Ominous Foreshadowing

Rain and I have been working together for about two years, and I recently got a dark hint of what may be coming in Rain’s future.

After a particularly boisterous session of fetch at the park, or sometimes after running at full speed on uneven ground, Rain’s right front leg will sometimes get a very slight limp. One recent week the limp showed up a little more frequently than usual and I started worrying.

One of the times she was careful with her leg was right after agility, when the A-frame had been set fairly high so the angle up and down the obstacle was pretty steep. I secretly fretted that the end of her agility career may be nigh.

The next week I mentioned it to Molly when we were discussing Rain’s “feet” issue at the end of the A-frame. Molly offered to lower the A-frame a bit for her when needed and suggested a few shoulder-strengthening exercises we might consider doing to help.

Rain hasn’t shown any further problems with her leg in the weeks since. She has been tiring a bit prematurely while playing fetch at the park, but that may be due to the much warmer temperatures we’ve been having. Maybe her leg was just having an iffy week.

Rain is seven years old now—approaching seniorhood. I get through each barky morning and bouncing-off-the-walls evening by telling myself she will slow down eventually. Will she start having arthritis issues before her spirit mellows or her energy wanes?

Hopefully all this training we do helps her stave off signs of age—now that she has been able to discover all the fun things in the world, it would be a shame if she couldn’t enjoy them all for as long as possible.

Walking the Course and a RitF POLL: Weekly Agility Report

It was once again a pretty warm afternoon when we headed to agility class this week. Once again I was concerned about Rain overheating before we even got to class so I wanted to limit her fetching time. Before I could though, I noticed she was increasingly engrossed in sniffing holes sprinkled throughout the park. Critter holes! Before I knew it Rain was entirely engaged in sticking her nose as far into each hole as she could and picking up whatever scents she could. (Rodents, I imagine.) Maybe she has a future in nose work?

We took it pretty easy in class too, since the arena building was warm. At the beginning of class Molly had us “warm up” by doing a ten-obstacle course. She told me to walk the course while she set the jumps to Rain’s height. It seemed relatively straightforward to me and I figured out the details while walking through it one time. When Molly suggested I walk it again we had a conversation about specifically what one is doing when walking a course multiple times.

The first time, Molly says, you’re primarily figuring out where the obstacles are. You’re looking for the cones with sequential numbers which will show you not only which obstacles you’re taking, but the side of the obstacle you’re taking. On this course, for example, Number 9 was hidden on the other side of a jump from where I was looking for it at Number 8. It meant that the jump was to be taken backwards (“around” to Rain).

The second time walking a course, you’re figuring out your dog’s line while running the course. Where the best place to start your dog will be, potential trip-ups (remember the trickery of the tunnel opening next to the dog walk last month?), and so on.

Finally you consider your own line on your third walk through the course.

When she presented this information I thought I had more or less considered all those things—the course seemed fairly straightforward to me and when I had a question, I had asked it. Molly and I talked about two places where Rain could start the course and how it would impact her line, and we decided we’d have her try it both ways.

We ran the course both without too many problems (except “feet,” because I have yet to put the time into this that is needed). Rain did about equally as well starting from both proposed starting points, but since Molly’s starting point had a straighter line for Rain I imagine if we were being timed it would have been the faster option.

Once I stopped running, I felt fairly sweaty! This is a fairly unusual phenomenon for me, particularly while wearing shorts and a tank top as I was. I regained my usual coolness a few minutes later, just in time for a humans-only exercise.

We used the rest of class to work on a front cross exercise mostly for the benefit of the humans. Molly told us we’d be “dog dancing,” and in the beginning the exercise we did largely did have an element of learning footsteps for a dance. Once we had that down we took it to a couple of jumps facing each other, and then finally added our dog into the mix. Rain and I didn’t have any problem with the exercise, although I was disappointed when Molly said she needed me to do the exercise with “300% less arms.” (She says this to me fairly often. Apparently she doesn’t appreciate my desire to add panache to my movements!)

At the end of class, I asked about an email Molly had forwarded the week prior. The email promoted a “fun run” agility event, organized by a regional agility organization, taking place Saturday, September 2nd at a barn on the western edges of the Portland area. She sent it to us with a note that it’d be a good way to expose our dog to an actual agility trial without any pressure—we were paying for time in the ring more than any expectation of how we would use that time in the ring. Treats and toys, normally not allowed at agility trials, would be completely acceptable.

I asked Molly about this email, noting that it sounded like the lowest-bar possible for an agility event. We talked about Rain’s barking (“So what? You know there are other Aussies there, right?”) and she mentioned she might attend as well. The price is really cheap, too! The biggest investment may just be the traveling time and mental energy.

I’m sort of still on the fence about doing this event but am leaning toward giving it a shot. What do you think, friends? Would you like to see Rain attend this “fun run” agility event in a few weeks?

The poll will close on Saturday, and perhaps we’ll have some adventures to relate soon thereafter!

Beating the Heat at the Beach

Portland recently had a week of weather misery which included record-high temperatures, higher-than-it-should-be humidity, and air thick with smoke that had drifted south from some forest fires raging in British Columbia.

It was time to take Rain to the beach!

Friday’s forecast indicated the beach would be an amazing escape from the misery that was Portland. In fact, I had a specific mental vision that kept me motivated to keep moving and packing on Friday evening: the cool air and water that would await while summiting the Coast Range, where a roadside water station delivers fresh spring water to miserably warm travelers. (That water did not disappoint, either!)

Rain enjoying the creek at Sunset Rest Area, about a mile downstream
from the roadside water station.

Portland’s high was in the upper 90s when we were enjoying 65 and morning clouds that burned off to make a gorgeous afternoon and evening.

As soon as Rain hopped out of the car at the place we stay, she tried to make a bee-line the other way. She knew where the beach was, and she was ready to get running!

Instead we had to take care of a few logistics before getting out on the sand. When we did though, she enjoyed an hour of beach time fetching balls, rolling around in whatever ocean-scented bits she could find, and even getting her feet wet now and again. She was mostly off-leash during our walk, but felt the need to keep her closer when we were in areas with more people at the beginning at our walk and the turnaround area next to Barview Jetty.

(We weren’t the only people who escaped the misery of Portland’s weather through a coastal escape that weekend, as it turns out…)

Rain was having so much fun on the beach she got a little tongue-tied when we told her it was time to head back.

After two-thirds of our party had a nap, we decided to head for our favorite pizza place on the coast, The Pizza Garden in Nehalem. Rain had to wait for us in the car but we got a great spot on their back deck where I could monitor and get to her in seconds if needed. When going to Pizza Garden, the usual routine consists of a post-meal doggy walk around downtown Nehalem.

Rain got to explore several docks along the Nehalem River and even had the opportunity to try on a personal floatation device, or PFD. They’re an absolute must when boating!

Rain was pretty quiet the rest of the day after our long walk on the beach, and after her evening walk around Nehalem she easily settled down for the night.

In the morning though, she was raring to go to the beach again and let us know it. We ended up driving a little and had another long walk starting from the beach access in the center of Rockaway. This day brought far cloudier skies, so our walk on the beach was gray and misty.

There were fewer people on the beach, but once again they were concentrated near the start and end of our walk. This meant Rain got to go off-leash faster and stay off-leash longer. She seemed to stick to me a lot more than the day before, so she may have still been tired from our prior beach walk. We made our way south nearly to Twin Rocks where we turned back where a freshwater creek drained into the ocean.

Enjoying the sunset from Rockaway.

After getting some of her energy worked out we returned to pack up our things, close up shop, and start the haul back home. It took a little while to truly get going, as we decided to “make a quick stop” at a popular gift store in town that ended up having a pretty long line at the register.

Summer weekend traffic between Portland and the Oregon coast can be pretty sobering, and our travels back were no exception. Surely everyone noticed the Doggo on Board magnet on my car, and noted that the precious cargo inside must not be creamed! At least that’s what I want to believe.

The roadside water station is more or less at the summit of the Coast Range, and it wasn’t too long after our stop there that I started feeling a little uncomfortable in the car. Once we realized we were descending down into Portland’s meteorological misery again, I took my fleece layer off. By the time we were back to the western edge of the Portland metro area we were all miserable once again, and would be for another few days before the warm temperatures finally took a respite.

Rain will be getting a bath as soon as possible to get all the things she rolled in out of her coat, and I’m starting to work on cleaning the sand out of the tennis balls she fetched ad nauseum during our time there. But we made some pretty good memories, and we won’t forget the sweet relief our trip brought from the August weather. Rain wants to visit again before the end of the year, and I don’t think that’s a bad idea!

One more visit to the creek at Sunset Rest Area.

Rain’s Feet: Weekly Agility Report

Whoopsie! Rain has been having so many adventures lately, we’re not keeping up. Bear with us as we’re a little behind. -Editor

The dog days of summer have hit, and the arena where agility is held has become consistently warm during our afternoon class. In fact, Friday afternoons have been so warm that I’ve been careful about exercising Rain at the park too much before class! She’s always raring to tear through the field of dried grass but after a few minutes of playing fetch I’ll put the ball in my pocket and just walk around the field, letting her sniff and explore as she will.

It’s kind of amazing how warm it can get inside the arena where our class is held. The two ends of the building have enormous openings but apparently the plastic roof panels heat the air inside just a little warmer. Along with the dampened dirt on the arena floor, done to minimize dusty kick-up, it can be uncomfortable to sit and do a few runs during a one-hour class. Of course the dogs have even more challenge, covered with fur and with just a tongue and paw pads to stay cool!

Here’s what we got out of class this week: Rain and I really need to work on her “feet” command, particularly when coming down from the A-frame.

Rain demonstrates what she’s supposed to do at the end of the A-frame.

Each time she descends the A-frame, she ends up letting gravity pull her completely to the ground. When I pause and look at her expectantly, she starts feeling around with her back legs for the A-frame and eventually she’ll get into position.

Molly paused us this week and set a new rule: no more feeling out the A-frame this way. Moving forward, any time Rain doesn’t get into the correct position at the end of a contact obstacle, I am to spin in a circle so she ends up descending a fraction of the obstacle to try again. We’re trying to teach her to get into the right position the first time, because she’s not going to be able to hang out and spend ten seconds feeling it out when she’s doing an actual course.

Will she ever do an actual course? I don’t know. She’s seven years old, after all! But we’re operating under the theory that she might do some actual agility trials at some point.

After class I took a short video that shows, as best as I could since I was running with her, the same issue.

Molly suggested practicing at home using a board, a step, or some other surface. Practicing board exercises at home has been a challenge. Perhaps this is how we got to where we are now!

We had our marching orders—what would we make of them? We’ve still had difficulty getting to practice this, but now we have frequent reminders about the need to do so. Working on getting “feet” on the first try is pretty low-hanging fruit and would improve our runs in class quite a lot, we just need to put in the time and make it happen.

Trickery! Weekly Agility Report

Our homework for agility this week was to practice a “whiplash cue.” Rain would be conditioned to look at me immediately when hearing whatever this whiplash cue would be. (After much deliberation, I chose “zip!”) When properly practiced, the whiplash cue would become Pavlovian, Rain’s response automatic, so it wouldn’t matter if there was something super exciting going on nearby.

We only started practicing two days before class, but it didn’t take long for Rain to show serious progress. So when we came to class this week, I took the opportunity to show Molly and the others without being asked to do so.

Class this week consisted of two courses. The arena was laid out thusly:

The first course consisted of nine obstacles, with some tricky parts built into the design. Two consecutive jumps were placed at a pretty obtuse angle in relation to each other, and that’s the first place Rain found some challenge. I got her over the first jump, but her instinct was to skip the second to keep at my side.

Then we swung around to repeat the first two jumps in the course. When I was walking the course I spotted the real trick: the next obstacle was not the same as the first time we did this pattern! The dog walk started just a foot or two away from the tunnel she had been asked to take the first time around!

TRICKERY! 

Indeed, Rain didn’t get on the dog walk right away when we got to this part of the course. Once we had run the course once and worked through our sticky spots, we eventually got there by taking a moving pause after the prior jump and only then cuing her to the dog walk.

It wasn’t until we were working on the second part of the course that I realized the second piece of trickery in Molly’s setup: she had broken it up between the two courses, but Molly had set up a pinwheel in the arena! It’s labeled B1, 1/6 and 5 in the map above, but there was no mistaking that it was a pinwheel. Now that I’m starting to understand what I’m doing and looking for while walking a course, I’m taking notice of these little details intended to be challenging or reinforcement of prior work.

The second course of the day also included a broad jump. After several conversations where Molly learned that Rain hadn’t actually learned the broad jump yet, we took a few minutes and started introducing her using one tipped-up broad jump board. She didn’t seem to take to it as easily as other things we’ve done, so I imagine it will take some practice. Molly did include the broad jump in our run but only included one board, knowing that Rain would be running so fast towards it she would have no problem jumping over the length.

The end of the second course was pretty interesting too—a tunnel had been placed under an A-frame and she was to go through the tunnel and then immediately climb over the A-frame. It meant getting her attention immediately when coming out of the tunnel, which was fairly easy but I could imagine instances where a dog’s instinct might be to keep running toward the jump (9 in the map) since that’s what they would see coming out of the tunnel.

It was a good class! Rain and I spent some time in the pens out back afterward, Rain alternating between a dip in the kiddy pool, ball fetching, and sniffing around the grass. At a certain point I heard a voice from the barn:

“Heather, you have to go home sometime…”

It was Molly, teasing me about having made myself comfortable on the grass to enjoy the summer afternoon. Perhaps we were lollygagging a little longer than usual, but when we were passing through the barn to head out, our two classmates and Molly were having a gab session anyway! We’re not the only ones taking advantage of hanging with our beloved furballs in the country on a summer afternoon.

Bales of Challenge: Weekly Agility Report

Remember all the strange grass cuttings we encountered at the park last week before agility? It turns out they had been cut for baling, as that’s the form we found them in when we visited before agility this week! There must have been more than 50 dotting the field, and they smelled sweet drying in the sun. It was nice to have the field clear enough that Rain could easily find her ball, and of course the bales made for a nice photo op.

I made sure to take it easy on the fetching before class this week. The day had been cooler and overcast but the clouds were starting to break up as we got to the park. We did play fetch for a spell, but then I decided to head to the back of the field and walk back along the path that circumnavigates the space. Rain got to run around, sniff at the critter holes in the ground, and enjoy some freedom and we arrived back at the car just in time to head over for class.

The prior class went over by several minutes so Rain and I headed to the back, where the facility’s kiddy pool was set up in one of the pens. Rain got to splash around in the pool while we waited, and I could tell as soon as she was feeling cooler. Then I thought about how all the dirt granules on the arena floor were going to stick to her legs during class.

Class mostly consisted of challenges involving a pinwheel. You may recall that a pinwheel is usually made up of jumps arranged in a sort of circle or square formation, with the handler working at the center of the formation.

During class, Molly warmed us up with a couple of pinwheel exercises. Rain and I went first, and she kept adding challenges for us to try. First, I was to guide Rain around the pinwheel without using any verbal or gestural cues. We did the exercise both ways, clockwise and counterclockwise. Then I was supposed to guide Rain around three jumps and do something different on the fourth jump. I think the “something different” was that I was doing a rear cross behind her as Rain took the jump—a challenge because Rain hasn’t had much exposure to rear crosses before. (I may be misremembering because my brain was starting to short out at this point.)

Molly’s pièce de résistance was a similar exercise where I was supposed to get to the outside portion of the jump ahead of Rain before she took the jump, so I could efficiently send her into the tunnel. (If I recall correctly, this means that I was doing a front cross but it was sort of awkwardly set up.)

You may recall that Rain is FAST. Running into position ahead of her is no easy task. This last challenge took us a few tries, but on the final turn I ended up doing a tour jete into place which was about the only way I was able to get to where I needed to be in time.

Our classmate Jackie very kindly caught the moment on video:

When class was over Rain and I headed back to the kiddy pool and we ended up having some hang time with Poppy, Cedar, and Jackie (their human). Jackie turned us on to a dog park relatively close to home that we might go check out fairly soon. At one point Cedar and Poppy were chasing each other and I could tell Rain wanted to join in, but stopped short. Instead she ran around the pen by herself and once bored, started barking at me to entertain her.

After a few more dips in the pool it was time to start heading home for the evening. Rain decided to dry herself off in the grass before we loaded her in the car and drove off into the sunset.

 

Independence from Fear: A July 4th Hike on Mt. Hood

A shady patch along the face of Bald Mountain
in the Mt. Hood National Forest.

Independence Day is frightening for a ton of animals, and Rain is no exception. Since Rain started habitating with me a couple of years ago, I’ve been experimenting with different solutions to soothe her fear of fireworks.

This year I decided to take Rain on a long hike. My hope was to wear her out enough physically and mentally that once night fell she would be too tired to be afraid. In the days leading up to July 4th I also discovered videos and music on YouTube that were specifically created to help dogs relax when fireworks were happening.

Steven joined us in the morning and we made our way to the Mt. Hood National Forest. Our plan was to do a short loop around Bald Mountain and then perhaps take a fragment of either the nearby Pacific Crest Trail or Timberline Trail.

After a bit of a climb from the trailhead, we made our way to the steep meadows of Bald Mountain, which were covered with wildflowers.

I tried to take a couple of good photos of Rain with Mt. Hood towering behind her, but she was antsy and getting warm. It wasn’t until I noticed her lifting her back feet up alternately that I realized the dirt and rocks were making her paw pads hurt.

Immediately I started walking and didn’t stop until I had found a small patch of trail that was in the shade. We continued along this meadow portion by rushing to the next modest patch of shade and then waiting for Steven to catch up behind us. A squat yellow dog hotfooted along past us, panting, followed by his human who was walking fast to only sort of keep up with her buddy. They reminded me of the time in Montana when Atticus decided to descend Mount Jumbo at his own pace, and then patiently waited for me in the shady grass at the bottom until I had caught up with him.

The trails were hopping with people and animals. Unlike our first hike with Rain on Labor Day 2015, Rain was doing great when she encountered people and dogs on the trail. For the most part.

Once we were back in the wooded area, a gentleman coming the opposite way got the bejeezus scared out of him when he passed us. There are certain people that Rain just doesn’t like for some reason. They’re always men. This guy had two trekking poles, a hat with a shade that went most of the way around his head, and big sunglasses. I’m not sure if any of those are why Rain didn’t like the cut of his jib, but she barked at him. A LOT. 😳

After that I started warning people that Rain was noisy. Just in case. Another gentleman we encountered later said “oh yes, I’ve heard…from a guy up the trail!” Or something to that effect. I looked back at Steven and grimaced. This meant the previous gentleman had complained to at least one person—likely more. Naturally, Rain didn’t give this fellow a second look as we crossed paths.

One thing she did more consistently is what I think of as Rain “needing the final word.” If we pull to the side of a trail to let others pass, Rain will be perfectly silent until the people are walking away. Then she’ll give a couple of barks as if to say “let that be a lesson to you!”

We ended up taking part of the Timberline Trail, which circumnavigates Mt. Hood, a few miles down to the glacial riverbank of the Muddy Fork of the Sandy River. We noticed the river emanating from large waterfall higher up on the mountain—one that appears to be nameless on Google Maps.

Including a short break on the way back, our hike took four hours. Was it enough to wear Rain out? She was on leash the entire time so she didn’t get to run quite as much as when we were at Sandy River Delta Park for three hours. She was certainly subdued—but about as peppy as ever when we got back to the trailhead.

Heading down the mountain we stopped at a special spot with a cool waterfall we had discovered in the past. Rain got to splash around and cool her paws before the long haul back to town.

She had over an hour to nap as we traveled back home but once there, I noticed a lull in Rain’s activity level. When fireworks started cracking she got anxious and stuck to me closely, but once we were settled inside the house on my bed it wasn’t long before she was dozing off. There were lots of great things about our outing, but if we even just took the edge off of her anxiety around the neighborhood war zone that night, it was all worth it.