Friday, May 27, 2016

The Goober

A few weeks ago, I started a series about the different facets of Barely's identity. So far, we've covered the instigator and the athlete, but today we're covering one of my very favorite elements of Barley: the goober.

Barley is one of the goofiest dogs I've ever met. One of my favorite moments with Barley was our very first noseworks class. We were introducing our dogs to boxes and to the command we were using to search and we had started dropping a treat into an open box and saying the command word. On the first attempt, Barley put her whole body in the box and the entire class laughed. For the rest of the class, every time a treat dropped into the box, Barley would wiggle her way into the box. After that, it took several weeks before I could convince Barley that her nose was really the only thing that needed to go into the box. She's a lot like naughty toddlers in church--they find one person who will laugh at them (aka me) and the behavior will increase tenfold.

Sometimes, she's so eager to please that it looks like her head might explode. There are times when our trainer will handle her to show me how something should look and Barley knows she's my girl, but she knows our trainer is the one with the snacks, and it takes all I have not to laugh as she runs a few laps between us before getting back to work with our trainer.

Barley's also always ready for whatever silly photo shoot I come up with--no matter how impromptu they may be. In a moment of frustration over a 1000-piece New Yorker puzzle featuring dogs in ear warmers and scarves, I had to take a break from looking at it, saw a scarf and a fleece ear cover nearby, and in no time Barley was hopping up to pose with the puzzle. I'm sure my sister thought we were crazy, but Barley thought it was the must fun she'd had all night.

A puzzle with dogs in scarves must be done by a dog in a scarf.

She's equally willing to pose with dandelions or any other random object I decide she'd look extra cute with--and she makes sure to pull out her best poses for those photos.

Even when she's sleeping, Barley is a goober. I can't count the number of times that I've looked up from grading papers to see her napping in some weird Cirque du Soleil-type pose. They never look comfortable, but they always make me laugh.

This dog makes me laugh on a daily basis. She's a class clown and thrives on making people smile. She has a joy for life that my childhood dogs--lovely as they were--didn't exhibit. She's a goober and I wouldn't have her any other way.

Thursday, May 26, 2016

The Importance of Getting Away

Any readers who have spent the last few summer vacations with us know that the pets are my absolute favorite travel buddies. On the rare occasion that I have had to road trip behind them, I don't know how to function without having to worry about choosing road trip snacks Bar and I can share, figuring out how to keep them cool in the car while I run into a rest stop without giving Barley a chance to drive away on her own, and without being able to reach beside or behind me to give the pets a quick scritch.

For the last three years, though, I've scheduled a trip with good friends from college that takes me away from the pets. The first year, I was an anxious mess thinking about being away from the pets for several days. The last two years, though, I've learned the importance of taking a break from the pets.

Relaxing. Even though Barley and I spend plenty of time wandering through the woods and take daily walks in our neighborhood, life with Barley is not relaxing. I'm constantly managing her and looking out for possible triggers. Even in the house, we don't relax much. I have to herd Barley away from the cat food and the litter boxes and remind her not to dig the carpet or chase her brother. Relax is not a word that Barley embraces.

But for a glorious three and a half days, I could relax knowing that Barley and Soth were safe and sound with their grandparents while I spent time with friends.

I got to go for a nice stroll through Atlanta's Piedmont Park with a dear friend. We were able to stop and watch a heron (or heron-like bird) catch fish for several minutes without worrying about whether a dog was coming up behind us. (Side note: If you happened to be in this park last Thursday and saw a crazy lady saying "dog!" the way the dog in Up says "squirrel!" while her friend patiently dragged her another direction, that was me--I'm sorry if it was awkward.)

I desperately wanted Barley to be with me for photo ops.

Later in the trip, I got to lounge by my friend's pool and watch a storm roll in over her ranch. I got to wake up and drink my coffee on the steps overlooking her lake. 

I also got in a little snuggle time with Barley's nemesis cousin, Hank. I rarely get to hang out with the little guy because Barley wants to eat him, so it was nice to have a quick stop in at my brother's place as I passed through town. 

Remembering what else I love. It's easy to get caught up in Barley and Soth. They're goofy, affectionate, and exhausting and most of my day is dedicated to loving them. It can be easy to forget that there are other things that I love, too. Since all of my friends at home are also co-workers, often social time involves a lot of "shop talk," so it was refreshing to spend time with friends who don't know my other co-workers or students or the classes I'm teaching. Of course, we talked about highlights about work and the pets, but we also talked about politics, home decor, food, travel, family, love. We played several rounds of Cards Against Humanity and laughed until we cried.

Appreciating what I have. Absence definitely makes the heart grow fonder when it comes to my pets. Sometimes I forget how just awesome they are and a few days away can make me appreciate them more. As I took a stroll through my friend's property one morning before anyone else was up, I realized just how much I enjoy walking with a dog. I didn't know what to do with my hands when i wasn't holding a leash or doling out treats. I had to take a selfie by myself when I wanted to get a picture of the red Georgia clay I love so much and the picture of just the clay was boring. I got lost in my thoughts and wasn't scanning for potential triggers and jumped out of my skin on multiple occasions when a squirrel or one of the ranch dogs came crashing through the woods.

There is nothing sweeter than being greeted by your pets when you get home. Soth was content to sprawl on my lap on the back porch and watch the birds while I watched some baseball with my dad. Barley wiggled and wagged and refused to let me out of her sight.

Content until you jostle him reaching for the camera that is . . .
As lovely as the trip was, I was reminded there's no place like home as Barley and I took a sunset walk along the lake. But sometimes, I think, you do need to go a little farther than your own backyard to really appreciate that--and now that I've had my reminder, I'm ready for a summer full of adventure with my favorite co-pilots!

Friday, May 13, 2016

The Athlete

I've always been fascinated by all of the different facets to Barley's identity. After my post about Barley's about new role in our neighborhood, I thought it might be fun to do a series on all of the elements that make Barley Barley.

Barley shares my problem of fluctuating weight. Even with consistent walking and agility sessions, if she gets one kibble of extra calories (not to mention helping herself to a little cat food), her waist line disappears.

Lately, we've been trying even harder to keep her trim and the work is paying off. We've been getting in our 3+ miles every day and we get regular play sessions in our yard. Barley jumps and pounces as as I toss her toys around. She'll occasionally take a break from her toys to herd me and run large circles around the yard.

Earlier this week, we were out walking and a neighbor stopped us to ask what kind of dog Barley was. We chatted for a few minutes and then he commented, "She's quite the athlete, huh?" 

Our trainer has been commenting on how good she's been looking for weeks, but I was just beaming with pride that a complete stranger, who had never seen Barley before, noticed her athleticism.  

Thursday, May 12, 2016

Two Good Pets

When I was growing up, any time my siblings and I asked my mom what she wanted for a gift-giving holiday, she'd always respond with "Three good kids."

Although I will say things like "Come sit by your mama" to Barley and Soth, I don't actually consider myself a mother and think that Mother's Day is all about celebrating my mom and has nothing to do with celebrating me. However, Barley and Soth must have been talking to their grandma because on Mother's Day, I got two good pets.

It was a beautiful, sunshiny day, so while I worked on grading, I left the font door open so they pets could watch the world go by through the storm door.

My heart melted when I looked over and saw Soth sleeping with one of his paws on top of Barley's paws.

They stayed that way most of the afternoon--occasionally shifting positions to stay in the sunlight.

5 years ago, I never would have thought that they'd spend a lazy Sunday afternoon together and it was lovely to see. My siblings and I always got my mom something material--usually books or chocolate, I think--but I can only hope that at least once my siblings and I gave my mom what she really wanted because two good pets really was a gift.

Monday, May 9, 2016

The Instigator

I have a feeling Barley and I are quickly moving up to the top of the "Neighborhood's Most Hated List" with the neighbor dogs and their owners.

Now that we've had many consecutive days of warmish weather, we've had a chance to see where all of the neighborhood dogs live. We've learned where we need to cross the street to avoid e-fences, which streets may have loose dogs that will prompt us to go in a different direction, and which houses have dogs on tie outs that we might not notice until we're right beside them and they're barking at us. 

That all means that Barley is walking beautifully through our neighborhood. I know where I need to get her attention before other dogs do and she just trots right along past the barking dogs (with the occasional snack, of course). 

In our old neighborhood, very few of our neighbors seemed to care when their dogs were barking. A couple neighbors would come out to quiet their dogs, but for the most parts, dogs started barking when they saw us and we could still hear them long after we were out of sight. In this neighborhood, dogs get about 10 seconds of barking in before someone comes to quiet them or take them back inside.

A few days ago, we were walking towards a house with a big hedge between us and the driveway. We could hear a dog barking and a woman calling the dog inside. As we got in front of the driveway, a man working in the garage said, "Oh. That's why . . ." to himself. I just smiled and waved.

A few days later, we walked by a house with a beagle and a bigger hound in the yard. As we approached their house, they started barking. I said my usual, "Hi, pups!" and kept walking, but before we'd even made it halfway past their house, the owners were out herding the dogs back into the house. 

As we kept walking, two dogs were in their fenced yard with their two teenaged kids. When the dogs started barking, one of the girls yelled, "No barking, Jessie! Shut up, Jessie! No barking, Jessie!" Before long, we heard the voice of a mom bellowing, "Nobody out here said 'shut up,' did they?" Followed by the teens saying, "But we were just . . ." and Mom responding, "Oh no. We do not say shut up in this house." 

Throughout it all, Barley just pranced beside me and smiled up at me as I told her to watch. It seems like we're getting everyone in trouble and pretty soon we might be hearing all of the neighbors' doors and shutters slamming shut every time we leave our house.

I don't mean to get everyone in trouble.

Sunday, May 8, 2016

Happy Mother's Day!

As legend has it, my grandpa occasionally picked up work on the coal boats in the harbor of the town I now live in. Way back before he and my grandma got married, my grandma traveled about an hour from her small Pennsylvania town to visit him. As they were eating in one of the harbor diners, my grandpa "made eyes" at a pretty girl and my grandma left town without a word. My grandpa was so scared to admit what had happened to my great-grandma if she answered the phone that he didn't call to see if my grandma had made it home until several days had passed. I'm not sure how he made things right with Grandma, but eventually they got married, had my dad, and my grandma never told a single other story about anything my grandpa did wrong.

Barley and the coal bridge

Today, as Barley and I took a perfect walk under beautiful blue skies down to see the coal bridge on this Mother's Day, I found myself missing my grandma a little more than usual. I'm so thankful to have had such a strong, independent, stubborn woman in my life for so many years. I think it's safe to say I have more than a little bit of her personality in me.

I also tried three different times to start a post about my own mom and what she means to me--which has increased tenfold in the years since I've added my own pets to my life--and words escaped me, so I'll just end with this throwback to 1988 (or 1989) when my mom was balancing a 4 (or 5)-year-old me, a 2 (or 3)-year-old dog, and my toddler sister and doing a really awesome job of being exactly the mom we all needed.

Happy Mother's Day to all of the wonderful mother's in my life! The pets and I would be lost without you.

Tuesday, May 3, 2016

The Power of Yes

If you came to this post thinking you'd find something along the lines of Shonda Rhimes' book Year of Yes, you'll be disappointed. This has nothing to do with facing my fears or being an introvert. After this paragraph, it will have nothing to do with Thursday night television. (Plus, Shonda and I aren't on speaking terms right now after what she's had David do to Susan on Scandal--I was ready to abandon Liv and the gladiators for a Susan-David spin off and then Shonda had to go and make me hate one of the only two characters I still cared about on the show. Really?)

This post is all about the most important word in Barley's vocabulary. The theme for this month's positive reinforcement hop is the power of play, but Barley refuses to play most games in the presence of other dogs, so it's not our most useful training tool. We can do relaxation games and focus games (but only if combined with regular treats). Barley won't go anywhere near toys when she can see other dogs. And even if she would, she is so easily distracted by other dogs that I would never want to throw a toy as a reward for going over a jump or through the weaves because that amps her up too much and if she got sidetracked by another dog in that state, it could be a disaster. So, play is a training tool we only use when combined with lots and lots of yummy things and I thought it would make more sense to focus on one of our most useful training tools.

She is a very literate dog--she is part border collie, after all.

When we first started training, our trainer stressed the importance of marking good behavior with a praise word followed by a treat. We started doing this with sitting in heel position--we'd stop walking, if she sat beside me nicely, I'd say, "Yes! Good Girl!" and then give a treat. We've since moved on to using this with looking at me when other dogs are around, for recall work, for weaves--pretty much every single behavior I've trained Barley to do. The praise becomes the reward when it comes before the treat, so in a situation when treats aren't allowed (or a certain chubby puppy doesn't need more treats), your dog can still feel happy and rewarded for doing good things.

"What's that you said?"

"Yes?! Woohoo!"

A few weeks ago, Barley poisoned herself with some baker's chocolate. On our first walk after the incident, I was hesitant to give her treats because I knew she needed things that were easy on her tummy and none of the treats on hand fit that requirement. 

I decided to leave the treat pouch at home and just do a quick loop around the neighborhood. We've spent so many years training yes as a reward, that we were able to make it 1.37 miles without a single treat (which may be a record for Barley).  This isn't something I like to do often. Barley doesn't like to work for free and she is a food motivated dog, so I like to treat randomly so she always believes that a treat could come at any time (if you treat every single time after they've really learned the behavior, they'll start to think they can hesitate and do whatever you've asked whenever it's convenient for them). 

Barley will also quit working if I go too long between treats. When I'm trying to keep her away from the cat food, I can call her name and she'll turn and when I say, "Yes! Good girl!" she'll come running out of the kitchen to me--but if I do that more than a couple times, she'll decide the cat food is a much better reward than "yes" and she'll ignore me. If I don't treat often enough when she sees other dogs, especially new ones, her hackles will raise and I can feel a growl rumbling up the leash. 

Barley always prefers the food rewards--and I can't blame her because I'd rather have someone give me a snack than tell me I'm a good girl, too, but yes is a word we couldn't survive without. It keeps treats from losing their value. It helps us get out of the house even when treats aren't an option. Most importantly, though, it makes Barley happy and that's the best kind of word ever.

We're joining up with Tenacious Little Terrier, Rubicon Days, and Cascadian Nomads for the Postive Reinforcement Pet Training Week that begins on the first Monday of each month and lasts all week. Be sure to visit all of the other great blogs participating in the hop!

Monday, May 2, 2016

April Resolution Update

I can't believe it's already May. Even though the first four months of the year have been busy, it also still feels like early March outside, so it's hard to believe we're a third of the way through the year. But the calendar says that's the case, so it's time for a resolution update.

If you've been with us since January, you know that Barley set the goal of 1100 miles together again this year.

Honestly, when April started, I had no clue where we were at with our mileage so far. I knew that we'd had a decent January and February, but with the move and redecorating March mileage suffered. Garmin updated their system so that when I plug in my GPS watch to the computer, it automatically uploads to my account whether I log into the website and look at it or not, so now, usually I plug it in and walk away.

Last week, I finally sat down to get an idea of where we're at and I was pleasantly surprised:

  • January mileage: 97.25 miles in 31 consecutive days of walking
  • February mileage: 84.42 miles in 28 days of walking (1 day missed)
  • March mileage: 63.76 miles in 27 days of walking (4 days missed)
  • April mileage: 97.43 miles in 29 days of walking (1 day missed)
For a total of 342.86 miles--just 20.14 miles below the 33% we'd ideally be at by this point. This is 6.89 more than we'd walked by this point in 2015, so I'm feeling really good about where we're at right now.

If I'd checked in on our mileage in March, I probably would have pushed a little bit harder, but with the late winter blahs and the never-ending wallpaper removal, I let us get away with several shorter walks.

We ended April with a great (but rainy) walk at the arboretum to celebrate Arbor Day. We didn't get the mileage we wanted in that one walk, but we made up for it with a neighborhood stroll later that evening and we finally got to enjoy some things in bloom.

We'll be pushing ourselves a little more than usual until we make up those 20 miles or so we missed in the first 1/3 of the year, but I'm confident we'll have no trouble reaching 50% of our goal by the end of June. Thank you all for your support and good wishes as we strive for year 4 of reaching our resolution mileage!

Sunday, May 1, 2016

Another Love Letter to My Cat

Dear Soth,

Seven years ago, I fell in love with an all-white, one-year-old cat with a notch in his ear (that's you). He pretended to be aloof--not seeking affection after an initial scritch through his kennel bars--but I could tell he was interested in me. He didn't get close when he came out of the kennel, but he crouched and watched me and occasionally changed positions to watch me from another angle.

As always, I must post your very first photo.

I didn't know all of your quirks yet then, my love, but I did know that you were mine. You weren't the needy cat that kept headbutting the kennel door until I'd pet him again. You weren't the kitten that hissed and swatted through the kennel bars as I walked by. You were the patient, quiet cat I'd been searching for. Your adorable bright pink nose and ears didn't hurt, either.

When I introduced you to our current vet, they asked about the notch in your ear. I told them you came that way. They said it looked like you'd just missed dodging someone's bite. When I introduced you to my grandma, I told her you'd gotten it in a bar fight during your life on the streets of Santa Fe.

I used to imagine that the bar fight had occurred when you'd looked at someone wrong from across the room. You are always watching everyone carefully. When new people visit, you don't try to interact with them, but you don't hide, either. You settle in and eye them, keeping track of their every move. I could see someone sitting at the bar, noticing your stare, and becoming upset.

Recently, I've revised the story. I think you might have asked that they change the television channel from the big fight to House Hunters and someone at the bar put up a fuss. I think you've spent the first 8 years of your life dreaming of home ownership.

For almost seven years, you would tolerate being held, but you didn't enjoy it. You'd love blink me and purr as I pet you while you lounged on the couch or the floor, but you didn't want to be held. You didn't even want to sit in my lap unless I was covered by a Soth-approved blanket.

But a couple weeks ago that changed. I scooped you up for your goodnight kiss and you snuggled into my arms. You started to purr. Then you started to knead my arm. It's not easy to stand in the hallway holding a 13.5-lb. cat for long, but I couldn't let you go. I held you and kept shifting my weight back and forth until you'd tired of being snuggled. I didn't want to let that moment go. In the short month and a half that you've had your very own home, you've become a cat I've never seen before. You're happy.

Of course, you still resemble the little guy I fell in love with in the PetSmart meet-and-greet room. You still love chirping at birds and basking in the sunlight. You still live to eat. You still love to torment your sister.  And you still make the grumpiest faces.

But I've fallen in love with a whole new side of you. You're playful and silly. When the security system guy came, you made a game of jumping over his legs and sprinting from one end of the room to the other while he sat on the floor setting up the different sensors. You've made me laugh by chasing hair ties and mice up and down the stair case. Your obsession with the basement baffles but amuses me. You have made this house your own--learning to open the linen closet doors and staking out the best perches for watching neighbors, squirrels, and birds--and I love watching you blossom into a relaxed, happy cat.

There isn't another cat in the world that I would have rather spent the last 7 years with. I love you more than rainbows, my darling, and can't wait to see what the next 7 years have in store for us.