Milo the AwesomeDog on the Lake Huron shore

Milo and I concur: MacGregor Point Provincial Park remains a fabulous place for camping with dogs. We started our camping season with a week-long trip to Ontario’s West Coast, the Lake Huron shore. MacGregor’s Algonquin campground has quiet, private sites nestled in a lush cedar forest. In addition to ample hiking, the park includes an expansive natural shoreline with lots of room for your canine companion to enjoy a swim. I suspect this is Milo’s favorite place to visit!

FYI, we stayed in campsite #67–a level, pull-through site with electricity, a firepit, and a picnic table.

smiling German shepherd looking right into the camera.

“I love you, Mom. Can we swim now?”

German shepherd resting his nose on a piece of driftwood

This is a good stick. Someone needs to throw it in the lake…”

silhouette of German shepherd head against a blue lake with a red orange and blue sky This sunset would be prettier if I were wet.

wet German shepherd laying on a beach with a blue lake in the background

Finally! Swimming!

The trouble with goals: From dissertations to dogs

Big goals freak me out. They give me stress. They seem impossible. They are paralyzing.

However, I want to make progress with Milo in the sport of Schutzhund and to do this I need some big goals. Eek.

I’ve encountered this dilemma before.

I spent six years in graduate school. Much of year five involved staring at my computer screen and freaking out because I was sure that I didn’t know enough and wasn’t good enough to jump over the last hurdle between me and my doctorate: writing my dissertation. A dissertation is a 200 or 300-page original research paper. Staring at the first paragraph I typed on what would be page one, made the last paragraph on page 200 seem impossibly far away.

I was a scholarship student, and I was broke. When my funding ran out, I would not be able to pay rent, I would lose my student visa, and I’d have to leave the country. So, you know, no pressure.

My dissertation supervisor gave me a gift. He said that the last word on page 200 was the last word he would read and so ‘it would behoove me to finish before then.’ This gave my task a concrete endpoint.

With nothing to do but think and write, and facing the looming specter of homelessness, I did some math. I knew I could write three pages in a day and I knew I was ‘only allowed’ to write 200 pages.

200 pages divided by 3 pages/ day meant that I could write my dissertation in 67 days. If I worked five days/ week, I could finish my dissertation in 14 weeks. My deadline was 16 weeks away. That was tight but doable. My plan included weekends off, which meant that if I got sick or hit a dead end, I had a bit of leeway.

Once I had a plan that I was confident was doable, my writing problems melted away. I just followed my plan.

On every weekday I drank coffee, went to the office, edited yesterday’s three pages and wrote that day’s three pages. Some days I was done by noon and some days it took me until midnight, but when my three pages were written, I could go home and relax, knowing that I was on target with my plan. Writing became fun because it no longer seemed like I was working on an impossible task.

From dissertations to dogs

Spring is here, and it is time to set summer training goals. This year I would like to earn tracking and obedience titles in Schutzhund. Here’s the trouble, those titles feel like my dissertation—so freakishly big and intimidating as to be paralyzing.

I need the equivalent of my three pages a day but for dog training. In short, I need a plan.

Here’s how the plan-making will work:

  1. Make a list what Milo and I need to do to have a good shot at these titles.
  2. See if that list is manageable as part of a happy life for both of us. My work is more demanding now than it has ever been before, and if all goes well, a puppy will be joining our pack in the late summer so I might need to back off a bit.
  3. If the list is not manageable then I’ll revise our desired outcomes.
  4. If the list is manageable, turn it into a plan.
  5. Execute the plan.

In addition to relieving performance pressure, there is another benefit arising from having a plan: Success means carrying out the plan, not getting the title. What if the day of the trial Milo gets up and eats a bee, or I get sick? Or we have a bad day? If the goal is following the plan rather than achieving the outcome, then success is something that I have more control over.

I always roll my eyes when I hear someone say, ‘it’s all about the journey.’ But, with Milo it is. He’s not interested in getting titles; he’s interested in what we do together every day. Focusing on the plan lets me concentrate on his happiness and well-being, and it makes the journey less stressful and more fun for us both.

Stay tuned for a draft plan.

2019 Canine Science Symposium

grey fabric with a cartoon image of the golden gate bridge over blue water and yellow sand with a black outline of a dog in the middle of the frame. the words 'Canine Science Symposium 2019' are printed across the bottom of the image.I’m sitting in the San Francisco airport on my way home after a great weekend at the Canine Science Symposium.

This event drew a crowd of people who had as much dog hair on their clothes as I did and who were happy to talk about dogs for as long as I was. The 200 participants, hailing from across the US and Canada, all have great compassion for the dogs in our lives—this is a powerful common denominator uniting a group of people.

Here are a few of the things I learned:

Clive Wynne delivered an alternative analysis of the research papers claiming that canine behavioral tests are not predictive or useful. Wynne’s lesson is that we must pay attention to the statistical analyses in research papers and double check that they are asking the questions that we think they are asking. My take away is that we should keep an open mind about these tests and while they are not perfect, they can still be useful.

Kelsea Brown’s and Monique Udell’s lectures emphasized that when it comes to assessing canine behavior and temperament, context matters. This context includes things like the relationship between the dog and its handler and the position of the handler. While I bet every dog trainer in the room already knew this, there are two significant reasons for providing scientific confirmation for things that many people already know.

  • First, some people have a serious bias in favor of scientific over practical knowledge, and if those people include lawmakers and policymakers, it is useful to be able to give them the sort of confirmation that will work for them.
  • Second, this research can have an impact on how shelter workers assess dogs. Shelter workers are the unsung heroes of the dog world. I would never ask them to do an additional job unless I was confident that it was necessary. So, further confirmation from researchers about context lets shelter staff and volunteers know that it worth their while to assess dogs in a variety of ways.

I also learned a ton of practical information about nose work training from Nathan Hall. There is too much detail to share here, but lordy, the combination of chemistry, dog noses, and physical techniques was cool!

Aaaand, I got to have a drink with Denise Fenzi, where I learned that I could keep my cool even when I have serious fangirl feelings.

fehr, fenzi and wynne

From left to right Clive Wynne, me, and Denise Fenzi. I think I look a bit drunk in this picture, but I assure you I’m not. It’s just that I am really happy!

Love

Dog so loved the world…

The fourth Sunday of Advent invites us to meditate on love, which I could not bring myself to do. Why is it so hard to write a post about Love Sunday?

Because love is so important, and big, and complicated that it’s a little bit scary. Add on the fear of looking like a silly sap, and it is difficult to write a single word.

Love is important. It is one of the things that makes life good. Lots of people focus their energies on projects like fighting for freedom, justice, and equality. But, the goal of these projects is to fix things that are broken, to remove barriers to living well. They are in the service of living well. So, we better think about what living well means. For me, a life lived well includes, focuses on, love. No pressure, when it comes to getting this right…

Love is big. How do we even start thinking about it? What should be the first word we put down on the page when we write about it? The Gospel reading for the fourth Sunday of Advent usually comes from the Book of John—”For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son…” That’s a big deal. Thinking about something that big can be paralyzing.

Love is complicated. Even if a person (say, for example, me) gathers her courage to write about this big and important thing, she still has to pick something to latch onto. What kind of thing is love? An emotion? An attitude? A relationship? A union? A responsibility? It is hard to know what kind of thing it is, let alone what it is. It seems both personal and universal. It appears to include amorphic warm fuzzies, and fierce protectivity, and deep respect. Even this incomplete list includes very different kinds of things.

A first step toward understanding this important, big, and complicated thing is to look for something close at hand, something concrete, and something that I know with certainty.

Here is a 100 percent clear and certain thing that I know about love: I love this dog, and he loves me.

black and tan German Shepherd with happy expression on his face

Joy

Joy is an accomplishment.

It seems like a mean joke that the Third Sunday of Advent, Joy Sunday, comes at the darkest time of the year. It should be Despair Sunday, Desolation Sunday, Despondency Sunday. Joy? On the longest night of the year, I am generally short on joy.

Unless, Joy Sunday symbolizes not what comes easiest, but what we need most. Highlighting a need, though, can be cruel without also providing some guidance about how to fulfill it. How do I get me some Joy?

Milo meets this need of mine both directly and metaphorically.

Joy is more than an 11 on the happiness meter. It is a way of being in the world. Milo is joyful. He inhabits his world in a way that invites and radiates happiness. He expects and offers unconditional love. His universe is comprised of toys and snacks, frolicking friends, learning new things, cuddles, and comfy spots to nap. Things happen between breakfast and playtime, but it is breakfast and playtime that get most of his attention. Milo has his demons, but he is quick to respond to good things around him. His cup overfloweth.

In a sense, he is built for Joy. His temperament includes really high drives for food and prey and those drives have very low thresholds. That means that he loves to eat, and loves to chase and will do either at the drop of a hat. Put that together with his abundant energy, and you have a dog that interacts exuberantly with his world.

But, his temperament also means that he is easily frustrated and could have made him a big, mean, cranky dog. It didn’t because he learned that his environment is safe and predictable, which gives him a degree of agency and control of the world around him.

I meet his needs for food and exercise, for companionship and affection, for mental stimulation and learning. He is set up for joy both by his disposition and his environment.

So, how do I get Joy? First, I spend time with this big goofy guy. ❤

snow puppy

Then, I eat well and exercise, develop relationships with my fellow creatures, and indulge my curiosity and exercise my creativity. Those things do more than make me happy, they open me to happiness.

Peace

Life with Milo has not always been peaceful. For a long time, he divided up the world into prey and not-prey. If something moved, it was prey and needed to be ‘neutralized.’  Our walks followed complicated routes that avoided bikes, dogs, and big men. It was exhausting.

I learned that peace requires work.

I had to learn about German Shepherds, develop a relationship of mutual respect with Milo, and give him a job to do and some fair, consistent rules to follow. All of that, plus some time to grow up, made for a much better life.

The second sunday of Advent is all about peace: “The wolf will live with the lamb; the leopard will lie down with the young goat. The calf and the lion will graze together, and a little child will lead them.”  But just one verse earlier there is a whole lot of talk about truth, justice, and integrity. They go hand-in-hand with peace. Peace is something you have to work for.

orange and white tabby cat and black and tan German shepherd dog sleeping side by side on a quilt


OK, so here we have the wolf and the leopard snoozing together. It’s not quite biblical, but there is a whole lot of peace going on.

Hope

Milo exemplifies the message of the first Sunday of Advent. He’s the most hopeful creature I’ve ever had the luck to meet.

I often wake up from a nap, face-to-face with his big nose and bright eyes, to find a ball, a tug, and a stuffy toy lined up beside me.

The message is clear, “I’ve got it all set up in case you want to play. Whatever toy you like, I have them all ready for you.”

German shepherd dog with intense and happy facial expression.

He’ll often give guests a ball and step back expectantly. If they have even a tiny smidgen of desire to play, he’s ready.

I love December—Christmas and Yule and the solstice. It is a cozy month to take stock and get ready to start again, get ready for the light.

For me, the First Sunday of Advent is about being ready for and open to good things in the coming year. It is about maintaining hope in the face of despair, which is a challenge when democracy is crumbling, and the planet’s on fire.

So, this season, in particular, I’m grateful that Milo expects, anticipates good things. He is always ready. He reminds me how to hope.