Monday, July 7, 2014

Go Throw Rocks

This image is appropriately called "Tantrum."

One more random post and then back to Spirit. It's been a long couple of weeks, culminating to a serious visit with my neurologist today. My creative juices have been a little tamped -- Mugs

K sat back in his saddle and looked straight into my eyes. This kind of contact was rare between us, since it makes me extremely uncomfortable and on most occasions, creates a strong flight reaction.

I knew though, that when K was brushing my anxieties aside and demanding this level of attention, I needed to suck it up. He had important information to share.

"Maybe you need to go throw rocks," he said.


"Go throw rocks."

Sonita was raging that day. Her cranking tail, pinned ears and gnashing teeth were the least of my worries. It was the iron rib that refused to move, the hind legs that jumped into a squealing buck rather than stepping into maneuvers, or struck at my boot in response to the barest touch of my calf that was getting to me.

I had lost it. I wanted to show her that if she didn't like my calf, maybe she would prefer my spur rolled up her side. I wanted to jam that resistant rib cage into my opposite leg, shove her up into her bit, no matter how hard she slung her head or put her nose in the sky.

My darling mare had drug me into the cesspool of her heat induced fury and I was ready to give her back exactly she was giving, and then some. K's instruction had turned into a blur of unintelligible orders, I heard nothing but criticism and disappointment, and was more than ready to turn my self-labeled incompetence into bullying my mare.

K held me with his frustrated stare. He knew I was too embroiled in my own emotions to hear him.

"Sometimes," he said, his voice as slow and clear as a preschool teacher, "the best thing to do, is get off your horse, walk out in a field, and go throw rocks. Once your arm is tired, come back and try again."

I could tell he was about done with me. I figured he was giving me this random advice to get me out of his hair for a minute. It was also clear he meant it. I could go throw rocks or I could go home. Whatever.

I dismounted, dropped a rein and walked off. Sonita snorted and rattled her bit behind me. Yeah, she had won. I hoped that snort was a juicy one and she blew it all over K's leg.

I crawled through the arena fence, stepped out into the cow pasture and proceeded to throw rocks, hard. The dogs came sniffing around, thinking there might be a new game, but picked up my mood and slunk off.

Each rock was aimed at Sonita's imaginary head, which I envisioned a few yards out. I suppose a few were aimed at K's head too, I'm not admitting anything. Then, a funny thing happened.

I started thinking about my horse. She always had a tough time during her heat cycles. In human terms, her PMS was a bitch. Not only did Sonita become an emotional train wreck, she often experienced physical pain extreme enough to make her colic.

I threw a few more rocks. I knew this. Was she hurting? Was she losing it because I wasn't listening?

More rocks. Why wasn't I hearing her? Well, because I hated her. More rocks. Maybe it was because I was anxious and worried about her performance, my ability and what K thought about me when I was riding with him.

More rocks. Maybe I was ignoring my horse at a time when it was really important for me to pay attention. Why hadn't I told K how it was when she was horsing? Was I assuming he would tell me I was babying her? Why?

More rocks. How often was I closing out the tenuous current of communication between my horse and I because I wanted her to be different, better, or just not who she was?

More rocks. Shows, around other trainers and especially, with K. So, the times when it was the most stressful for my horse, I was closing her out so I could focus on my own anxiety.

It took a bit more tossing before I quit cussing myself for being the crappiest horse trainer on the planet, but by the time I was ready to go 'fess up to K my arm was tired.

I walked back, calm and focused. When I mounted my horse she stood quiet. I explained to K why I thought she might be cramping some.

"What are you going to do about it?"

"I'm going to trot her out, long an low, and see if she can un-kink. If she can't, well, we should probably call it a day."

"Then go to it."

I did.

There's a point to my story. It has occurred to me, I get all caught up in my thoughts in the exact same way, right here, on this blog.

When discussions start in the comments, I'll take offense when none is meant, misinterpret things that are said, not be ready to accept offered information, and sometimes, just be a bitch.

Then, in my schitzo way, be warm and fuzzy over the exact same input. This shows up the most in my dog posts, because I'm learning new stuff here and it's as frustrating as it is exciting. Those of you who have tried to help, now have a taste of what K went through trying to teach me.

I must drive you guys crazy.

A good example: I posted a humorous (to me) series of photos of Brockle avoiding being engaged with the decoy (bad guy) during protection work.

The truth behind the joking was I didn't know why he was doing it.

A reader described her method of dealing with dogs that didn't focus when they should. I became defensive, she became defensive, and well, I jumped on her shit.

I know she was frustrated because she felt I was dismissing her knowledge and wasn't hearing her. It pissed her off.

We both should have gone and thrown some rocks, then come back to things.

Here's the thing, I did hear her. I started thinking about what I was feeling through the leash, which is every bit as telling as the feel through the reins. She was talking about a dog that was goofing instead of working. I had a dog who was displaying aversion behaviors because he wasn't sure of my expectations. The crux of the situation was, I didn't know this yet, but in my gut I suspected it.

Because of her comments, I started thinking, reading, asking, learning. In the end, Brockle was avoiding the work, because once again, I, his trainer and handler, was unsure of myself and my knowledge, and was closing out my communication with him to hide my own anxieties.

I have since been much more open about my ignorance, have gotten great feedback on the field, and have become the confident, open handler my dog needs. These days, Brockle is rocking at practice, and we're advancing steadily.

If we had thrown rocks out of the arena instead of at each other, I could have learned tons from the blog reader who was trying to help, and probably gotten more input from others. Instead, I shut her down and was left to sort things out by myself.

I respect you guys, I really do, and I want your thoughts and input. But, well, I get how I get, and need to be reminded to play nice once in a while.

So. Here's the offer. I want you guys to feel 100% free to call me out. Obviously, I already do it to you, so let's balance things. The code words? GO THROW ROCKS. If you tell me to, I will. I''ll take a break, think through what was said and come back behaving myself. I will do the same to you, and use the same code. GO THROW ROCKS. I'll expect you to back off, think things through and come back with your point again, but maybe a little more thought out, a little friendlier.

Unless of course it's just meanness. Then, well, I guess we can become an unruly mob and stone the sucker.

Deal? Let's shake on it.

Saturday, July 5, 2014

Finding Balance -- Thinking beyond common sense.

Last night I watched this: The Paw Project on Netflix (

My thoughts were just spinning by the time the documentary on declawing cats was done. My head was so abuzz I had to quit writing the next Spirit installment and share this, because it parallels a line of thinking I've been working my way through for a long time.

Once I've gotten through this, I'll get back to my horse story. The thing is, in the past week, I caught an infection making it's merry way through my Rat Terrier, Charlie, just in the nick of time. I'm talking a serious nick.

"If you had let this go one more day you would have been at the emergency vet tomorrow," my vet told me.

 Which would have been the 4th. Any of you who have been to a city weekend emergency vet clinic know what I'm talking about. Six months of hay $$ out of savings to pay them, that's what.

Normal Mugs, if there is such a thing, would have noticed the signs of Charlie being off at least a week ago. He was off his feed, scooting his butt across the ground and way too quiet. My automatic reaction was, worms.

In the good old days, Charlie massacred so many of the vermin population at the barn, he needed to be wormed twice a year. If I didn't keep up, he would show the above behaviors for a day or two and then start pooping worms all over the place.

So I wormed him. He didn't feel better. We went to the vet and in short order, began treatment for an infected anal gland. Poor Charlie.

Here's the thing. Normal Mugs would have noticed the symptoms and responded within a day or two, not a week. Normal Mugs would have thought, Charlie doesn't hunt much anymore, he's really quiet, we should see the vet.

Why wasn't I thinking like Normal Mugs? Because I have been submersed in the fascinating psychology of dogs. I mean buried.

Since I landed a dog who needed real, well thought out training and behavior modification, and I decided to write about it,  I have been sucked into the world of dog brains, dog/human relations, positive and negative reinforcement, eugenics, blah, blah, blah.

With my own dogs I have been thinking about pack behavior, body language and What are they REALLY thinking.

Since my right hand dog Dinah died, the pack has been a mess. Brockle wants to be boss, but he's a micro-managing lunatic, and has been doing a crappy job. Charlie has been staying out of the way, he's a born minion and he knows it.

Ever since I've started watching, thinking and observing my dogs in a new light, my common sense has flown out the window. So much so, I almost endangered my dog and my hay money. Mania Mugs was ruling the roost.

Take this declawing the cat thing. I was a kid when I first heard there was such a thing. I had never even had a cat, but my immediate thought was, But they use their claws to protect themselves-- so that's stupid. As a kid, I had common sense.

I kept the same opinion for many years and eventually had a few cats share space with me. I knew people who declawed their cats, usually because of new furniture. I also observed, all on my own, that declawed cats were almost always, "no-seeums" cats. They were afraid of everything. Which to me, make perfect sense, because they didn't have their claws. I jumped to the conclusion that getting their claws taken off made them crazy and never considered declawing a cat. Ever.

Maybe my facts weren't completely accurate, but I was close, just by using common sense.

I started researching dogs, thunderstorms and fireworks.

I read from trainers who suggested ignoring the anxious behavior and sticking with known routines so the dog learns storms aren't scary.

I read from trainers who went to great lengths explaining that reassurance isn't the same as reinforcing behaviors.

Both sides went to great lengths to vilify the other.

Which was weird, since both sides made it clear that rushing to your pet, smothering them with kisses and becoming overly emotional WILL become reinforcement.

Both sides went to great lengths to provide their long and involved training techniques.

Thankfully, Normal Mugs made an appearance.

In the past, when I got a new dog, I always paid attention during their first thunderstorm.

Bolters were put in the car, or a secure room, with an article of my clothing and a favorite toy. Anxious dogs were allowed to cling as much as they wanted while I proceeded with my day. They would get a kind word and a pet, then I'd show, by example, that it wasn't so bad.

The bolters were always welcome to become a clinger and eventually they always made that choice. The clingers got better or they didn't. Common sense told me air pressure, noise, whatever, bothered them and I made sure they were safe and left it at that.

Charlie is a leaner, Snocone doesn't notice and Brockle runs outside and barks at the heavens. If he had a fist he's be shaking it.

Dobby is my daughter's nervous, twitchy, loud, opinionated Min Pin/Italian Greyhound cross. We have been spending looooots of time together. If Dobby wants my attention, he has all four feet on the floor and is quiet. Period.

Thunderstorms terrify him.

Yesterday was hardest on Dobby. He trembled and shook.  He didn't run for the hugs and kisses and consolation he's used to. He chose to sit next to me.On the floor. Quiet. Not asking for more reassurance than leaning against my leg.

Dobby chose common sense.

I think I will too. Thinking and learning are good things. But it's easy to get lost in a new concept or idea and ignore the things you know in your gut. I call it Horse Whispering Syndrome.

You know what I mean, we've all done it. That first taste of magic when our horse joins up makes us a little crazy. We want more of this magic and dump everything we knew before in order to learn it. For some, we eventually remember, Hey, I knew how to saddle a horse and lope around the arena before I started whispering. Maybe I knew some other stuff too. Then reason seeps back in and hopefully, we find a balance between the practical knowledge we had before and the new stuff we're learning.

I'll keep watching my pack, observing their behavior and trying to find the best training and behavior shaping approaches for all of us. In the meantime, I hope I can keep my head on straight. Poor Charlie and his infected butt are counting on me.