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.

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.

Obedience titles, trust, and the good life for dogs and their people

One of the fabulous side effects of passing an obedience test that includes stringent temperament and traffic elements is that I feel much calmer and more confident taking Milo out and about in the world. st jacobs

Milo and my market booth would sell advice on how to be Very Good.

The mantra among many of my dog friends (that is the people who train and handle dogs) is “trust your dog.” This rule applies most concretely during tracking and scent work because we are counting on our dogs to smell things that we can’t smell. There is little choice but to trust your dog. However, the rule also applies more generally to how we interact with our working canine companions.

At first, the “trust your dog” rule seemed to conflict with my own rule of thumb for dogs and humans, and even tools and institutions: “Trust is earned.”

But, these two rules go hand in hand. The rule is not “trust someone else’s dog.” It’s “trust your dog.”  A dog who is your partner. A corollary of  “trust your dog” is “trust the training you and your dog did together.” When you’re prepared for a dog trial, you focus on doing your part of the exercises and count on your dog to do what he’s practiced in training.

When Milo earned his BH this month, I learned about another aspect of this rule. The judge put Milo through a traffic test that I thought was pretty strenuous.  At one point we had to walk through a crowd that was denser than Times Square on New Year’s Eve. In the midst of this crowd the judge reached over Milo and gave me a push, and then, in that situation, I put Milo through a set of obedience exercises. That is some serious pressure. Milo did great. I was elated and, tellingly, surprised.

Milo exceeded my expectations, and this test taught me that I can trust him, and expect him, to keep an even keel in a wide range of situations. This has improved the quality of life that we share.

This weekend we went with friends to the St. Jacobs Farmers’ Market. It’s a huge market—lots of people, vendors yelling above the crowd, food stalls and the attendant smells all over the place. Not only did Milo handle it like a pro—happily curious and pleased with all the people telling him that he was handsome—I had a good time too. Life is better when you know you can trust your dog.

Milo earned his BH :)

His email signature line now looks like this:

Milo Fehr BH, RN, CGN, SPOT

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I’m grinning here because the judge just encouraged Milo and me to continue in the sport.

He has titles from the German Shepherd Schutzhund Club of Canada, the Canadian Kennel Club, and the United Kennel Club.

I’m grateful to all the people and dogs who helped Milo and me along the way. Milo and I extend huge thanks to Cheryl Bishop, Heidi Grasswick, Jess Parent, and Liz Parent all of whom generously shared their skill, time, support, and expertise with Milo and me.

Thanks also to the London Schutzhund Club for running a well-organized trial, and for providing a kind, supportive, and sportsman-like environment.

Finally, it was an honor for Milo to earn this title under Judge Raino Fluegge, who was compassionate enough to remind me to breathe.

I was most proud of Milo’s performance in the Down out of Motion with Recall and the Test in Traffic.

In the Down out of Motion with Recall, he and I both performed at a level that reflected our best practice sessions. By this time in the routine I had worked through some of my nerves, and so Milo settled into his normal self. His heeling was attentive, and his recall was fast and sure.

It might seem weird to be proud of the Test in Traffic. But, three years ago I would never have dreamt of even trying such a thing, and yesterday Milo pulled it off with style. He kept his cool and attended to me while walking past a car, bike, jogger, other dogs, and a crowd of whistling, waving, clapping people. He performed basic obedience in a dense, jostling crowd, even after someone pushed me. Finally, he maintained a sharp, alert sit when I tied him out and left him alone while other people walked their dogs past him.

Milo and I have lots of work on but for now, I’m focusing on what went well. That, and the fact that he earned the title.

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This trial left me enthused about the sport and fiercely proud of Milo.

Finally, Milo and I are taking a shot at our BH obedience title

quizzicalgsdOne of my goals for this summer was to join the German Shepherd Schutzhund Club of Canada and enter an obedience trial with Milo. The plan was to take a shot at our BH (Begleithunde)–the first obedience title a dog can earn in the sport of Schutzhund.

The weather is mild here in Southern Ontario, which means, in my mind at least, that October still counts as summer. So, if the good Lord’s willing and the snow don’t fly, Milo and I will meet our goal this weekend.

Saturday, at the London Schutzhund Club, we’ll be strutting our stuff at our first Schutzhund trial. Eek.

 

German shepherd dog, lying on its tummy on the grass in front of a woman wearing blue jeans and a coop full of chickens

I might be a chicken, but I’m not afraid to train Milo beside the chicken yard.

 

Milo and I’ve been working toward this for what seems like ever. But, I’m incredibly nervous about trials, and so I only entered this one at the very last minute. Milo has lots of courage, but me? I’m a bit of a chicken.

I keep saying to my self, “Self, don’t panic.” After all, if it goes poorly, Milo and I will still have met our goal, and we’ll both have gained trial experience. There’s no punishment, we’ll try just try again later. And if it goes well, we might just end up with a title.

I’m trying to focus on letting Milo shine. He’s my good boy.

Wish us luck!

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Training Tuesday: Keeping a digital tracking log

German Shepherd puppy wearing a graduation cap and looking at cameraI love tracking with Milo. Why? Because he loves tracking. When he’s on a trail his nose, brain, and temperament (as well as his gluttony—there are lots of treats during tracking) unite, giving him laser focus.

Folks tend to call tracking work, but it’s not like an unpleasant day job. It’s more like a vocation. He’s built for it. Called to it. Giving Milo a track is sort of like giving a budding artist a box of crayons. Tracking offers Milo an opportunity to develop and engage a talent that he loves to practice. How marvelous is it that I can do that with him?

I haven’t really been keeping records of our tracking sessions. I know I should, and so I started. Here are my notes on what we did today:

tracking notes
It was hot and breezing today, and I laid a track through dry grass and clumps of alfalfa. These are not great tracking conditions. Milo did well. He was methodical–pretty much keeping his nose in each footstep. The first corner was a bit tricky for him. He blew past it, but quickly realized his mistake, figured things out, and got back to it without prompting. He took the second corner like a pro. Good boy!

In case you’re wondering, the image above is a screenshot from a program called OneNote that I run on my laptop and iPad. This program collects files like they are pages in a notebook. I can keep notes of all our tracking sessions together and flip through them to keep track of how we’re doing, develop goals, and make training plans. This might be the beginning of a slick system.

Question: What kinds of things should I be recording in our tracking notes?

Things to pack for your dog for an RV camping trip

Milo the AwesomeDog and I spend lots of time RV camping. When we started traveling together I packed waaaaay too much stuff for him, which made getting ready to go camping a big ordeal. I’ve since streamlined the packing process. Now, I only bring what he needs and it just takes a couple of minutes to throw his stuff in the camper.

Here’s my RV camping packing list for Milo:

Obvious things

  • Food
  • Poop bags
  • Food and water bowls

Comfortable housing

I keep him with me almost all the time. When I’m sitting at a picnic table or relaxing in front of a campfire Milo rests in an exercise pen. I can attach a tarp to one side of the pen in case I need to shield him from unruly kids or dogs, and I have a fabulous reflective sunshade that keeps him cool on hot days. I’ve recently started bringing an electric fan that I set just outside his pen. It does a great job of keeping the mosquitos away.

Hiking, swimming, and kayaking stuff

I take him kayaking with me, and so he needs a lifejacket. And he carries his own snacks and water on long hikes, so he needs his backpack too. Sometimes I run his short leash through my belt and sometimes I hold it, but I find that all we need is one 6-foot leash.

Safety

I always keep a copy of his papers in my vehicle, and when we’re camping I write my cell phone number on his collar with a Sharpie in case he loses his tags. I also bring a flyer with his picture and my phone number on it (just in case). Finally, I keep a canine first aid kit in the trailer, which I supplement with Benadryl, because Milo occasionally eats bees, and a tick remover.

Fun

In addition to his toys, I bring cans of wet dog food and a couple of Kong chew toys. I have a freezer in my trailer, and I make him frozen Kongs so he has something to do on rainy days.

  • Tug toy
  • Water retrieve toy
  • Land retrieve toy
  • Kongs
  • Cans of wet dog food for easy frozen Kong filling

De-skunking potion ingredients

I always keep the ingredients for a de-skunking wash in my trailer. I’ve never had to use them, but I have a friend who had to make a long drive home with a very skunky dog, and I never want to be in that position.

  • hydrogen peroxide
  • baking soda
  • dish soap
  • disposable tarp

I bring fewer things for Milo than I used to, and we still have a great time.

black and tan german shepherd laying in green grass against a backdrop of green forest. There is a fence between the dog and the forest.

Here’s Milo at campsite 220 at Grundy Lake Provincial Park. He’s in his 48-inch Precision X-pen. This pen is a bit pricey, but it’s worth it. It’s a safer and more comfortable option than a tie-out. The black wire blends into the background and the pen has a walk-through door that is easy for people and not just dogs to use. It is simple to set up and is sturdy. 

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