Friday, September 19, 2008

Easy to please

One thing I love about dogs is that, unlike so many humans, they are generally easy to please.

One time I was over at a breeder's house, working with her to train some new show dogs. These dogs had never been on a lead before, and were learning to free-stack, which is basically standing four-square facing the handler so that the judge can see a side profile. Not too difficult, but if the dog has never been worked with before, it takes a lot of reinforcement with food to get them to understand what they're supposed to do.

Because you have to feed the dogs so frequently when they are first being trained, I usually give small pieces. I figure it's the gesture that counts. You do something good, you get a reward. The dogs are not going to stand there and measure each piece to see if it meets quota. Most of the time they gobble it down without even tasting it anyway. And if you give smaller pieces, you can train longer without enlisting your dog in Weight Watchers and trying to figure out how many points are in a serving of dog food.

At one point, the breeder noticed the size of the chunks of cheese I was feeding the dog, and exclaimed, "What is that?!"

Cheese. Duh.

"That's not a chunk," she said, taking the cheese out of my hand and breaking off a piece the size of about half of a baby carrot. "THAT is a chunk."

She then compared it with an exaggeratedly small piece of cheese that was supposed to represent my pieces. "Which would you rather work for?"

I didn't argue--they're her dogs and they'll be fed as much as she wants them to. But did the dog work any better for the bigger piece of cheese? No. (Though she'll claim that they did.)

Big or small chunk, that dog wanted cheese and was willing to work for it. Dogs aren't like humans--they rarely demand a higher salary. It's not the amount of the reward they've been given that matters as much as the principle behind it. I believe dogs like to do good work. They like knowing what to do and being able to do it well. Sure, the dog I was training wanted cheese, but I believe she also just wanted to know what to do.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Rock and roll lifestyle

Taking someone to a dog show for the first time is almost like taking someone to a rock concert for the first time, then taking them back stage to see that the guitarist and bassist hate each other, the drummer's going to shoot up in the bathroom, and the lead singer is screwing someone else's wife.

The dog show life may seem glamorous when all you see of a dog show is what's on TV. At those shows, they roll out the plush carpet, drape the exam table, and accent the ring with flower arrangements. The ribbons are long, the trophies are heavy, and everybody claps. But go to a real dog show with your eyes and ears open and you'll discover that dog show people really aren't as dignified as they may wish to appear.

A few weekends ago, I took my boyfriend to his first dog show. It was a specialty show, which means that only one breed was competing, and winning Best of Breed is the same as winning Best in Show. Many exhibitors travel great distances to compete in specialty shows, as there is greater breed competition at these shows than at regular all-breed shows. They usually occur less often, and the judges are better acquainted with the breed. Because they are special events, specialty shows are commonly held in hotel banquet rooms.

We walked in to the lobby and saw a professional dog portrait studio set up on the far wall, with dozens of sample portraits on display. Most people were dressed nicely, many in suits. We headed into the banquet room and took some ringside seats.

Instead of clapping, many of the classes ended in stunned silence from a disapproving crowd. We overheard some gossip from spectators and exhibitors standing behind us, including a comment on an exhibitor that will always be remembered as the woman who appeared to the show dressed in a full-length mink coat. When we weren't casually eavesdropping, I schooled my boyfriend on the basics of dog showing: the lingo, points and procedures of conformation.

We sat and looked at the dogs in the lineup. He leaned in and asked quietly, "Why are people picking at their mouths like that?"

It then occurred to me that there are very few occasions when respectable adults dressed in formal attire will dig into the pouch of their cheek to retrieve a tidbit of meat and feed it to their dog.

"That's called baiting," I explained. "Bait is food you feed to your dog to get their attention."

I had to chuckle. Only at a dog show...

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

False promises

After arriving home from putting Taffi to sleep, my family sat down together and my dad passed around pieces of dark chocolate. It seemed like the very type of occasion dark chocolate was made for. The chocolate was Dove, and inside each foil wrapper is a "Dove Promise" (an uplifting maxim or aphorism). My dad unwrapped his chocolate and began to simultaneously laugh and cry.

"What does it say?" I asked.

"Embrace life."

While we laughed at the irony, I looked down and read my own out loud, "Life may change us, but we start and end with family."

"Man, I got gypped!" said my sister. "Mine just says 'Dove Pure Silk Chocolate.'"

Monday, September 15, 2008

The end of an era

Saturday was the end of an era for my family. We put to rest our first and only family dog.

At nearly fifteen, Taffi's passing was hardly unexpected. We all watched her deteriorate with age, becoming uncomfortable and dysfunctional. With all of the close-calls and illnesses that Taffi had during her lifetime (mostly due to her delinquent nature), my mom was sure that some dramatic illness or trauma would be her undoing. She didn't think she would have to make the decision to put Taffi down. But, as I joke with my family, Taffi was too mean to die. She was a fighter, and she was stubbornly loyal to my mom.

And my mom was stubbornly loyal to her. Every malady Taffi suffered (and there were many) was quickly treated. Even, on one occasion, when that meant over $1,000 in vet bills for four days in intensive care after Taffi ate opossum poop in the yard. Especially near the end of her life, Mom got used to fighting for Taffi by searching for health solutions for her. She diligently took care of her, even getting up at 5:00 a.m. every morning to let her outside and feed her.

But a few weeks ago, my tearfully told me of her decision to put Taffi down. "I used to think that God was trying to teach me perseverance," she said, "but now I think He's trying to teach me about letting go."

In the car with just my mom, dad, sister, and Taffi on the way to the vet, I realized that it was the first time in a long while that we had all been together in that way. It was a snapshot of our family unit as it was years ago, before new human and animal family members were added to our lives. And it was the last time the four of us would be together with Taffi.

We had Taffi for nearly fifteen years. As we were saying goodbye to her, we were also acknowledging the ending of an era and ushering in a new one. Things are changing for all of us: my mom and dad both have new jobs, my sister is married and expecting a child, and I have many changes in my own life. Though we are a close family, our lives are taking us in new directions.

Through her own nature of determination and stubborn independence, Taffi taught us all about perseverance, but any lesson on perseverance needs to be accompanied by a lesson on letting go. In order to move into a new phase of life, you have to let go of the old one. Letting go of Taffi frees my family to fully acknowledge this new stage of our lives together.

So on Saturday, with a blend of laughter and tears, we said goodbye and learned that it's ok to let go.

Friday, September 12, 2008

Poodle for the President?

If Obama becomes President, he may move into the White House with a Poodle by his side.

Senator Barack Obama promised his daughters that their family would get a dog after the presidential race, win or lose. The American Kennel Club took advantage of this opportunity to run a poll asking America what breed should be selected by the Obama family.

The AKC pre-selected specific breeds they thought would fit the bill. They had to take into consideration that one of the Obama daughters has allergies, so whatever breed is chosen will need to have a hypo-allergenic coat. For each breed in the running, the AKC offered a brief profile.

The Poodle closely beat out the less-popular Soft Coated Wheaten Terrier to become America's choice for the Obama family.

But, if Obama is elected, is it a good move for him to own a Poodle?

Let's face it, Poodles kind of have a bad rap. Ask most people what comes to mind when they hear "Poodle," and they're likely to say "snooty."

Not exactly the image Obama has been cultivating.

But are Poodles really snooty dogs? Or is this reputation due to unfair breed stereotyping and prejudice?

Standard Poodles were orignally bred for hunting. Far from a sissy task. And that silly show haircut? It was originally done to cover their essential joints and organs, while taking away excess hair that would hinder movement in the water. These are hearty, intelligent sporting dogs. Not a bad choice for a first dog.

Aside from the Standard size, which stands at at least 15 inches tall, the Poodle also comes in Miniature and Toy varieties. Honestly, I don't think choosing one of the smaller sizes would be good for the Obama family's image. Toy Poodles were mainly bred and kept to be trained to entertain. Who could take Obama seriously with a little Toy Poodle pirouetting at his feet?

No word from Obama as to whether he plans on taking the AKC poll's advice and selecting a Poodle, but if he does, let's hope the dog is standing by his side, not held under his arm.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Little Cavalier

Little Cavalier
Originally uploaded by speakdoglish
One of the great things about trying to come up with a logo idea for a client is that I might just hit upon something I like for myself.

This is one of those things. This little Cavalier was so cute, I decided to keep it. In fact, I like it so much that I think I might make a series out of it. I think they would make cute greeting cards or stationery. I've toyed around with the idea of developing a line of designs for a while, but never done anything about it. I did some research on getting a business license and starting a small business, but never had the motivation or the time to take my design products or services to the next level.

Today I applied for a business license and got a PayPal account. Next thing to do is register a domain name and start building a site for myself. Hopefully, if I can get things rolling quickly enough, I'll be able to send out some cards in time for Christmas and maybe get some orders.

Most of my drawings end up being Cavaliers, so I'm hoping that the Cavalier community will like them. I'm thinking Cavalier designs have a good chance of selling, because most Cavalier owners collect Cavalier items, and there aren't many Cavalier specialty items around. Not like this, anyway. I like keeping it cartoony, because Cavaliers are such happy and fun-loving little dogs.

I'm a little nervous and a lot excited. Whatever becomes of this, at least I'm doing something!

Saturday, September 6, 2008

Trying to maintain his cool demeanor

After my run today, I grabbed Alfie and Butter to accompany me on my cool-down walk. I've been trying to walk them more lately, hoping to get them back to the weights they were at before they came to live with me and became subject to our couch's gravitational pull. I also want to take them for walks to get them socialized and give them more confidence. Like me, if they stick around the house too much, they can get a little shy.

In Alfie's show days, when he lived with a large number of Cavaliers, he was the leader of the pack, the King of the Yard. Whenever I took him back to visit, I could tell that he had the respect of the other dogs. The amazing thing was that I never saw him use aggression to gain respect. He simply had a presence. A cool air of confidence.

About half way through our walk, I began to see him get that presence back. He held his head higher and picked up his pace. I might as well have had him on a show lead and been gaiting him around the ring, the way he was moving.

We rounded a corner near a woman kneeling next to her flower beds. Normally the dogs might shy away slightly, taken aback by an unexpected stranger. But they did well, kept their pace. Once we were around the corner, we began to walk past the house's yard, which was surrounded by chain-link fence. The first half of the fence is lined by dense bushes, which end abruptly at a vehicle gate, exposing the yard. My dogs trotted alongside me until we passed the bushes, when a black-and-tan chihuahua, seeing us through the chain link, immediately shot across the yard toward Alfie.

Alfie, seeing in his peripheral vision what must have resembled a bat out of hell, startled and charged forward on the lead, all but yelping with surprise. Upon seeing that the charging object was nothing but a yappy little dog contained by chain link, he glanced over his left and right shoulder, clearly thinking, "Bloody hell, I hope no one saw that."

He then clipped along, escorting Butter and I home, intermittently looking over his shoulder.