there alone. She’s a pretty soft dog, and runs were making her very unhappy, so we rolled with it again and I put Maisy and Toast up front as originally planned.

Our runs have been pretty short since Toast is still young (and the weather has not always been cooperative this spring), but they are doing fantastic with this arrangement. Squash is SO much happier not being in lead. He’s far less distractible, easier for the other dogs to tug ON BY, and just jollier in general. Maisy is happy to have some company in lead who actually wants to play this game. Toast is overjoyed to be running, running, running. And my life is easier and happier.

Here they are on a run yesterday executing two nice HAWs:

BUT it is not all sunshine and unicorns. Here is a rare misjudgment by Maisy, not sure what she was thinking here but the boys just went along with it and at a certain point all you can do is laugh and try to figure out how to untangle everyone.

In other news, we got a new vehicle. Three dogs and a scooter in my little Ion was a little treacherous, so I went minivan and I don’t care who judges me for driving one, I have all the space in the world for everyone to ride safely and harmoniously.

Three crates and a scooter.

Three crates and a scooter.

So yea, that’s where we are. We’ve been getting an awful lot of rain this spring so we go out when we can. The dogs are doing great and the three of them are really coming together as a team. So for now at least, all is well and our current plans are working out.

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Long Time, No See: New Adventures Edition

It’s been forever since I posted. Mostly because raising a puppy has been a time suck, and partially because of some (now resolved) dog health issues that came up. I’ve been scootering on and off with Squash and Maisy as the weather has allowed, here’s a couple of pictures from Easter:


I’ve been working on a lot of canicross with Toast, and a couple of weeks ago I put Maisy and Toast in front of the scooter to see what would happen. (Note: I am walking beside the scooter, not riding it. The young boy isn’t really pulling).

Then today I woke up and randomly thought it might be fun to do the same thing with all 3 dogs. I decided to use the scooter first because on foot all three dogs gets to be a bit overwhelming, but with the scooter if they get a little too fast or intense for me I can either just drop it or hop on long enough to slow them down with the brake (again, I’m walking or jogging next to it, not riding for any longer than it takes to brake).

It was partially fun, but it was also kind of a cluster. I am not proud to say that I got a bit frustrated and annoyed and did a lot of heavy sighing and groaning, and even hollered a time or two, but I guess the silver lining of clusters is that they shine a spotlight on what training you sorely need to work on.

Hands down, the biggest thing we need to work on is “line out.” With one or two dogs, line out hasn’t been a totally essential skill to have nailed. Maisy and Squash are quite good at it when it’s just the two of them, but to be honest I haven’t been super picky about their lines being perfectly tight or them staying exactly in place. With three dogs, though, it turns out that there are exponentially more opportunities for tangled lines, bizarre mind-teasing tangles that will eff you up and waste precious minutes of your life you can’t get back. So training goal #1 is that I am absolutely going to need everyone to really hit their line outs perfectly. I see lots of practice singly, in pairs, and as a triplet in the future.

I also need to work with Maisy to unlearn running as half of a pair and relearn running in front on her own. The most annoying thing to happen (repeatedly!) today was that she didn’t stay out ahead of the boys enough. She wasn’t comfortable up front and would drop back between them, Squash ended up stepping over her line and getting it under him, and we had to stop and untangle. It’s perfectly understandable. She’s not used to being alone up there, she’s used to being side by side with Squashies. But when I say repeatedly, I mean about a thousand times so training goal #2 is to help Maisy build some confidence up front by herself. There’s always the possibility that just won’t work out, and then most likely I’ll continue to run Maisy and Squash in front and Toast behind them until Maisy retires.

The third thing is not really training, but I need to experiment with how my lines are set up. I won’t really be able to nail this down until Toast is mature, at his adult size and in his adult harness. You’ll see in the first video that the main gangline wasn’t quite right, there was slack between the boys. So I turned it around and tried again and it’s better in the second video. But I’m going to have to play with the boys’ tugs to get everything right.

The fourth thing has little to do with dogs, but I will need a bigger vehicle before long. With two dogs in the back seat the scooter can ride in the front seat, but with three it needs to go in the trunk. Which means I have to take a wheel on and off in addition to folding down the handlebars, and I end up spending more time tinkering with my hardware than running dogs, boo. Also, it won’t be long before Toast is too big to ride in the front seat anyway and they won’t all fit in the back seat as it is now. I won’t really be running them all three together until this fall, and probably won’t even do what I did today all that regularly, so there’s time. But I’m dreaming of cargo space where dogs ride in crates and scooter is proudly stowed in all its unfolded, un-dewheeled glory.

Anyway, here’s the first video. They actually did pretty well here for awhile. One of Maisy’s default stress behaviors is sniffing, so her normally stellar “on by” was not stellar today as she peeled off a couple of times to sniff stuff. But I think she’ll get the hang of it. You can kind of see how the section of the gangline between the boys is a little slack here.

Here I had turned the gangline around and it’s a bit better, although a slightly shorter tug for Squash would have been ideal. For now Toast is wearing a half-back he won’t be wearing forever. When he’s mature, the boys will be closer in height and length and Toast will be in an x-back, so I don’t think I’ll have to fool around much with their tugs.

Toast is a bit too young to really be pulling yet, but there’s plenty of training to be done and I’ll get Squash and Maisy out for runs as weather allows. So I’ll try to update more frequently! In the meantime, here’s a lovely picture of all the Mush Puppies in the backyard:


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