The Dog Expert

Ever have one of those mornings where you feel like you’ve run a gauntlet before 8am?

Rain and I were recently at our neighborhood park on a Wednesday morning. We go to this park every weekday morning, almost always at the same time. In summer it’s already light outside when we do our park routine, but in the winter months we are often there before the sky is even getting light before sunrise.

Between the dark, the cold, and the Oregon rain, we don’t generally see other visitors in the winter months. But the weather this winter has been less cold, less wet, and our changing neighborhood has brought some irregular visitors out some mornings.

On this particular morning there was a relative motherlode of visitors. One person who has been running on recent mornings, another man and his Labradoodle(?) who don’t seem to have a pattern to their morning visits, and a couple of other random visitors. As we walked along one edge of the park we encountered a man with a tan pit bull.

The pit bull seemed eager to meet Rain, but surely Rain’s readers know how Rain reacted. She barked. Not a lot, by her standards. My mind was still boggling about how the park was so popular that morning and wasn’t as on top of her Reactive Rover protocol as I might otherwise have been.

But that’s okay, because The Dog Expert was about to school me.

The man had exited the park at a nearby break in the fence but was saying something. I wasn’t sure if he was talking to me or his dog.

“Excuse me, are you talking to me?”

“YOU NEED TO TAKE YOUR DOG FOR TRAINING!” He said something about having food and held up what was either a Nerf football or a loaf of bread with chunks out of it.

“Uhhh…Yeah, we have, for about three years now.” I was vague about the details, and also still a little confused. Rain’s behavior has come so far since she became my ward in 2015!

The man still seemed angry. Given how he was interacting with his own dog, I got the sense that he was using more forceful methods of behavior modification, shall we say. The pit bull had seemed eager to say hi to Rain, but potentially fearful of her person.

I don’t remember what he said next verbatim, but it lead to me pointing out that Rain’s barking is called being reactive (he didn’t seem to have the terminology considering his expertise about dogs), and yes, we’ve been working on it for a while. Then I pointed out the possibility of how we might come to the park before sunrise in January in order to avoid the bulk of park visitors.

Rain had also paused to watch the man with a stiff body and perky ears. At some point I also rewarded her with a treat, pulled easily out of my cookie belt. Did the man think I should be carrying around an enormous loaf of bread(?) instead of a more convenient cookie belt?

He probably wasn’t expecting a confident, knowledgeable response, but he was on his way and now my metaphorical hackles were up. When it was time to play ball later on, I threw extra far because I had a bunch of adrenaline pumping. It wasn’t until we got home that I realized the interaction had shaken me up.

But I realized that I had responded to the person’s assumptions with facts and without losing my cool too much. I was proud of myself! I was also proud of Rain because it says a lot about how far she has come in the last few years.

It seems like everyone gets irritated at times about a strange dog and their owner. Certainly I have. And I certainly have days when I want to yell at the person, although I almost never do. Next time you’re feeling like that about a stranger, maybe reconsider whether there are other circumstances you may not be aware of before lashing out.


The Stinkiest Treats Are the Best Treats

Rain had been building up steam ever since agility got cancelled, and winter weather meant she didn’t get to go for her usual park visit on Monday morning.

During the day the icy roads dried up so nosework class was still on that evening, and I’m glad it was! For Rain’s sake as much as my own.

We headed to class before sunset, while it was still above freezing. Rain knew exactly where she was and why she had come, and she was READY TO WORK. Since we were early I had to put her to work doing some of her other tricks just so she wouldn’t bark up a storm that would echo down the cavernous walls of Manners Hall.

Ramona the adorable pit bull looks for the mystery treat while wearing her cute winter coat.

Rachel started our fourth of six classes by presenting us with a team test. She set out ten boxes and hid one of our treats inside one of the boxes. Neither doggo nor person knew which box it was in when we entered the room, and most of the boxes were folded in a way that contained much of the scent. Our job as a team was to find the treat. Our job as the human was to identify when they’d found the treat, watching their individual signals closely.

Rachel put one of Rain’s hot dog pieces into the trickiest box, an Island Way Sorbet box that didn’t have many cracks at all. Rain was definitely challenged—she methodically sniffed all the boxes, even started getting a little frustrated and wanted to search elsewhere in the room. There was an Amazon box with a sticker that all the dogs seemed to get stuck on sniffing, so when Rain’s nose lingered there I knew it was a false positive. When she really hit the scent at the Island Way box though, it was clear as day to me. I said “ALERT!” and did some jazz hands for good measure.

Davie (above) and Lucy (below) search for treats above the ground.

Rachel started playing with elevation on our second run, without placing the treats taller than nose high. She set up three folding chairs and boxes on their sides, to direct the scent in a different direction. We did another on-leash search and all the dogs did great—even adorable Ramona, who was looking like her earlier trip to Sauvie Island during her first run had worn her out.

At a certain point as we waited for the next dog to come in, Davie’s owners asked if they could try someone else’s extra treats for a run, as they’re trying to find out what motivates Davie the best. Rachel mentioned nosework classes in the past when the class would pool their treats into one container and mix them around to get treats that were “nice and stinky.” It occurred to me that there are very few occasions in life when the stinkiest thing is the best thing—but in nosework class, the stinkiest treats are the best treats! And Davie was in luck—one of our classmates offered her Northwest Naturals salmon treats. I offered them some of our Oscar Mayer hot dogs, but they passed on my offer—unsurprisingly.

Rain has been doing incrementally better when I leave her in her room and crate between runs. The entrance door to our classroom is right across the hall from the room she stays in when it’s not her turn, and it’s a door where there is always at least one other person waiting. This is the second class in a row where I’ve left her in her room to join the other people waiting to step in to our room and her bark has transitioned into more of mournful howl. Awoooooooooooooooooo! This week one of our classmates remarked about how sad she sounded, and I suggested she was doing her best Princess Vespa from Spaceballs, trapped in her cell…

Our final two runs of the evening involved boxes, everyday objects, and chairs. Rachel set the room up again with safety cones, a watering can, a wash basin, and the usual melange of boxes. Rachel’s thinking was that she’d end class with easier finds.

Ralphie finds his treat hidden in the safety cone.

Rain, Fiona, and some of the more driven dogs found their single hide on the last run too quickly though, so Rachel had us distract the dog while she placed one more treat in a box over next to the wall. Theoretically this was to be a challenge, but of course Rain successfully finds her Kong in all kinds of strange places in my parents’ house each morning, so finding the hot dog inside a relatively open box wasn’t that much of a challenge.

Class had been enough of a challenge though that she was feeling like her normal self again, without as much pent up energy. She was calm in the car on our way home and wound down relatively quickly once we were in for the night. It had been a tiring day for me, too, so I was happy to turn out the lights and cuddle up to the fluffy puppy.

Tunnel Treadles: Weekly Agility Report

It seems like Rain’s energy was endless this week before agility class. We got to the park early and she had plenty of opportunities to run and chase her ball. We got to the arena where class is held and played ball even more in the pens out back. Rain got to run first in class, and she was raring to go. She even took a while to settle down once we got home after class.

She was wearing me out!

Our work this week focused on a course of about 13 obstacles that wound all around the arena. Starting with a tunnel in the middle of the floor, we got stuck reminding Rain about the channel weave poles, but otherwise we did pretty well overall. There was some dog walk. There was some A-frame. Even a tire. We were using nearly all the obstacles! It felt nice to run a longer course and use some of the items we hadn’t practiced in more than a few weeks.

One of our classmates had some problems getting her dog to drive into the tunnel. There’s a new dog at home that has been wearing him out, and he was acting a little hesitant to run tunnels. The new dog comes to class too. When their person is running the new dog isn’t very happy, and tends to get barky. Our lovely classmate Jackie (Poppy and Cedar’s person) has worked on consoling the doggo just as she sometimes does for Rain if I need to step away. She’s a great person.

After running our course, Molly straightened out the tunnel we started our course with and we practiced doing tunnel treadles. Essentially you’d use a treadle to feed the dog into the tunnel through a non-obvious end. So if you’re approaching a straight tunnel and need the dog to take the opening that’s on the other side instead of the one facing you, a treadle can get them directed in the right way. We each got to practice a few times before class was over—but one of our classmates was getting tunnel fatigue and barely made it through.

As I’ve mentioned in prior reports, I’ve been working on rewarding Rain for her ability to chill out when it’s not our turn to run. This has been working really well! EXCEPT when it is our turn to run, Rain gets excited and has been at times unfocused because she’s barking with excitement.

I’m never going to win the barking war, am I?

Sniffing Out the Truth (or Hot Dogs, Whichever She Finds First)

Our nosework class had a scheduled week off due to an Oregon Humane Society staff function, but Rain seemed happy to be back for class after our break—and even a little calmer. We hung out together in her special room before class started. As long as I kept her engaged in games she was pretty placid. Once she caught view of someone passing by our door or heard a noise in the hallway though, her attention shifted and she still got a little reactive. (Sadly this is more or less how she is at home as well.)

Rachel started class with the boxes more spread apart around the room, with maybe one treat that wasn’t inside the box but just outside of it. Rachel tried using the cheese I’ve been bringing for Rain to see if it’d be a higher-value reward for her to search for. Turns out, no—sadly, the Oscar Mayer hot dogs I bought specifically for class are a much more exciting find.

Fun Fact: I’ve been vegetarian for almost 25 years. Handling hot dogs made of real meat, cutting them in tiny bits for class, is not my favorite thing in the world.
The things we do for our dogs!

During the second run, Rachel started integrating more everyday objects in the search area, starting to place more rewards outside the boxes and in the everyday objects. There were a couple of different trash cans. A weighted stanchion with a dry erase sign. A watering can.

During the third run Rachel transitioned all the rewards into the everyday objects. Here’s cute little Fiona doing her finds at lightning speed:

Originally Rachel planned to go back to boxes for the fourth run but everyone was doing so well that she did another round of hides in a mixture of boxes and everyday objects. One hide that seemed to trip up almost all the dogs—including Rain—was on the floor next to an exercise pen. In plain sight! Because the scent didn’t have much to bounce off of, the dogs weren’t able to locate it quite as quickly. INTERESTING.

When Rain and I were about to enter the room for our third run, I noticed the puppies and their people were waiting in the lobby. When we were done with that run, I asked if someone could let me in the side door next to our room so Rain wouldn’t have to run the puppy gauntlet again like last week. It spared everyone a fair amount of grief, and the puppies went into the classroom next door before our fourth run. Phew.

As Rain and I were heading out to the car, a stranger approached us in front of the building asking if the organization was still open. He had a dog slung around his neck who he said had some sort of open ear wound and he was seeking medical help. (Rain was, of course, barking at him as we tried to converse, which tends to short circuit my brain.) I knew the medical center portion of the building closes early, but I suggested he go around the corner to the front desk to ask them where he could go. I didn’t see him again, but as we drove off I looked over and noticed that the OHS lobby was also dark, closed for the evening. I felt bad bout not realizing that’d be the case, and I immediately realized I could have suggested a trip to DoveLewis or possibly Companion Care Clinic. It was a bummer to end the night, and I hope that his pupper got attention in a prompt fashion.

Grounddog Day: Weekly Agility Report

It was Groundhog day but this little critter was certainly not afraid of her shadow.

In fact, she was having fun splashing around her favorite mud puddle before agility class, her shadow beside her!

Once we were at class, we got a reprieve from the threadle work we had done the two weeks prior. Instead we got to work on a course that wound around about half the arena. Walking through the course, I spotted a tricky spot in the form of our turnaround before heading back through the obstacles we had just taken.

We started with a series of jumps, a tunnel, another tunnel that was curved, and then quick switch before heading back into the tunnel and back.

There was one point in this course where I really hustled to keep up with Rain, and afterward Molly seemed impressed with my momentary sprinting. So was I, frankly! Except perhaps the several seconds of panting that I did once we were done.

After everyone had a chance to work the course once or twice, we set up the channel weave and worked on that again. Rain seems to have a hard time remembering channel weaves when we first get to them, but she is starting to remember on the second or third attempts. Molly pointed out that I could be working channel weaves using our new weave pole set at home, but I’d been working on the 2×2 method and it turns out there’s not a ton of extra space to do it in my living room to do it easily.

In other words, our weave poles aren’t going so well still. 😦

You may recall that I’ve been working on rewarding Rain when she relaxes while we wait for our turn in class. This has lead to much quieter class sessions! But it has also lead to Rain staring at me like she’s trying to will me into giving her cookies. O_O

At least her body is relaxed, even if her brain/ears/eyes aren’t, right? 😀

Our hour seemed short on this particular afternoon, but Rain and I had a nice time at class running the course and enjoying our weekly jaunt out to the countryside.

Keeping Her Nose Clean in Nosework Class

Rain was far less stressed overall for her nosework class this week, although each visit proves to be a new adventure. Overall what Rain is gaining from this class outside the classroom is arguably more important than what she’s gaining from inside the classroom. At least so far.

Rain is still doing great when it’s her turn to go work the search area inside the classroom. She has been finding her hot dogs easily even when Rachel hides them in increasingly tricky ways. This week Rachel increased the number of boxes used in the search area, spread them out so the search area was bigger, and added more “complex” boxes with unusual flaps including a cardboard cylinder. Rachel also started introducing some everyday objects in the search area: a walker, a small laundry basket, a dustpan, and a few other objects.

Outside the classroom is more challenging for Rain. She was happier being in our isolated room before class but she isn’t happy when I leave that room. It was most difficult at the beginning of class—I could hear her barking from where I was sitting inside the classroom, feeling bad for the consult that was happening in the room next to her. As the evening wore on she started getting used to the routine of my fetching her, waiting to come in, doing her search, leaving through a different door, coming around, and going back to her crate in the special room. She was never happy when I left but seemed to “bark it out” because she was quiet by the time I returned. (Did she start enjoying the delicious Kong I had made for her? NO. Clearly she was still unhappy.)

Although our class is only six weeks long we have multiple runs per evening so she should get plenty of practice being crated and having me leave her for a bit in a strange place. Even during this class she was doing much better by the end of class than she was at the start.

The other challenge outside the classroom has to do with the many uses of this Oregon Humane Society facility. Our class is in the same building as the animal hospital, which is more or less closed after business hours. There are, however, multiple spaces for classes, behavior consultations, staff and volunteers coming through, and other after-hours activities.

On this evening, a behavioral consult was happening in the room next to ours (the room Rain stays in between runs is someone’s office). When we exited the building and came back around to the main entrance after one of our runs, the lobby was full of puppies and their rosy-cheeked owners, with more puppies and people coming in behind us. Keyed-up Rain would bark with sometimes excitement, sometimes reactivity, and I did my best to keep her under threshold until I could get her back to our room.

I imagined the rosy-cheeked puppy owners showing up for their very first puppy class, wondering why Oregon Humane Society would let such a loud, scary cur in the same hall as their adorable Fifi. Surely it wouldn’t have helped to tell them that Rain is a proud graduate of Reactive Rover! Well, because in the moment they probably wouldn’t have believed me…


During one of our trips around to the front of the building, I also got to watch our classmate Ramona have the most marvelous barf. Ramona’s person said she had consumed too much water before class. Perhaps it was the lighting that made it look so glorious, but as Rain and I stood aside so Ramona could go ahead of us into the lobby of puppies, she projectile vomited glistening liquid in an upward arc, punctuated by dozens of pieces of dog kibble. It was quite a sight to behold.

Our dogs have a different running order for each class session so we’ll have an opportunity to watch all the dogs. This means that I saw Fiona for the first time during this class. Fiona is a mostly white border collie who has three legs. Her fourth leg must have just been weighing her down, as she is arguably the fastest searcher in our class!

Rain was last in the running order tonight so she got to stay in the room at the end of class and show everyone how laser focused she could be on searching and on her person. She was still pretty keyed up once we were back in our room but because her person stuck around Rain decided to enjoy her Kong. She stayed quiet while I packed up our things in preparation for the journey home.

A-chilly-ty: Weekly Agility Report

January has been unseasonably warm this year, unlike last year when weather issues resulted in Molly cancelling agility class a few times. We’ve recently had some days with temperatures in the low-60s, and I believe the temperature during our last agility class was somewhere in the mid-50s. I didn’t bundle up for class last week and regretted nothing.

This week I didn’t bundle up again but the temperature was closer to the mid-40s. I was a bit chilly at the beginning of class, and grew a bit colder during class as the sky grew dark.

Rain had a great time burning off energy before class at the park, as always. That morning she had slipped on a deck step and was limping a bit after her fall, so I worried she might not be in good shape for class. Once we were at the park and she began running amok I could tell things were perfectly fine.

My perception of class has been that we typically switch things up each week—one week we focus on a handling skill, the next we practice a doggy skill. Molly introduced threadles to us last week, so I was a bit surprised when we focused on threadles again this week. It was a good opportunity to cement what I felt I was starting to get the knack for in our previous class.

We started with two jumps in a T formation. The dog would take one jump normally, then we’d threadle them to go around the T a certain way. Once we had success with that once or twice, we switched sides and practiced it on the other hand. It became clear immediately upon switching that it feels more natural for me to threadle with my right hand.

Molly asked what my verbal cue for threadle was, and I said I hadn’t thought of one yet. I was already using the obvious, easy choices for other things. Molly rattled off a list of potential words and I chose one! “Tread” is officially our threadle cue now.

What’s Up with That H?

Even though the word seems to be spelled threadle, it seems to be pronounced treadle. (Thread the needle vs. tread the stage.) Online searches show some results for both and my guess is that agility people aren’t as concerned about language as I am, on the whole. Perhaps someday I’ll find someone I can have this discussion with and answer my many questions…

Our second threadle exercise had a tunnel (back left in the photo) followed by three jumps. Molly had set up three even though we were only asked to do two, but the challenge was to take all the jumps in the same direction by using the threadle to recall our dog between the jumps.

Rain did really well the first time but missed the third jump, the second time she didn’t mind me and came over the second jump the wrong way, and then she got all three of them on subsequent attempts. We even practiced one more time after class, and she did great!

Rain and I also continued practicing her relaxation skills when it wasn’t our turn, and she has been doing a pretty great job of hushing up. I’d even say that class felt downright quiet. Once we were home Rain was relatively squirrelly again, but it wasn’t too long before she calmed down and settled in for a nice deserved rest.