The Secret Garden Becomes the Black Forest: Weekly Agility Report

Our pre-agility adventures lead Rain and me to some scary things this week. First, after just a little bit of fetch time at the park I decided that we should follow the trails into the Secret Garden a bit further. Rain wouldn’t be running her little doggy heart out but surely she’d find interesting smells to excite her brain and we’d still have a good time.

We hadn’t even made it to the forested part of this area of the park when Rain made a bee-line off trail and into the grass. Before I knew it, we were looking at a partial skeleton.

There was a part of a spinal column, a pelvis, and even a femur head, but this partial skeleton was otherwise pretty clean. Strange, considering it was largely resting on the grass. Had someone brought it to the park to deposit? Did a dog discover it and move it, so it didn’t look like it had been there for a long time? I got Rain’s attention and we moved into the trees.

Inside the wooded area, the underbrush starts out fairly minimal with the trails flat and relatively wide. As we walked further, the trails narrowed and the underbrush got thicker. A couple of times we even switched trail forks to see if we could find the most traveled option. At a certain point I started wondering where the adjacent property line was and whether the owner was a stereotypical Clackamas County resident. We pressed onward, but soon the trails became mostly unpassable from blackberry cane growth that is a staple of the Pacific northwest. We turned back.

There’s a long history of storytelling associating the forest with dark activity, from the märchen of the Brothers Grimm to the more modern Blair Witch Project. Usually I feel great when I’m inside a forest, but not on this day.

It was probably the discovery of the bones.

Once we were back to the grassy area, we took a slightly different path but before long Rain’s sniffer was doing its job again.

We found the skull. Well, part of it, anyway.

Our exploration time was a little unsettling, so it was good to get back to the familiar. We headed to class.

During class we worked on a long course that involved nearly everything set up in the arena. It had a couple of tricky spots, but Rain and I did fairly well. I was particularly proud when she hit the channel weave successfully on both our complete runs!

Rain has, however, still been having problems with her “feet” command (also known as two on/two off). After everyone had run the course, Molly grabbed her board and we worked on “feet.” We also learned a new exercise that we can use to try and encourage Rain to face forward (instead of facing me) whenever I’ve asked for feet.

It feels like we have a ways to go.

Portland had experienced a couple of unseasonably warm days earlier in the week, and someone had hauled out the kiddy pool. Before and after class then, Rain took full advantage of its presence.

We couldn’t stay too long after class this week, but Rain wouldn’t have let me leave without a visit to the ball-fetching area. (She’s got rituals, you know.) She spent a minute splashing in the pool, spent another minute catching a ball, and then we were zipping along back home.


Getting Our Nose Into New Business: Nosework Report

When Rain finished her nosework class at Oregon Humane Society (OHS) in early March, our teacher Rachel talked about her intent to add some more offerings in the spring. Specifically, she hoped to add an Intro to Odor class that would start training dogs to sniff out birch, one of the three main scents used in nosework.

Since our goal was to train Rain as a truffle dog though, I didn’t know if we should even take that class. I emailed a truffle dog trainer I had previously been in contact with.

I waited. And I waited. I got a couple of emails from OHS with specific class dates and registration links. And then I waited some more.

At some point I mentioned this at agility class, where Jackie advised me to check in and be persistent. So I did, and I was.

Eventually I heard back, and got the green light to proceed on learning other odors. Then after some back and forth, I discovered that the trainer herself had a more convenient class time/location. Some of the details were sketchy though.

Dog trainers excel at working with dogs and their people, and hopefully at the activity they’re training people to do. They don’t necessarily need to be as good about administrative tasks like email, bookkeeping, and the like.

Mentioning this progress at agility last week, our classmate Jackie said she was in the class before the one we were thinking of going to. After class Jackie was able to answer all my remaining questions. It was a big help knowing someone who already knew Rain but also knew the class and trainer as well.

That is an abbreviated (yes, really) version of how and why we started a new nosework class this week!

Our class is at a gun club in a little pocket of SE Portland that’s just a few miles from home. This pocket was largely rural when I became familiar with it as a child, but these days the horse stables and small farms are sharing space with brand new housing developments and an impressive new soccer complex.

The gun club is closed a few days each week so Kristina uses their facility for her classes during some of this time. (She holds classes in other spots around Portland throughout the week.) Our class time works out perfectly, as I’m able to get home from work, make a quick dinner, gather Rain, and get there with plenty of time to spare. On this evening I just happened to see a tweet announcing an emergency road closure just before leaving, so I was able to easily avoid that tangle as well.

Jackie is in the class before ours, and it was really nice to arrive and see someone we already knew. I got to meet Jackie’s dog Emily, who is deaf like Poppy, and who Jackie takes to nosework.

Between classes Kristina and I chatted a bit and before long I knew Rain would be right at home. She wouldn’t be the only dog barking with excitement, able to be heard well before arriving at the site. She wouldn’t be the only potentially reactive dog. We were previously told that once we switched to odor we wouldn’t be able to do food searches anymore, and Kristina gave us a more nuanced version of the rule that will work far better for us—we’ll still be able to do food searches in specific places.

There are two other people who come to class each week but one of them was out of town so our first class consisted of one other woman with her two Rhodesian ridgebacks—a mother-daughter duo. It was nice and low-key, and the surroundings made us feel like we were a lot further from an urban environment than we actually were. (There was even a big herd of 20+ horses being pastured across the clearing from us!)

We started class working inside the clubhouse. The three dogs took turns searching throughout the evening, with the two ridgebacks further along on finding scents that were placed around a room.

Rain’s first search was a warmup—finding her hot dogs in a relatively small area of the clubhouse. I learned that glass/windows absorb scent and that Rain could use more practice at detail work. This is when several treats are placed in roughly the same area and the dog has to determine where each one is at.

During Rain’s second search, Kristina started using scent. She has these small metal box contraptions that hold a scented Q-tip. They also have a magnet so they can stick in unusual places—under the seat of a stool, on the leg of a table, or in our final search, on the screen of a fireplace.

Kristina would place the box and rest a hot dog on top of it. The idea is that the scent is being paired with a reward, and eventually the reward will be taken away but the dog will still get a reward when they find the scent. For this class, Kristina had me keep Rain’s nose near the scent and feed her a couple more hot dogs even after she had eaten the one that was placed on the metal container. After all, keeping her nose there longer is going to help her brain get familiar with the scent faster.

The ridgebacks’ last two searches were done just outside the clubhouse, but we went back inside for Rain’s final search. After class, I sat down and chatted for a bit longer with Kristina and another nosework person who had stopped in after her soccer game across the street was over.

Rain had no idea we would be going somewhere that evening, that she’d be staying in the scary car so much by herself, and that she’d suddenly be asked to perform skills she hadn’t practiced much for a couple of months. She did great though! She didn’t get reactive at all when she saw the other two dogs crated in their car—she was just happy to be in a new place and to have a job to do. She was quiet and settled by the time we left, and ready for bed when we got home.

It’s great to be in class to move our skills forward. Unlike OHS Kristina’s classes are more constant, and class payments would be more ongoing than doing a limited six-week session at OHS. Theoretically, the money I’m spending on doggy classes could double—which isn’t really a sustainable option. Originally I was thinking that Rain could transition into this more thinky activity once her body couldn’t handle agility anymore—but I think that day is still far off. It means that our nosework time is likely to be spotty, at least for now. Bummer.

The Secret Garden: Weekly Agility Report

Rain and I unlocked some of the mysteries of the Secret Garden before agility class this week.

The Secret Garden is an area just off the main part of the park we visit before class, hidden by a row of bushes save two small breaks in the greenery. It wasn’t until other park visitors would show up and then disappear that I even realized there was another area to explore.

Rain had run enough so we were walking around the perimeter of the park. (After the required trip to the mudhole, I decided we could take a few minutes and see if there was anything interesting beyond the bushes. And there was!

The grass was unmowed but there were a few pathways in the grass suggesting a route. We found plenty of camas, in full bloom across the northwest right now, but the path started veering into a more wooded patch of land. Rain lead the way.

Soon we were ensconced in a shady grove of Douglas firs, but it was time to start heading to class.

In class Molly set up a course ringing three-quarters of the arena, featuring jumps and some tricky spots. Rain wasn’t fooled by the first, a tunnel entrance set up next to an A-frame. She also picked up on the in-course channel weave almost right away! It made me proud that she was showing progress.

The course started with a couple of jumps and an easy line down one side of the arena, so I lead out quite a ways. After our first run, Molly made me use the distant lead out to my advantage by continuing to run instead of waiting for Rain. That part was smoother the next run, because Rain and I ended up meeting at the weave poles and Rain’s speed matched mine for just long enough to catch a quick breath.

This course had a broad jump and a teeter, neither of which we had done for a bit. Rain did well on the teeter, except that we’re still not masters of the “feet” command (two on, two off). Molly called us out on that too.

Once everyone had done a version of that course, Molly rearranged some jumps toward the center of the room and drew a line in the sand—our line to follow. Two of three jumps near that line would require an “out,” so we were practicing it for the first time in a while in class. Rain and I practice pretty regularly at our neighborhood park using a line of established trees, so we did this one comfortably well.

Next, Molly built on to the prior exercise, making a course out of those jumps, a couple at the ends, and the dog walk on the other side. Once again Rain and I did great, except for the dialing-in of the feet at the end.

Class ran late, too! Perhaps it was the pleasant spring afternoon, perhaps it was the moon in the seventh house, but we didn’t even declare class as over until 15 minutes after the time it should have been over. We were all fine with it though.

During our session I discovered our classmate Jackie (Poppy and Cedar’s person) had some very valuable information, so once we were disbanding the two of us stuck around a bit so I could ask her questions. Expect to hear more about that conversation in the days to come.

Soon enough though, it was time for a final round of ball playing before heading off into the sunset.

Rain Gains a New Chariot: Weekly Agility Report

Our attendance at agility class this week was threatened by a very unlikely culprit: my car. It had gone in for an oil change the prior weekend and for reasons well outside my control, it was still in the shop! But likely to be ready that evening. The loaner had a no smoking/no pets policy but neither the shop nor I realized I’d still be driving it almost a week later!

“Go ahead and put her in the car for your class,” the shop liaison said. Thinking, I offered that there were a few other options potentially available to me, and I’d only put her in their brand new loaner car as a last resort.

It wasn’t until I remembered Rain’s mudhole bathing and the sandy dirt floor of the agility arena that I realized that NO, Rain in their car COULD NOT HAPPEN. WOULD not happen. I would figure out another way.

And that is—briefly—why Steven took us to class this week! 😀

Steven has a red Toyota pickup with a canopy in the back—a vehicle that Uncle Atticus happily traveled in several times during his golden years. Rain had never ridden in it, but despite her past issues riding in cars it was time to give it a shot.

And she did really well! We opened the windows between the bed of the pickup and the cab, and Rain stuck her head in to say howdy a couple of times without trying to climb through to be in the front. She enjoyed the standard cushy seat (a cozy dog bed) and having the company of a fun visitor.

Playing fetch before prancing around the mudhole.

Rain’s mudhole was a little less deep due to the drier weather, but it was no matter—Rain ran right in. She spent a good two minutes circling around, splashing, and putting her face in the water to fling it skyward. Steven took a few photos of her while I rolled my eyes.

Once she was done, she made a sudden bee-line for a spot about 50 feet away. She sniffed for a second, then threw herself down and started rolling around. In the mud. Like a little piggy.

At the end of this porcine moment Rain got right up and we continued on. Her head, however, was coated in a wet substance that felt a bit oily. Once dry, it gave her a spiky-haired Billy Idol look until I gave her a bath the next morning. (Sleeping next to her that night wasn’t terribly smell-free, either.)

We were nearly to class when I remembered that Rain’s mat, a homemade quilt with Aussie fabric, was also in my car. Fortunately for us, Steven had his go-to beach blanket in the pickup, so Rain was able to lounge on it, hair and sand and everything, without remorse.

At class we had a pretty interesting twelve-part course made almost completely of jumps. It involved a couple of tricky moves, and a couple of spots where the dog might take the wrong obstacle due to their line coming off another obstacle. It was simple, but challenging!


After we all had our turn working the course, we finished up class by doing some longer-term obstacle work. Aria and Flute got to practice the dog walk, then Poppy and Rain practiced the channel weaves.

Aria gets her reward after a successful run on the dog walk.

Rain and I worked while Steven read some essays by Wallace Stegner, a writer who eerily predicted some modern land-use problems in the western US. Once class was over, Steven attempted to babysit Rain in the pens while I gathered our things inside. Unsurprisingly, Rain would not be distracted, and simply stood at the gate watching for me. We did have a good time playing fetch in the beautiful spring afternoon once I joined them. Rain once again had no problems getting in the pickup and we all enjoyed a quiet trip back to my house to start our evening.

Happy Birthday Rain!

We’re pre-empting our usual Tuesday fare this week to report that Rain is eight years old today! She’s as happy as she has ever been, and tonight her people will treat her to a small dog birthday cake and Frosty Paws.

Celebrate Rain’s birthday by reading about the eventful day when she entered the world, our first blog post back in 2015. You can also honor Rain’s special day by giving an extra treat and scritches to the doggo in your life.

Rain has lived quite a life in eight years, and we’re happy that our readers are as excited about her adventures as she is.

AKC Made a Whoopsie

Recently I took Rain’s AKC Trick Dog certificate to work in order to scan it. The woman who owns Rain’s dad asked me for copies of her files as Rain earned any titles, certificates, and the like.

When I was just about to scan the AKC Novice Trick Dog certificate, my eye spotted a typo: Rain’s full name read GEARTHARTS instead of GEARHARTS. There was an extra T in there!

Fortunately for me, I met an AKC representative at the Rose City Classic dog show who gave me her email address. I sent an email to the general Trick Dog address and forwarded it to the woman I met in January. I figured it was an honest typo and it wouldn’t be a big deal to correct.

It wasn’t until I received an email a few days later with the subject line “Your Registration Certificate” that I realized the typo had taken place prior to the Trick Dog certificate being issued. I still had a scan of the paperwork I sent to them, to see if I had messed something up—and found that it wasn’t me! (PHEW!)

My career involves copy editing, and I remember thinking Rain’s name looked strange when I received the original certificate. I’m surprised that I didn’t take more notice at the time, but I may have chalked it up to having never seen her full name, and in all caps, before.

At any rate, the staff at AKC was very responsive and everything was fixed very quickly. I think I had hard copies of both corrected certificates to me within a couple of weeks. The woman I had met at the Rose City Classic even sent me a Novice Trick Dog ribbon for Rain, which wasn’t standard issue for their certificate packets, but rather one of many products you could buy from the AKC website.

Time to start working harder on our Intermediate Trick Dog test!


The Pinwheel Challenge Fries Our Brains: Weekly Agility Report

After missing a week of agility class, I returned from my trip and the weather was gorgeous. Portland experienced new record high temperatures in the days leading up to class this week. We went to the park for the first time in 2018 without wearing a coat. We even turned the ceiling fan on! But on agility day our spring rains returned.

When I headed home to get Rain, it started with some sprinkles. I barely needed to use the windshield wipers on the car. After picking Rain up and heading to the Clackamas County countryside, the sprinkles became heavier and more constant, so when it was time to head to agility my raincoat was solidly wet.

Rain’s favorite puddle had dried up from the nice weather, but Rain still managed to find a decent swimming hole to splash around in for a few minutes.

The water in this particular mudhole rose all the way to her underbelly, and she marched around, using her face to flip water into the air. She was soaked, muddy, and now it was time to climb back into the car and head to class.

Once we got to class then, the sandy floor stuck to Rain’s wet legs and belly so she looked a little like the Creature from the Black Lagoon. She was, however, overjoyed that she was back to class.

We used a pinwheel with a curved tunnel this week for all our exercises—meaning we were going to be focusing more on handling than dog work in the day’s class.

First, Molly told us to walk a course of blue cones, and that there would be two front crosses in our course. That one seemed to come fairly easily to me, and Molly was pretty impressed with our first and second runs through it. Next, she added a challenge—doing the course in reverse! Once I was able to figure out the opening moves, that went fine too.

Next, we did a review of a basic pinwheel with the handler doing as little movement beyond a certain area inside the pinwheel as possible. It had been a while since we had done a pinwheel, and that showed. I vaguely recall doing a pinwheel in the past where I barely gave Rain any cues at all, but on this day we were both feeling a little challenged. We got through it though.

This is a pinwheel, but on this day our pinwheel also had
a curved tunnel to the side of one of the jumps.

The pinwheel review was to help us with the next exercise, which was very similar to our first course but we were doing rear crosses instead of front crosses. This exercise required that we use some threadles, which we haven’t done a lot of, plus our brains had been away from agility an extra week.

This exercise proved to be more of challenge—at least on my part—than the front cross exercise. Instead of running madly to keep up with Rain, this exercise required less speed on my part, and Molly observed that Rain was getting confused because I was speeding up and slowing down at different points. All hurky-jerky.

We did get through it enough to try in reverse again too, but we never really mastered this exercise before Molly said “take a break!” I think she meant to come back to us to try again, as she finds that brains can “simmer” when taking a short break, and then have more success when they come back to it a few minutes later. (It works, too! I’ve seen Rain do far better on an exercise after taking a short break.)

While we were in class, the rain outside continued pretty consistently and even got a bit harder for a while. By the end of class though, the rain had ceased and it even started looking lighter outside. My raincoat had mostly dried during class, but the conditions were much more pleasant so Rain and I still spent plenty of time playing ball in the pens before going home.

It was difficult getting Rain in the car that afternoon but she was very happy to be back at class. Even so, she calmed considerably after all the mental challenges our class had provided (learn a pattern! now do it backwards! learn a slightly different pattern! do that backwards!). My brain was pretty fried too, particularly since I was running a little low on sleep. The rain held off for the rest of the afternoon and we enjoyed a quiet evening at home until turning in early.