activities & sports
Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Pure joy with rhythm!
When people spend time with their dogs, doing fun activities together, it’s good for both of them, and good for the relationship. As long as they both enjoy what they are doing, just about any activity will serve. In the video below, Jose Fuentes and his dog Carrie, both from Chile, perform a Latin dance called the merengue. They are both having a ball as they dance to Wilfredo Vargas’ “El baile del perrito” (“The dance of the little dog”).
Yes, I know that many will have orthopedic concerns when watching a dog up on her hind legs for so long, but all I could focus on was how happy Carrie looked throughout the dance. She is having a great time, and has clearly been the beneficiary of a lot of training and quality time with the man in her life.
They’ve spread joy to a lot of people, as evidenced by the fact that this video has over 12 million hits on YouTube. What do you think of it?
Good Dog: Activities & Sports
Challenge your best friend physically and mentally and you’ll both reap the rewards
The covered dirt arena is teeming with dogs of all shapes, sizes and colors. In the bleachers, you see small gatherings of friends, family and curious onlookers. You close your eyes, take a deep breath and visualize your strategy as you and your dog wait for your turn in the ring.
The constant buzz of dogs yipping, handlers yapping and spectators oohing and aahing fades away as you open your eyes and refocus on your teammate. Her eyes gleam with excitement and she does a little play-bow at your feet. The gate steward gestures for you to enter the course as the team ahead of you races toward the finish.
You walk to the start line, ask your dog to sit and stay, then remove her leash. The judge signals that he is ready. You walk out past the first two bar jumps and turn and look back at your dog, who is quivering with anticipation. Your eyes meet and calmly, you say, “Okay.” She bounds over the jumps to you and together you dance among tunnels, weave poles, the towering A-frame, the teeter, the raised dog walk and many jumps in between. In 60 seconds or less, you experience the climactic thrill of agility: being one with your dog.
Navigating the Course
As you progress from one level to the next, you will face more obstacles, tougher SCTs and complex courses that require more handling strategy on your part. You will be timed either manually or electronically. Each competitive venue has a different method of scoring based on “faults,” such as knocking a bar on a jump, missing contact zone or going over time.
If you and your dog run the course cleanly, without a single mistake, you earn a “Q” or qualifying run. (At beginner levels, you are mercifully allowed a few faults). These “Qs” add up to titles, whose value are determined by the team that earned them. For top competitors, top performances and titles can lead to a berth in an invitation-only national or international event. For average participants, titles are concrete proof of the time and effort you and your dog put into becoming a team. For people with rescue dogs who had to overcome issues to play the game, titles are a badge of courage.
Sport Shifts Perceptions
Most importantly, agility gave us a relationship where none existed before. The dog who used to shrug off my touch and run in the opposite direction when I called now cuddles with me on the couch. The spark in her eye when she looks at me at class or on the start line at a trial makes me insanely happy. We are a team.
“Doing agility is a relationship-builder,” says instructor Barb Scalise, who owns Canine Care, Inc., in Bartlett, Illinois. “The journey as you both learn is just amazing.” She has trained in agility a variety of breeds, most of whom were adopted from rescue organizations. Years ago, she started with her first dog, a Dalmatian, followed by a Greyhound. Currently, she competes with a Pointer, a Vizsla and two Labs. Her oldest Lab, Mocha, is a 12-year-old rescue who twice earned the American Kennel Club’s top agility title, MACH (Master Agility Champion), and continues to actively compete.
In the Beginning
In 1985, Ken Tatsch was a CPA in private practice when he went to Crufts and saw agility for the first time. The following year, he founded the United States Dog Agility Association, Inc. (USDAA). Today, it is an international organization and boasts more than 25,000 registered competitors and more than 200 different breeds of dogs, including mixed breeds.
About the time Tatsch was organizing USDAA, fellow agility pioneer Charles “Bud” Kramer founded the National Club of Dog Agility, which was later adopted by the United Kennel Club (UKC). New venues soon followed suit, including the North American Dog Agility Council (NADAC), which promotes safety, and Canine Performance Events (CPE), for the more casual agility competitor. The Teacup Dogs Agility Association (TDAA) features scaled-down agility equipment for dogs measuring 16.5 inches and under at the withers. TDAA founder Bud Houston of Ostrander, Ohio, also created Just For Fun (JFF), which offers team play over the course of eight weeks, much like bowling leagues.
A Venue for Every Dog
Monica Percival, owner of Clean Run Productions LLC, and managing editor of Clean Run, a magazine devoted to agility, encourages prospective students to check out classes first before signing up. “Unfortunately, there aren’t enough quality trainers,” says Percival. “A lot of trainers just hang out their shingle because they saw it on TV or have an obedience school and agility pulls in a lot more money for training schools, so it’s very popular. I have seen some horrific things, like equipment that’s not safe.” Clean Run maintains an agility instructor/school directory on its website, www.cleanrun.com, which is a good starting point. (For more guidance on choosing a class, see “How to Choose an Agility Class.”)
Elise Paffrath of Vermont, founded her magazine, Dog & Handler, to emphasize that mixed breeds and shelter adoptees can excel in dog sports, too, if given the chance. As part of that mission, she only covers sports that are open to all dogs. Her own dogs—mixed-breed Scout and rescue Border Collie Spryte—are highly accomplished in agility. Inspired by her first agility dog, a mixed-breed named Breeze, Paffrath opened a full-time agility training business, Breeze Through Agility, and serves as a USDAA judge.
Staying the Course
A course that includes all of these obstacles is considered a “standard” or “regular” course. AKC offers a JWW (Jumpers with Weaves) class that only features jumps, tunnels and weaves, so it is very fast. NADAC’s “Jumpers” class is only jumps. USDAA offers fun strategy games like “Gamblers” and “Snooker” and pair relays. All courses are designed by a judge, and no matter how many trials you attend, you will never see the same course twice, even if you show under the same judge.
The judge’s role goes beyond course design. “Once the judge gets to the show, she must make sure that the course is set up correctly, and then she judges any faults incurred during the run,” says Elise Paffrath. “The judge is an observer, which is exhausting. In addition to travel [to the show site by car or plane], you’re on your feet all day, you have to keep things moving and there can be conflicts.”
Before your run, you have two ways to prepare your handling strategy. First, you can look at the course map, which shows you the location of each obstacle and how they are numbered. Second, you get a “walk-though” in which you and your fellow competitors walk the course. Sometimes it will differ slightly from what you read on the course map, so this is the time to review and/or rethink your strategy and memorize the course. Rather than try to remember it by number, it’s best to think of it in terms of obstacle sequences, such as “jump-jump-A-frame” to “tire-table-seesaw” and so on. (For more details about competition and the differences between venues, invest in a copy of Clean Run Production’s Competing in Agility: Entering Trials and What To Do When You Get There, by Cindy Buckholt. You can also check out the websites of each organization for rules, registration questions and more; see “Resources.”).
Old Dogs, New Tricks
Some pieces of equipment require more time and effort than others. For example, teaching the teeter-totter is a step-by-step process. First, encourage your dog to get used to movement under his feet by walking on a square wobble board on top of a small ball. Second, teach your dog rear-end awareness by walking him through the rungs of a horizontal mini-ladder on the ground—most dogs do not need to think about the position of their back legs, as they normally just follow the front legs. Third, slowly lead your dog across a long, narrow board flat on the ground so that all four paws walk the plank. You can raise the height of this board gradually as the dog’s confidence grows.
While your dog is learning the obstacles, your job is to learn handling skills so you can guide her from one obstacle to another. When you’re learning a new handling maneuver, it’s best to practice running without your dog and imagine her moving with you. That way, you can make many mistakes without punishing your dog with constant repetition.
“There is an art to handling,” says Bud Houston, who is a retired AKC judge and currently judges for USDAA and the Teacup Dogs Agility Association when not teaching with his wife at Dogwood Training Center in Ohio. “The [team aspect] is one of the overlooked elements of our game. Some people consider the dog to be 95 percent of the team. When you bring a young dog into the house, within months, the dog understands how you move. The same ‘laws of motion’ are applicable to agility. You must interpret how your dog interprets your movement. A lot of dogs do what I call ‘compensatory learning.’ Even though you might err in your movement, the dog is clever enough to figure out what you want of him.”
In general, our body language overrules verbal commands, so if you say, “A-frame” but your shoulders and outstretched hand face the direction of a tunnel, guess where your dog will go? (Editor’s note: See Patricia McConnell’s column for more on this subject.) The more seasoned the dog, the more weight he will give to verbal commands as your body moves ahead or laterally to prepare for the next obstacle.
Awareness of your own body cues and how to best communicate with your dog keep you thinking on your feet. Some people run their hands in their pockets to be more aware of their shoulders. Other people run “silently,” that is, without uttering a word, so as to pay more attention to their body. Often, they are amazed at how well their dog performs by reading just their body language. Patricia McConnell’s invaluable book, The Other End of the Leash, gives more insight into how we can better communicate with our dogs, both at home and on the agility field.
Donna Rock of Lacombe, Louisiana, was born without arms, and competes at the highest levels of agility with her Dobermans Annie and Quincy, using her shoulders and verbal commands to guide them. The sport appealed to her because anybody can do it. “I’m handicapped and yet I can still compete,” says Rock. “Young, old, fat, thin, abled, disabled—it doesn’t matter. It’s all about being the best you can be and doing it in a way that works for you and your dog.”
Wheelchair competitors also find success at agility classes or trials. Judy Guillot of Arizona was a stabbing victim at age 11, and in recent years, lost the use of her legs. When she saw agility on television, it didn’t even occur to her to question whether or not she could participate. “I would not be the person I am today if [the accident] had not happened,” says Guillot. “I have learned to adapt. That’s how I get that can-do attitude.” Now 58 years old, she and husband Dave play agility with five of their six toy fox terriers, stay active with their training club, and enjoy practicing and competing whenever they can.
Training Leads to Insights
Spending extra time training your dog will teach you a lot about her personality as well as strengthen the bond between you. What motivates her most: toys, praise, food or a combination? If it’s toys, does she prefer tennis balls, squeaky stuffed animals or fleece tugs? If it’s food, does she favor dehydrated liver pieces or bits of string cheese? Is she so eager to please that an enthusiastic “Good dog!” will do? Getting to know your dog, which includes observing her physical structure and how she moves, is essential.
Lynn Sykes of North Carolina and her 14-year-old daughter, Bonnie, both do agility, which has strengthened their mother–daughter bond as well as their relationships with their respective dogs.
“Bonnie’s Sheltie is a rescue and very high strung,” says Sykes. “She’s come a long way … Agility has given my daughter a lot of confidence and taught her to finally trust her dog and to be happy with the effort of the dog. I’m proud she’s stuck it out with a difficult first dog that many people had written off. Agility has helped them both. We do other dog [activities] as well, and I’m hoping that dog sports keep her from the drugs and other horrors that waylay kids.”
The physical activity certainly promotes a healthier lifestyle. Dr. Heidi Loganbill, a neurologist in private practice in Oregon, was working extremely long hours when she and her husband decided to get a Standard Poodle puppy, Pogo. “I couldn’t make myself leave work for myself but I could for my dog,” says Loganbill. “We started doing agility and I couldn’t stand to have lots of people watch me run my dog when I was fat. I was 5’ 2” and weighed 215 pounds.” Over the next several years, she lost more than 80 pounds. She and her husband now have two more Standard Poodles, Winnie and 6-monthold Gabriel, who her keep fit.
Staying active with his rescue Australian Shepherd, Mystic, literally saved the life of Alan Silvey of Florida. In 2004, he had a heart attack toward the end of a run at a trial. “The doctor said if I hadn’t been training and running [Mystic], I wouldn’t have been alive,” says Silvey. “My main heart valve was mostly closed up, but agility kept it all flowing.” Having saved Mystic from a shelter, Silvey says it’s only fitting that Mystic saved his life in return. He says the experience taught him that while titles are nice, just being able to run with his dog and walk off the course on his own two feet are what matter most.
No matter what your motivation, agility is a dynamic sport worth trying. The benefits for both you and your dog are endless, and you might be surprised at the sheer joy of the journey.
HOW TO CHOOSE AN AGILITY CLASS
The environment. When you enter the training facility—whether it’s a snazzy indoor training school or a fenced-off grassy field—take a look around. Is the equipment in good shape? What kind of flooring is used? Barb remembers the early days when she was first learning the sport and everyone trained their dogs on a cement floor covered with mats, which can take a toll on a dog’s joints. Today, artificial turf or thick rubber matting made especially for performance sports help ensure that you and your dog will be able to participate for years to come.
The instructor. Even if you know nothing about agility, you will have a gut reaction to what you see. If the instructor yells or students look stressed or frustrated, obviously no one is having fun. Look for an instructor who communicates well with the students and gives equal attention to each dog/handler team.
The dogs. How many dogs are in the class? Is there a lot of down time? How many often does each dog get a turn? Is safety stressed by the instructor? You don’t want a beginning or “green” dog to jump full height or go over obstacles like the A-frame or dog walk at full height. Also, only one dog should be off-leash at a time, even at the most advanced levels.
The dog walk is a raised, narrow plank that the dog must cross as quickly as possible without sacrificing safety or missing the contact zone on the exit ramp.
The pause table—a raised square table upon which the dog must do a sit-stay or a down-stay while the judge counts to five—looks deceptively easy. It is. The difficulty lies in the dog being still after racing around the course. Handlers sometimes anticipate the judge’s count and release their dog from the table too soon. The dog must then assume the sit or down position again and the judge restarts the count.
The teeter-totter or seesaw is difficult to master because the dog must walk across a moving narrow plank, tip it and hit the contact zone at the end before leaving the obstacle. The strange movement and the noise of the teeter banging on the ground can scare a dog, so it’s extremely important to be patient and follow your trainer’s instructions.
There are two different kinds of tunnels. The open tunnel is a tube through which the dog runs as fast as possible. The closed tunnel, or chute, looks like a giant wind sock. The dog must run through it in order to push up the material and exit. The “sock” of the chute should be straightened after every use to ensure the next dog that goes through doesn’t get wrapped up in the fabric.
The weave poles are challenging for dogs to learn because the weaving motion is unnatural to them. Twelve upright poles, each attached to a heavy steel base, are set out in a row. The dog must enter between the first pole and second pole from the right side, then fluidly step or hop between each pole to the end. Clean Run sanctions the “Ultimate Weave Pole Challenge,” in which the dog completes 60 weave poles.
Good Dog: Behavior & Training
Okay to play tug?
Strong opinions exist about the “Do nots” of playing with dogs. I agree with only some of these prohibitions.
I do stand by the ban on rough-and-tumble wrestle play and the teasing that often accompanies it. Though this form of play can be fun, the high emotional arousal that results often leads to a lack of inhibition, and that’s when trouble can happen, even to nice dogs and to nice people. Many actions of play are also used in serious fights and predation. These can create real danger when you (or your nephew or the little girl who lives next door) are down on the ground with your face next to an excited predator with dangerous weapons in her mouth. Serious bites could happen someday, even if she’s never bitten. All too often, I’ve seen shocked and devastated families crying in my office, and I don’t want it to happen to anyone else.
I’m also opposed to people chasing dogs, preferring to let dogs chase people instead. If you play by chasing your dog, you risk teaching her that moving toward her means the game is afoot, making her more likely to run away even when you approach her for another reason. This can ruin your dog’s recall. It can also lead to injury if your dog charges away from you into the street or other unsafe area. There’s no denying that letting a person chase a dog can be a great reinforcement for the dog, but I only approve this game for dogs who are so well-trained that the person can stop the game at any time and successfully call the dog to come.
I disagree with the following play advice:
Don’t mix training and play. Yes, do! It’s actually great to incorporate play into training sessions. The best training occurs when the dog views an activity as a game rather than a lesson. Using chase games to teach recalls, playing follow to build a base for heeling, using tug to practice “take it” and “drop it,” and practicing stays with “find it” games or hideand- seek are all great ways to blend training and play. Additionally, play is reinforcing, so playing with your dog may be better than the best treat.
Only young dogs need to play. No, not true! A small percentage of animal species play at all, and even fewer play beyond childhood. Dogs and people remain playful into adulthood, which may partially explain why we’ve been best friends for thousands of years. Many older dogs stop playing only because they no longer have buddies to play with. Keep playing with your dog well into old age. It’s part of what makes them dogs and us human!
Don’t play tug. Most importantly, I disagree with this prohibition (at least for most dogs). Many people advise against tug, which is a shame because so many dogs adore it. Tug is a great game, and dogs can learn a lot from playing it. Many trainers share this view and actually teach tug in puppy classes. The earlier dogs learn the lessons that tug has to offer such as impulse control, mouth control and cooperation as well as skills like “take it” and “drop it,” the safer and more fun the game becomes.
For a long time, many experts advised against playing tug for fear that it would create or increase aggressiveness in dogs. Later, tug was considered fine for most dogs as long as they were not allowed to “win” by keeping the toy at the end. The concern was that it would have bad consequences for her to feel she had just triumphed over the person.
A scientific study by Rooney and Bradshaw addressed this issue. They found that “winning” the toy in a game of tug had no impact on the relationship of the human-dog pair. Based on their research, though, we should still be thoughtful about letting certain dogs keep the toy after a tug game. The most playful dogs in the study exhibited significantly higher amounts of playful attention-seeking behavior when they were allowed to “win.” Therefore, it may be better not to allow those dogs who become relentlessly pushy about seeking more play time to “win” at tug.
Of course, for a few dogs, tug is a bad idea. Dogs who are prone to aggression induced by high arousal are not good candidates for it. The same warning applies to dogs with poor bite inhibition or poor self-control as well as those who tend to creep up the toy with their mouths during tug. Additionally, it may exacerbate object-guarding behavior in dogs who already exhibit it.
For most dogs, tug has many benefits. It is interactive and requires cooperation between humans and dogs. It can give dogs exercise and help them stretch their bodies prior to other activities such as running or agility. Tug can effectively rev up an agility dog for maximum success on the course. It helps many dogs learn better mouth control in general.
With so many “Do nots” out there in the world of play, the most important may be this: “Do not spend so much time worrying about playing with your dog that you don’t have time to actually play with her.”
Dog's Life: Lifestyle
A handicapped dog negotiates obstacles with his nose
Navigating an agility course isn’t easy, so it would seem impossible for a dog who can’t see or hear. But there’s one pup in Texas who is proving everyone wrong.
Charlie is from a litter of deaf and blind puppies who were slated to be euthanized at a Texas shelter. Tara Stermer, a local trainer, and her friend, Carol Knight, took in Charlie, the mom, and two of the other puppies. Tara and Carol have been doing basic obedience and rescue event demos with the dogs, but were looking for new ways to provide enrichment.
At the suggestion of a friend who works with deaf and blind adults, Tara started teaching Charlie to negotiate agility obstacles with his nose. It may seem crazy, but Tara believes that training blind dogs to differentiate obstacles by smell isn’t so dissimilar from teaching a seeing dog to track.
Each obstacle is assigned a different scent so that Charlie can use his nose to anticipate what obstacle is coming up. So far Charlie has learned to go over a small jump and weave through poles.
Tara isn’t aware of anyone else doing agility by scent, so it’s still a work in progress. She may incorporate textures since scent varies with wind and other weather conditions.
Unfortunately, dogs with disabilities are often the first to be euthanized at shelters. But Tara has found that their handicap doesn’t hinder their learning curve. These dogs don’t realize that they’re different and can be trained with operant conditioning just like any other dog.
Charlie is an inspiration who will hopefully encourage people not to give up on these special dogs. Truly anything is possible!
Check out the Training By Tara Facebook page to follow Charlie's journey.
Good Dog: Activities & Sports
Paddling white water with a dog at the helm.
With the rhythmic stroke of our paddles, we leave the city of Glenwood Springs, Colo., behind and continue our float down the famed Colorado River. Ahead, a trio of herons stands at the water’s edge on a small grassy island that sits mid-river, temporarily dividing the Colorado in two.We paddle for the channel on the right, hoping we’ve made the correct choice.As we enter the channel—well past the point of no return —we’re confronted by a big rapid and tall waves.
Pointing our kayak resolutely downriver, we paddle hard into the rapid. Two waves crash over the bow, soaking Kelli (my wife), Altai (our dog) and me. The cold water is a momentary shock to our systems.We’re drenched, but we make it through, exiting into calmer water below the rapid. Altai turns around to look at me, a shocked expression on his face, and seems to be thinking, What was that? Kelli and I, for our part, are elated. This is what whitewater rafting is all about.
Eight months earlier, Kelli and I had adopted Altai as a twomonth- old puppy from a local shelter.His name, which means “golden mountain,” was both a reflection of his coloring and the embodiment of our wishes for what he would become as a fullgrown dog. Kelli and I are passionate outdoor adventurers, and we hoped that Altai would become our companion in the mountains— hiking, climbing, camping, snowshoeing. Early on, he proved to be a more-than-able adventurer, romping in the snow, hiking on trails and scrambling over rocks to lofty summits. But when whitewater rafting season came around, Kelli and I had concerns. Could we safely take him with us? Could we merge our passion for river adventure with our newfound responsibilities of puppy parenthood?
I scoured the rivers of Colorado for an appropriate whitewater run, and ultimately settled on a 15-mile stretch of the Colorado River on the state’s Western Slope, starting in Glenwood Canyon, running past the town of Glenwood Springs and finishing humbly at a pullout along Interstate 70 known as Tibbet’s Takeout. I chose the route for its scenic beauty—it is a transitional landscape, in which the evergreens and high summits of the Rockies slowly give way to the sagebrush and red rock of Utah’s canyon country—and also for its whitewater. Predominantly Class II with a series of Class III rapids thrown into the mix, it would offer Altai an introduction to whitewater rafting that wouldn’t scare him off the river for life, but would still give us a challenge and excitement.
In the weeks leading up to our planned adventure, a photograph I found on the Internet became our inspiration.Taken on a stretch of Arizona’s Upper Salt River, the photo showed a solo whitewater rafter using a pair of oars in oarlocks to navigate his raft through a tumultuous, foaming rapid. In the bow of the boat, his yellow Lab stood smiling into the spray.With any luck, Kelli, Altai and I would be doing much the same thing, or having at least as much fun.
The Big Day
Accompanied by Altai—properly attired in his flotation jacket—Kelli and I walk the kayak down to the water’s edge. More than a dozen other rafts are lined up, with commercial guides and literal boatloads of paying clients ready to give it a go on the river. Altai is the only dog, and he gets lots of smiles as I strap our food, water and camera into the back of the boat. The Colorado is running swift and brown, and the rock walls of the canyon soar above us.
Kelli settles into the bow of the boat, Altai follows, and I push us off into the river’s main current. Altai’s ears are down, and he’s clearly not sure about this new activity. The inflated gunwales of the boat flex under his feet as he tries to walk around,and he struggles to hold himself steady.We float downstream, and slowly but surely,Altai gets his river legs under him.As his comfort and confidence grow, so does the smile we’ve come to know so well, and he shows an endless curiosity about the canyon around us and the water surrounding him on all sides.
Before long,we tackle a series of straightforward rapids.Altai, who has been sitting in the bow in front of Kelli, comes back to sit between my legs; he seems to feel safer when sandwiched between us.
Then we face our first challenging Class III rapid of the day. We enter the rapid on river-right between two large boulders jutting out of the water.As the accelerating current pulls us into the rapid, a third large rock looms dead ahead. “Back-paddle right!” I yell to Kelli. Together, we quickly reverse our paddle strokes, which has the combined effect of halting our progress toward the boulder straight ahead of us and swinging the back of our kayak around so that we execute a 360-degree spin, exiting the rapid without touching a single rock. Both of us share the excitement and satisfaction of cleanly navigating our first major rapid.
By now, Altai, for his part, is learning to read the river. During calmer stretches between the rapids, he is alert, looking around at the canyon. But when he hears the subtle roar of approaching whitewater, he drops his center of gravity and braces against the gunwale.
So continues our whitewater adventure.We follow a bend in the river oxymoronically dubbed No Name. As the river continues its westward march, the canyon slowly recedes, and the canyon walls are replaced by the hot springs for which the town of Glenwood Springs is famous. There’s a pungent smell of sulfur, and the riverbank is streaked yellow and green with the mineral deposits from the springs. Amazingly, despite the busloads of commercial river trips driving up I-70 to the Grizzly Creek put-in, we have the river to ourselves.
As we float into the heart of downtown Glenwood Springs, the red ramparts of Elk Mountain loom over us.We pass an Amtrak station, and then a large Petco store.At the confluence of the Colorado and the Roaring Fork River, which flows down from Aspen, the river grows considerably. It’s wide and gentle here, and we beach our kayak among willows on the shoreline to eat lunch before resuming our journey.
Back on the water, we pass the island with herons and the rapid alongside, and then face South Canyon Rapid, the biggest of the day. Our guidebook describes it as a giant wave train, and recommends tackling the rapid straight on and “staying at the top of the food chain.”With Altai fully comfortable on the river now, we paddle hard into the rapid. It’s like a wet roller coaster as we go up and over each successive wave.
With the South Canyon Rapid behind us, the river relaxes considerably, and the three of us kick back to enjoy the view. Just before Tibbet’s Takeout, we navigate one final rapid, Dinosaur Hole, named for a nearby quarry where fossils were discovered. Soon, though, we’re on the beach at Tibbet’s, soaking up the warm early-afternoon sunlight. Altai lies down as Kelli and I deflate the kayak and pack up our gear. I glance over and see him smiling, and I know there’s a river dog somewhere back in his bloodline.
Good Dog: Behavior & Training
Play by the numbers
The popularity of Dog Perignon Champagne plush toys, Hairy Winston squeak toys, and the chewable Dolce and Grrrbana designer shoes is a sign that the market for dog toys has exploded in recent years. Choosing toys can be daunting—the good ones need to be safe, fun and last a reasonable amount of time, but they shouldn’t be outrageously priced or so painful when stepped on in the middle of the night by bare feet that we lose our PG rating. Here are a few that I feel meet all of the above requirements.
1. Intellitoys. Dogs learn when they play, and some toys, such as the Intellicube and the Intellibone, are designed specifically with canine education in mind. Dogs can spend hours happily playing with the removable parts, learning to use mouths, paws and noses to manipulate objects.
2. Jackpot Chipmunk. Another educational favorite, this toy has a Velcro® closure pocket containing a plush-covered squeaker. Dogs can learn to open the pocket to get the squeaker, or the pocket can be used to store treats. My dog Bugsy, whom I lovingly describe as a couple of ants short of a picnic, finally learned to fetch with this method. He dutifully brought the toy, which he probably thought was a dog-proof cookie jar, back to me so that he could be paid in liver biscotti for his hard work.
3. Kong. If a household has only a single dog toy, it’s likely to be from the Kong line. These almost indestructible hollow toys can be filled with almost any kind of food, including treats such as cheese, peanut butter, cream cheese or biscuits, which the dog will then spend enormous amounts of time removing.Many dogs who are not toy-motivated learn to love them after experiencing the Kong.
4. Ball. A lot of dogs get over-the-top excited about fetching tennis balls, and anybody whose dog loves them to the point of distraction (literally!) should pause to be grateful, because never was there a less expensive, versatile, goodfor- us, good-for-them toy. If you’re inhibited by the prospect of handling a slimy ball, get a Chuckit, a plastic tool that you can use to scoop up and toss the ball without ever touching it.
5. Flying Disc. Fetch games with flying discs are even more fun and exciting to many dogs than fetching balls. The Flying Squirrel and the Hurl-a-Squirrel are both popular with the canine set. The Soft Bite Floppy Disc floats in water and has hot pink edges, which make it easy to locate after an errant throw (note the voice of experience here).Regular flying discs can injure dogs’ teeth, which is why I recommend these kinder, gentler types.
6. Donkey Tail Tug Toy. Though a knotted rope will suffice, the Donkey Tail— a long, stretchy braid of fleece—is even better for tug games. Plus, it’s made of material that doesn’t get as slimy as most tug toys or become as strongly redolent of eau de dog breath.
7. Egg Babies. These plush toys, which come in forms such as dinosaur, duck, hedgehog or platypus, have three removable squeaky “eggs” hidden inside a pouch. Dogs can pull the eggs out through the elasticized opening, which is fun for those who love to search for and find treasures. The eggs are just a little bit bigger than tennis balls, and as a huge bonus, replacement three-packs are available.
8. Booda Rip ’Ems. These are “If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em” toys.Dogs love to rip things apart, and Booda Rip ’Ems are actually designed for it. Their pieces are attached with Velcro® and can be reattached in a variety of ways. Many dogs love the ripping sound the Velcro® makes as much as the feeling of pulling the toy apart. The shapes include tigers, beach balls and watermelons.
9. The Critter. Lest we forget that our furry friends are predators, and superb ones at that, their toy choices remind us. Plush toys to rip apart and squeaky toys to pounce on are prized by most dogs. For the more discriminating predator, consider The Critter, which is essentially a faux fur–covered tennis ball with a faux fur tail attached. It is rare to make the acquaintance of a dog who does not go wild over it.
The main purpose of dog toys is not to give us a peaceful moment in which to read the paper and have a cup of coffee (although if you’ve used them this way, join the club). Rather, their function is to enhance play, which is a critical and often ignored part of canine behavior. And just as the best children’s books can be enjoyed by adults and children reading together, the best dog toys can be enjoyed by people and dogs playing together.
Good Dog: Activities & Sports
Program transcends the sport to improve kids' lives
Blond fur flying gracefully, Lizzie the Golden Retriever leaps through the tire jump, scurries through the first tunnel and times her bar jump perfectly. Then, rounding the corner, she scampers past the second tunnel.
“Lizzie, this way!” directs her handler, circling her arm toward the tunnel entrance. Lizzie watches, wags and then seems to make a decision: she dashes gleefully toward the trees. Everyone on the course laughs.
Normally, this behavior on an agility course would earn major faults, but here, it’s all part of the fun—and the therapy.
Lizzie is a participant in Abilities Through Agility, a unique program that combines kids, therapy dogs and an agility course to help the children achieve their physical, occupational (focused on improving motor functions and everday activities/interactions) and speech-therapy goals.
The program began over a picnic table at the dog park, a brainstorm shared by Anne Bates, a physical therapist at ChildServe (childserve.org), the rehabilitative-services facility in Johnston, Iowa, where the program takes place, and Nicole Shumate, founder of Paws & Effect (paws-effect.org), a nonprofit that trains therapy and service dogs. Shumate, who had seen a television program that featured an autistic boy and his dog participating in agility trials, imagined starting a similar program. Bates agreed, but wondered, “Do we have to limit it to autism?”
In January 2007, they launched Abilities Through Agility (ATA) with just four children. Now, the program has grown to four sessions each week, serving kids with severe injuries as well as degenerative, developmental, chromosomal and other disorders.
With three children, three therapists, two to three dogs and their handlers, three rehab techs, and a few parents in attendance, the sessions are “exercises in controlled chaos,” according to Bates. “It’s structured, but that structure’s hidden underneath.” In this setting, agility obstacles mask sometimes mundane or frustrating therapy obstacles, and the dogs motivate the children to overcome them.
This session starts with setting up the jumps, which requires physical and occupational skills. Alex, a 14-year-old with purple- and blue-streaked hair, wheels the uprights down the sidewalk in her wheelchair. “You’ll have to use your muscles,” says her therapist.
“I left ’em at home, sorry!” calls Alex.
Alex, who has Ataxia-telangiectasia (A-T), a rare genetic neurodegenerative disease, doesn’t actually mind the difficult task of transporting and handing off the uprights. She’s motivated to set up so that she can direct a dog through the course. “Kids are more likely to do things for the dogs than probably anyone else,” says Alex’s father, Greg Champion.
“You don’t notice you are actually working as much,” adds Alex.
Part of the program consists of the participants simply keeping up with their four-legged therapists as they dash through the course. While some run alongside their dogs, Alex pushes herself down the sidewalk that cuts through the course. At one point, Finn, her Soft Coated Wheaten Terrier partner, scampers to the top of the dogwalk, then half-turns to check on Alex’s progress. Seeing her far behind, Finn freezes, and Alex shakes her head and laughs as she propels herself toward him.
When it’s Kylie’s turn to run with Finn, she must first unhook the leash from his collar—a difficult maneuver. Kylie, Finn’s handler and the therapist all lean toward his curly neck as Kylie releases the latch. Then, the normally quiet 10-year-old girl sends Finn through the tire triumphantly—“Jump, Finn!”—punctuating the command with a thrust of her arm.
The children’s physical cues, whether pointing or arm motions, help them progress toward, and sometimes showcase the achievement of, their occupational therapy goals, as does rewarding the dogs; working a treat from palm to fingertips increases dexterity. Petting the dogs, one of the simple joys of human/canine interaction, also promotes dexterousness.
The kids clearly demonstrate their speech therapy work through the commands that ring out in conjunction with the physical cues—“Jump! Tunnel! Up! This way!”—. “They have to speak loudly and with authority for the dogs to respond,” says Champion.
As Lizzie did during her unscheduled frolic break, the dogs sometimes add to the speech-therapy load by misbehaving (“No! Come back, Lizzie!”). “I don’t care,” says Bates of the canine naughtiness. “I’m not looking for the most obedient dogs. From a speech perspective, [the kids] have to learn to re-ask—the appropriate way to get [the dogs’] attention.”
Therapists capitalize on surprises and routine tasks alike to incorporate the agility course into the kids’ overall therapy goals. Even the dogs’ well-deserved water break provides the children with opportunities to develop their skills and abilities; they have to manipulate water-bottle caps and squeeze hard to fill the bowls. The children seem proud to be able to offer their special partners a cool drink.
In addition to ATA, ChildServe offers other animal-assisted therapy, such as animal interactions during individual therapy sessions, as well as animal-assisted activity, like visits from a dog to a patient’s room. These interactions occur sporadically, though, while ATA pairs meet weekly to develop the bond between child and dog. The first 10 weeks a pair works together can be hectic, as each learns the other’s cues and capabilities. “But eventually … it clicks, and the dog starts listening to the child versus the handler,” says Bates.
Alex and her regular dog, Blue, have clearly clicked; when Bates tells her that Blue will be back in January, Alex breaks out in a huge smile. Blue, who sustained a back injury, was temporarily absent from the program and Alex had been sharing both Lizzie and Finn with the kids in her session.
“Kids know their dogs,” says Bates.
Kylie’s reaction to Finn’s no-show at the beginning of the session illuminates the strength of the bond they’ve developed over two years. “Where’s Finn?” she worries. Told he’ll probably come soon, she asks over and over, “But when?” When Finn arrives, Kylie brightens immediately, calling his name as she runs to him. She sinks her hands into his wavy fur and lovingly strokes his back.
“It’s a special bond,” says Champion of the connection between the child handlers and “their” dogs. His older daughter, Paige, who also has A-T and participated in ATA, connected so deeply with her dog Jessie that the yellow Labrador appears with her in her senior pictures.
These bonds allow the dogs to adapt and listen to handlers who aren’t their caregivers. “Dogs can adapt to just about anything in life. The bond will grow simply because the dog is having fun with the handler,” explains Pia Silvani, a well-known certified dog trainer.
Thanks to the bonds forged by teamwork and the clever strategies employed in these group agility sessions, the children reach their goals.At that point, they graduate from the program, leaving space for new members. However, kids can’t graduate fast enough to meet demand. The program currently serves 12 children, with 10 more on the waiting list. “It could be a few years,” says Bates. “We’d love to have a group every night, but we have to have the dogs.”
Bates leans on Shumate at Paws & Effect to recruit both volunteers and dogs. On her part, Shumate hopes to obtain corporate sponsorships to offset the cost of agility- and therapy-dog training classes for potential volunteers. She would also like to expand the program to another arena: the Special Olympics. “[Her idea] is that the kids will use agility through their lives, and have it be their sport,” says Bates.
Regardless of the venue, when these dogs and children appear on the agility course, the focus won’t be on times, faults or medals. As the teams conquer the course, they’re really overcoming the real-life challenges the children face. Improvement in the young handlers’ abilities and the loving bonds that develop between them and their canine therapists are part and parcel of their success.
Dog's Life: Travel
Doggie adventures on and off the the slopes.
We were overdue for a vacation when my fourth-grader pleaded that we go away for Thanksgiving break.“Anywhere. Even somewhere cold,” Jacob tendered as a concession, knowing that our Dalmatian, Sketch, and I preferred brisk air, whereas he, a southern California native, tended to chill when the mercury dipped below 70. I had barely felt like getting out of bed, let alone town, since the blistering day months earlier that JP, Sketch’s father, shed his last hair in the parking lot of a Palm Springs veterinary clinic.
In the three years since I’d adopted Jacob, he had grown to love my dogs, and especially JP, almost as much as I did. “I miss him, too. But he’s gone,” he said in the resilient tenor of a boy who had endured more heartache in his 10 years than I in my 40.“Far away.”He looked up to the heavens, and I realized that it was not only grief that had numbed my nomadic nature, but also guilt at the thought of leaving behind the spirit of my spotted traveling companion of 14 years.
* * * * *
Heavy flurries were blanketing the mountainside’s majestic evergreens and slender, white-barked poplars when we arrived in Aspen, Colo., a getaway our family had always found to be welcoming to dogs and kids—and surprisingly affordable for passers-through—despite its ritzy reputation. Sketch bounded out of the car and over a snow bank to greet an elderly Schnauzer,who was exiting the lobby of our hotel, the Limelight Lodge, and nipping at the soft flakes falling all around her. She made an obliging,wobbly effort at meeting Sketch’s playful advances lunge-for-lunge. “Getting old is tough on them,” said her owner, a young-looking, middle-aged woman, wincing at the obvious discomfort the activity caused her pet.
Tougher on us humans, I thought.Sketch still had the temperament and energy of a puppy, and was seemingly not prone to his breed’s hip dysplasia or hyperthyroid conditions. But he was going on nine, and I was determined that he would be the third and last dog I would love … and outlive.
* * * * *
The following morning dawned bright and frosty, and Jacob’s and my sights were set on the powdery slopes. There was no shortage of dog-walkers-for-hire or canine activities at Sketch’s disposal— dog trails, off-leash parks, dog-watching in the pedestrian mall, even an après-ski wine-and-cheese “yappy hour” for dogs and their people at a neighborhood tavern— but I was intrigued by the hotel manager’s recommendation of a day of pampering at Aspen Wags to Riches. The proceeds of the pet salon sustain its adjacent no-kill shelter, which rescues dogs and cats from around the country.
We were greeted by Bo, the shelter’s cheerful, 13-year-old mascot, a retired sled dog. One of his floppy ears stood straight up and he sniffed the air, but he appeared otherwise indifferent to Sketch’s faux alpha posturing and close inspection of his stomping ground, particularly the glass-walled cat room in the reception area. The latter is a zoo-like haven that houses a dozen or so adoptable felines, some playing with toys or comrades, others napping on lush cat beds or window seats … and all, like Bo, unfazed by our assertive dog’s probing nose.
* * * * *
Seth, the shelter’s director, gave us a tour of the facilities and suggested that we take one of the many itinerant (and immaculately groomed) dogs for a walk along the hillside that flanked the play yard while Sketch was introduced to the pack. The shelter encourages prospective adopters—as well as local volunteers, and even visitors who needed a dog-fix—to check residents out of the kennel for leisure time. Jacob chose Lola, a very old Malamute/Lab mix. She was timid, but her eyes twinkled as hopefully as those of her mates.
Once outside, Lola eagerly led us up a steep, unshoveled path. Like Bo, she had worked many thankless years as a sled dog, hauling tourists across the snow, but still had a zest for life on the mountain. She took in the cold, thin air with a more grateful and less winded pant than ours, all the while casting proud glances back down at the fenced-in dogs.Among them was our youthful Sketch, as content in his captivity as Lola was in her few moments of independence.
* * * * *
Later, on Snowmass Mountain, we soared for several petrifying minutes down the practically vertical,double-black-diamond trail that I’d inadvertently steered us to …off the more apt, blue-square intermediate route.
“Yes!” Jacob shouted, as he came to an impressive parallel stop. “We’re alive!” He thrust a clenched fist into the air, exhilarated by his newfound ability.
“For now,” I said tentatively.We were at a fork that would allow us to veer onto a single-black-diamond slope, which I prayed would lead us to a beginner’s green circle!
“Now is all that matters,” he whispered to himself invincibly, propelling his skis toward the white abyss. “Don’t worry. Just…I don’t know…try to think like a dog or something,” he said to me.
Okay…now! I gathered my wits, and plunged.
“But later,” he called back. “Can we adopt one of those old dogs?”
Maybe, I thought.
Dog's Life: Lifestyle
The ways my pets have inspired me to try new things
When I wrote about the ways my dogs have helped me connect with other pet lovers, it made me think about how many experiences in my life that I have my pets to thank for.
The first time I drove a car by myself was to go to a pet first aid class at a local community college. The first time I used a power tool was to attach jump cup strips to my agility jumps. And the first time I finished an official race, I had Nemo to thank for running every step of the way with me. Sense a trend?
My dogs have inspired me to learn new things and embark on adventures that enrich our lives together. Studies have shown that dog lovers are more active than the average person, but I think that our relationship with our pups extends beyond increased physical activity. My dogs give me unconditional love and I want to be the best person I can be for them.
Does your dog inspire you to learn new skills or test the limits of your abilities?
News: Guest Posts
It started with hand-beaded dog collars
A funny thing about being a writer is that some assignments become part of your life. Seven years ago, I wrote about a community-based micro-enterprise program called BEADS (Beads for Education, Advancement, Development and Success) that was helping Maasai mothers in Kenya sell hand-beaded dog collars in the United States as a way to pay for their daughters’ tuition. (“Good Deeds with Beads,” Bark, Winter 2004).
Without education, many Maasai girls end up in arranged marriages as the second or third wife of an older man, expected to have many children—neither able to provide education for their own daughters nor improve the family’s standard of living. Even a high school education can break this cycle.
The beautiful patterned collars are what first captured my interest (I still love the one I bought—they make great gifts), but after talking with BEADS cofounder Debby Rooney, I became interested in doing more to support the program’s education goals through direct sponsorship.
My husband and I began paying school fees for a third grader named Lynn. At the time, BEADS sponsors were covering tuition for 127 students, most of whom were the first girls in their family to attend school. Today, more than 320 are sponsored, and Lynn will enter ninth grade in January.
On Friday, I am leaving for a trip to Africa, which will include nearly two weeks in Isinya, Kenya, where Lynn lives and attends school with many other BEADS-sponsored girls. It is also where BEADS is in the process of building its own high school (more on that, when I return).
My sister Whitney will be joining me and, along with Debby Rooney and Rukia Kadidi, who was the first BEADS college graduate and now manages the program, we will celebrate the eighth grade graduation, lead journaling, writing and reading classes for 40 girls, help build a traditional Maasai hut on the grounds of the future school and much more. I will also have my first chance to meet Lynn and her family, and offer in person my congratulations for her accomplishments so far.
I’m happy to have been given an opportunity to support the work of BEADS—first with a collar, then a sponsorship and, now, in person. I look forward to sharing a few stories when I return.
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