Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Clean your room!

I am not a particularly neat person. I consider it one of my greatest faults.

I used to be neat - sort of. I had to be. My mother insisted. All of the beds had to be made, our rooms had to be tidy, and we had to stick to a daily chore schedule. The mantra from us kids growing up was, "We aren't your slaves!" My parents' mantra was "Why do you think we had kids?"

But my default is not to be tidy. And so the minute I left home, my natural state of slovenliness emerged. I spent four years of university hiding under a pile of laundry (clean and dirty), text books, dust, and crusty dishes. I knew that I should at least set aside my Saturday morning to clean the apartment, but I was either (a) too hungover from Friday night shenanigans or (b) simply didn't want to.

Now that I own a house of my own, I have a serious internal conflict about the state of cleanliness of my home. On the one hand, I want to be proud of the house that I have worked so hard to afford, and part of that means keeping it clean. On the other hand, I am a hedonist, and feel that my life should be full of things that make me happy. Cleaning does not make me happy. And so I don't want to do it. And often times, I don't.

What does any of this have to do with the Beast? you are surely and most justifiably asking yourselves.

Well, dogs can be very messy creatures. Especially mine. He is a downright pig.

First of all, there is the shedding. It's a 365-day-a-year phenomenon. You'd think the Beast would cut me some slack in the winter by holding on to his precious fur. But no, on any given day of the year, I am apt to find his hair in any corner of any room in my house. And not just one or two strands here or there. No - I'm talking piles of hair. Piles. I've never seen a dog lose so much of his fur when it is -30 outside. Ever.

Then there are his messy, messy paws. He tracks all matter of stuff through this house. From pebbles to dirt to mud to snow to ice pellets to water, to actual dog poop one time that made me gag as I was cleaning it up. And we have dark grey floors that show every single paw print. I've given up walking with no shoes in my house because I am sick of having all that gunk collect between my own toes, and because, frankly, it is sometimes gross to think of what my bare feet might be stepping on.

And the front window sill is a mess. It bears black marks from all the jumping up and down he does at the front window whenever he hears a sound outside our door. I've tried wiping it a million times, but short of repainting the sill, I am quite convinced that it will never be white again.

Finally, he has never seen a slimy duck pond that he wouldn't love to dive into, nor a pile of dirty snow/slush/grass that he would love to roll around in. All of which he tracks into the house, along with the not-so-nice smells that go along with these outdoor joys. All I can say is thank god for waterless dog shampoo, because this place would smell like a hobby farm otherwise.

I'm sure it is no surprise that my house is just a little bit messier than it used to be before the Beast came into my life. In fact, it's quite a bit messier. Which you would think would amp up my inner guilt over the fact that I am not the housekeeper that my mother hoped I would be. But it's quite the opposite, actually. Instead of beating myself up for having a messy house, I have embraced the fact that I have a dog. Which means that I now have an excuse to have a messy house.

Yes, that's right. I mask my natural untidy tendencies behind the thin veil of dog ownership. 

But I mean, really, how can a professional woman with a full-time-plus job keep a happy marriage, a rich social life, a fit mind and body, and an active dog, if all she ever did was clean up after said dog? She couldn't!!! In fact, it would be downright selfish to worry about the multiple paw prints all over the front hall floor when I could be spending my time training the Beast or snuggling with my hubby.

And so, my mother will just have to accept that her daughter's house will never grace the pages of a home decor magazine. Maybe it will make her feel better to know that my house may be messy, but it is the home to a wonderfully handsome, albeit dirty, Beast!

Or maybe she'll ask me to hire a maid before her next visit.

That's not such a bad idea either...

Sunday, January 29, 2012

Parenthood... sort of


I have spent a large chunk of my adult social life surrounded by people with whom I have very little in common.

Parents.

Now don't get me wrong. I like parents. I have two of my own, in fact. I even like children. As long as they belong to other people who aren't me.

The simple fact is that I am not a parent. Quite by choice, thank you very much. And believe me when I say that it can be a little lonely when you are the only DINK* living smack in the middle of downtown Reproductionville. Especially if you get invited to a baby shower (which I will freely admit is my own private hell - and no, I will not be insulted if you do not invite me to yours).

I mean, when you are child-free, what can you possibly contribute to a discussion between all your girlfriends reminiscing about their labour pains? And what opinion could you possibly offer during a lively dinner party debate about public versus private education that any of your parent-friends would take seriously? And how many times can you fake interest in hearing about little Johnnie's latest school yard antics? (I'm going to hell for admitting to that last one...)

All this to say that sometimes, I just need a break from the child-loving among us. It's nothing personal. I love you all very much. It's just that sometimes, it's fun to talk about, you know, me.

Which is why I found myself having the time of my life last night when hubby and I hosted a tapas and wine party chez nous, with fellow child-free friends. Not friends who left their children at home with a sitter so that they could go out. Not friends who are actively trying to conceive. Actual living and breathing friends who chose to not be parents. Weirdos, just like Hubby and me.

And so, the word "child" - or any derivative thereof - was not uttered even once all night long. Instead, we talked about wine, about food, about trips we'd taken recently, about upcoming trips, about work, about sports, about music, and...

...about dogs.

In fact, there was A LOT of talk about dogs. Because aside from being child-free, it just so happens that the entire crowd last night was made up of dog owners.

And so we exchanged stories about our training experiences. We talked about what food we feed our dogs. We compared notes on vets. We shared embarrassing stories about bad doggy behaviours. And we pulled out our blackberries so that we could arrange play dates.

As for the Beast, well, he got showered with attention all night long. He was surrounded by willing fetch partners. No matter what corner of the room he found himself in, someone would reach out and give him a bum rub or an ear scratch. He was called "good boy" more times last night than he has been since arriving here 8 months ago. Indeed, he was the life of the party!

It was just after I finished up proudly showing off all of the new tricks that he has learned over the past three weeks that it hit me: I am no better than a parent. I had allowed our dinner party conversation to become monopolized by talk of dogs. I let the Beast take centre stage and woo all the guests. And even worse, I was parading him around like a puppet, demonstrating what a perfect little creature he was because he could roll over on command.

When exactly did I go from super-cool DINK to crazy-dog-person?

The answer: pretty much the day he came home. Since then, I have done all of the typical parent behaviours that I have always claimed to either not really understand or to even find slightly annoying:
  • I've taken hundred of photos of the Beast, and either shared them on Facebook or shown them to friends, families and colleagues.
  • A good 75% - if not more - of my Facebook status updates have been about him.
  • I found us a dog-sitter so that he doesn't have to spend evenings alone when we have to go out to a weeknight event.
  • I've said no to going out on weeknights when the dog sitter has not been available, so that he would not have to be alone.
  • I brag about how smart/handsome/athletic he is on a daily basis.
  • I've enrolled him in an agility class, and I tell everyone that I just know that he will be the best student there.
  • I show him off at dinner parties.
  • Whenever someone asks me what is new in my life, I find myself telling them something about the Beast.
  • I somehow always steer our book club conversation to dog-talk, even though not everyone there is a dog owner.
Yep. I've turned into a new variety of parent. A "fur-baby" parent. Which, I am sure, must be a wee bit annoying to those among my social group who don't have dogs, don't ever want a dog, or don't really like dogs.

Will this make me stop talking about the Beast or stop posting pictures of him to Facebook? Probably not. But hopefully, I will catch myself before I roll my eyes the next time I find myself stuck in a conversation about disposable vs. cloth diapers at a baby shower.

*DINK = double income, no kids


Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Streets

Last year around this time, the police released a composite sketch of a man who was running around a neighbouring 'hood and hitting women over the head with a hammer. Mercifully, all he did was hit them over the head. Not that this is a particularly merciful act, but it could have been much, much worse. He could have robbed them. He could have sexually assaulted them. He could have even killed them. But no, all he did was hit them with a hammer and run away. Thankfully, all of these women (I believe there were three in total) came away from this dreadful experience with no more than minor injuries.

As did most women around town, I came away from hearing about these experiences with more than a little trepidation. First of all, this was happening on the very streets where I run. Second of all, I run alone. Thirdly, I run in the wee hours of the morning, dark hours in the winter months. And fourthly, I run with earphones, so I can't really hear anyone sneaking up on me, whether they have a hammer or not.

Hubby asked me to stop running. I almost acquiesced, letting my fear get the better of me. But then I got angry. I resented being "held captive" by a clearly not-so-well-in-the-head man with a hammer. So I told hubby that he could come with me if he wanted to, but that I would not stop running.

I did promise to be extra vigilant. I streamed my music through my iPhone speakers rather than through my earphones. I stuck to main, well-lit streets only. And before leaving every morning, I told him exactly which route I would take and did not deviate, so that if something bad did happen, he would be able to trace my exact steps.

And I hoped that they would catch this asshole soon.

But they didn't. And angry as I was, I have to admit that I was afraid, out there on the streets - even the well-lit ones - all by myself. I found myself constantly checking over my shoulder rather than concentrating on my breathing and my form or the icy sidewalks in front of me (which might be the reason I lost my footing and twisted an ankle almost exactly one year ago).  Every time I would spot a man walking towards me in the distance, I would freeze up, hoping it wasn't the hammer guy. I found myself studying every man's face to see if it matched the image of the composite that I kept locked in my mind. My morning run, which had always been my time for self-reflection and for setting my day, turned into a paranoid and thoroughly unenjoyable activity.

All of this went through my mind this morning, one year later, as I was running through the not-so-well-lit side streets of the same neighbourhood with the Beast firmly secured around my waist. It occurred to me that, aside from the unsalted sidewalks of sleepy residential neighbourhoods, I felt safe. Like really, really safe. Passers-by no longer make me freeze up. And I am no longer glancing over my shoulder at every second (except to make sure that a passing car isn't going to clip us).

It's because of the Beast. He is my little bodyguard. And he is a good one at that. When a stumbling drunk man came toward me at a stoplight one day, he freaked right out, barking like mad to get the guy away from me. And when a man came out of a hidden corner of a dark parking lot and suddenly appeared on the sidewalk before us while we were on our early morning run, he began to growl low in this throat, as though to warn the guy to stay away from us. There are certain situations that cause his Beast-sense to tingle, and he kicks into "keep her safe" mode.

While I feel slightly bad for the two men who were caught off guard by the Beast's somewhat unfair accusation that they were out to do harm, I am also relieved to know that he has my back. I'm not so naive as to think that nothing bad will ever happen to me as long as the Beast is with me. But I do feel that I don't have to be afraid to be out there on my own anymore.

Thanks Beasty, for helping me take back the streets of my city. You're the best!

Friday, January 20, 2012

"Turn-key" dog

When I filed adoption papers with the Aussie Rescue and Placement Helpline, I had some options. Male or female? Red tri, black tri, blue merle or red merle? Puppy, teenager, adult, or senior?

I didn't really care about the first two. But I did care about the dog's age. I specifically and emphatically asked for a dog no younger than 2 years old.

I had my reasons. I told myself that I couldn't go any younger than that because I wanted a dog who could run with me. And someone, somewhere, at some random time in my life, told me that dogs shouldn't run long distances until they get through doggy puberty, or else their joints may be permanently damaged. Seemed like a perfectly rational explanation to me.*

But the truth is I asked for a 2 year old dog because I figured that by this point, either his previous owners or his foster parents would have taken care of his basic training, and possibly even some more advanced training. I would have to do no more than feed, exercise, and love him.

Let's leave aside for a moment the fallacy that is believing a 2 year old dog - in rescue (as in given up because he couldn't be handled) - would be trained by its previous owners. I was admittedly being lazy. Yes, I wanted to open my home to a dog in need, but no, I I did not want to have to put in much effort to do so. I mean, I have a busy life. There are already too many things that I have trouble squeezing into my daily or weekly schedule. I can never find enough time to spend with hubby, to clean the house, to keep myself organized, to hang the new art that I bought, to invite friends over for dinner, to sleep, to read, to learn a new hobby, to decorate the master bedroom, to... well, you get the point. How the heck could I work in "dog training" to an already ridiculously packed life?

I am sure that this is why the rescue gods placed the Beast squarely in my path. Knowing that I could not but fall in love with those soulful brown eyes and that delicious joie de vivre, they were trying to teach me a lesson: comeuppance in the form of a less-than-a-year-old-and-decidedly-untrained furball.

And so, train we must! Hence the visits to Alpha Trainer (the next one is on February 4), the daily training sessions with the Beast, and the new agility class in which we just enrolled him (this one begins on February 20). Keeping his mind busy and teaching him appropriate puppy behaviour 15 minutes at a time has become part of the daily routine around here, squeezed in somewhere between his morning exercise and our breakfast.

And I am happy to say that it is reaping some significant rewards. For starters, the Beast is absolutely more tired at the end of the day because of all the extra time that he now has to spend using his brain. He is also much better on our walks, pulling and jumping ahead less and less each time we go out. And may I just say that walking the Beast is infinitely more enjoyable when I am not giving myself severe tennis elbow? He's also gotten better at some of the tricks that we've taught him, and has quickly mastered the early lessons, so that we know we are laying the groundwork for him to respond to all of our commands later on in any situation.

But most importantly, I am having fun! Which I didn't expect. I thought that training would be a boring chore, but watching the Beast learn and pick up new things so quickly makes me genuinely happy. I can almost see his little brain working so hard to figure out what I want him to do next. And along with all of his success comes a pride in knowing that I had a hand in that - that he is mastering this stuff because of the time that I am putting into teaching it to him. Neat!

I thought I would be disappointed that I didn't get a "turn-key" dog, ready to sit, stand, lie down, roll over, and stop barking on command. But I'm not. Each day, I'm learning more and more about the Beast, about dogs in general, and more importantly, about myself and what I can achieve if I can park my impatience for a mere 15 minutes. And so my bond with the Beast grows stronger and stronger. Somehow, I don't think that would have been the case if he had come to me laid back and easy to manage. Which makes our growing friendship all the more enjoyable, and a hell of a lot more special.

___________________________

*Following his first check-up at 11-months old, our vet dispelled the myth about no running before the age of 2 and assured us that the Beast, who was essentially done growing, could run with me as long and as far as he could keep up. We worked up to our first 10k together, when the Beast was the tender age of 16 months. He's a stellar runner, and a solid champion!

Monday, January 16, 2012

Ice-cold lungs

I was born in Winnipeg, in late November. According to the Farmer's Almanac, the temperature on my day of birth was -27C. In case I have any American fans, that is -17F. Freaking cold by any standard of measurement.

Incidentally, this was also the number around which the mercury hovered (give or take a degree or two) this morning when the Beast and I set out for our early run.

Yes. I run in -27C. I have to. I'm from Winnipeg. I'd be banned from ever returning - even for a visit - if I used the "it's too cold to be outside" excuse. I mean, when I grew up, school was never cancelled, even if there was a driving blizzard or if the windchill drove the temperature down towards the -40C mark (neither of which are rare phenomena on the wide open prairie). And Mom and Dad still made us play outside in the cold to burn off our unwanted energy, to the point where snot froze to our faces and we all sustained permanent frost-bite-induced skin damage. There were days when our toes were so cold that we thought they might actually break off of our feet if we removed our boots too quickly. And I'm pretty sure that a small bit of my sister's tongue is still stuck to our childhood swing set, the result of my brother and I daring her to lick the cold metal.

Ahhh... memories... Memories that I relive everytime I lace up for a frigid morning run.

Truthfully, I don't actually mind running in the cold. It's easier to dress up against an ice-cold windchill then it is to dress down against a fiery humidex. The trick is to get a good base (I prefer merino wool, and will give a gratuitous promotional nod to Icebreaker). After that, you just layer according to the temperature, and make sure that you can keep all extremities safe from the biting wind. This morning, all you could see of me were my eyes. And aside from the fact that I am quite sure that my eye lashes froze to my contact lenses which in turn froze to my eyeballs, I was snug as a bug in a very warm rug. Really!

(I know that you still don't believe me, but it's really, really, really, really true).

Whether you believe me or not is incidental to the fact that the Beast shares my stubbornness when it comes to braving the cold to get in his morning run. "Temperature be damned!" is his motto. He is always ready to get out there and tear up the sidewalk. He will brave freezing rain, driving snow, salty sidewalks, and dipping mercury to get a few fast kilometres under his leash. He is my little trooper.

There are some things, however, that he finds a wee bit annoying about winter running. Here they are, in no particular order.

"Why oh why does it take mommy so long to get ready"?
As soon as the Beast sees me make my way upstairs and into the spare bedroom where I keep my running clothes, he knows that he is about to be let loose. And so he follows me, and patiently sits down while I don my running gear. In the summer, it takes approximately 2 minutes to pull on my shorts, sports bra, t-shirt and socks. But in the winter, it takes F-O-R  F-R-E-A-K-I-N-G  E-V-E-R!!!!! And his reservoir of patience is somewhat low. He starts to whine and whimper right about the time when I have my sports bra and base layer on. I still have to put on socks, a second layer, a shell, shoes, a balaclava, an extra tuque, gloves, and mittens. Whereas he, being the all-weather-double-coated-fuzzy-arsed kind of dude that he is, doesn't need to waste precious seconds getting clothed. It annoys him. I'm pretty sure he thinks I'm a big wuss.

"You don't really want me to sit in that snowbank, do you?"
Whether we are running or walking together, one of the Beast's rules is that he must sit when we get to a stoplight, and he must wait patiently until we can cross the street. He's gotten really good at this, to the point where we have tricked almost all passers-by into believing that he is actually polite and well-behaved (insert evil laugh here). But in the winter time, he is such a baby about it. I'll have to tug up on his leash three or four times to get him to sit, and even then, he'll only "half-sit". And he'll make his big brown eyes as sad as he possibly can and look up at me as though to say, "Mommy, it's too cold/icy/salty/snowy/messy for me to sit. I know my bum is really fuzzy, but I don't want to get it all cold and messy. So I'll just stand, okay?" Often times, when he finally does sit (I know, I know... I'm a big jerk for making him sit down anyway...), he'll pitifully raise one of his paws up towards me as though to drive home the point that it is so cold/icy/salty/snowy/messy that he couldn't possibly leave his bum and all four legs on the ground. Well, dear Beasty, shall I remind you that I bought you booties for precisely this reason, and that it was your decision to shun them like the plague, not mine? So suck it up, kiddo! (I'm not really that cold hearted. I actually cave every time and warm his too-cold paw in my hand while we sit and wait. But I do so with a touch of bitterness over the failed bootie purchase).

"Pick up the pace already, will you lady?"
I may like to run during the winter, but I don't do so gracefully or quickly. A 7k run in the spring/summer/fall can easily be done in less than 40 minutes. Today, we ran 6.8k in over 45 minutes. Shameful, I know, but I have good reasons for this sub-par performance. Sidewalks that are covered in snow or ice are ridiculously difficult to navigate, making it extremely challenging to maintain the same pace that I would under "normal" conditions. I didn't learn this lesson last year when I was running full out, landed awkwardly on a lump of ice, and tore my hip flexor. But I did learn it when, a month later, I hit black ice and severely twisted my ankle (to the point where I was screaming and swearing like a lunatic) with 2k left to go before I got home. Now I purposely pay less attention to my pace and more attention to the few feet of sidewalk in front of me. The Beast, on the other hand, is used to walking on hardwood floors. So for him, icy sidewalks are a cinch! And a 6cm layer of fresh snow - likely hiding a layer of ice - is no reason to slack off and slow down. In fact, it is much more fun to run full speed through fresh snow, and perhaps try to gobble up a few mouthfuls along the way. How dare I force him to trot alongside of me at this snail's pace when we are both capable of so much more?

But despite all of this, the Beast faithfully braves the elements - and his annoyances - to keep me company three mornings a week on my run. And I am grateful for it. Because I confess, before he arrived, I would occassionally shun my Winnipeg pride and use the "too-cold" excuse, opting to sleep in rather than get up and run in the morning. I can't do that anymore. He needs his morning exercise no matter what, so I might as well run and get it over with faster, right? It's nice to know that he keeps me honest with his joie-de-cold-winter-running, and reminds me how important it is to take care of myself and achieve my goals, even on the coldest/iciest/saltiest/snowiest/messiest day of the year.

A Winnipeg girl really couldn't ask for a better companion.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

On Sensitivity

Despite growing up as a veritable tomboy who used to run around in hockey jerseys and sneakers instead of whatever it was that teenage girls wore back in the late 80s and early 90s, I have always had a particularly acute sensitive streak.

In other words, I cry a lot.

No really. Like, a lot. I am a gigantic ball of teary emotion just waiting for the right movie (Marley & Me did the trick) to cause the dam to burst. And when it does, mothers, grab your children and make for higher ground. Cause it ain't pretty.

How not pretty, you ask? Well, at the first hint of sadness, a large lump surfaces in my throat, rendering swallowing practically impossible. I try to breathe through this lump, but it just seems to get bigger. So big, that it triggers my tear ducts and my eyes start to well up with tears. To try to avoid the salt tracks down my cheeks, I start to blink. Like, maniacally quickly. Which always seems to accelerate rather that decelerate the tearing-up process, so that I am inevitably left with tears streaming down my face. Then the mucus membrane gets activated, and I start sniffling in a vain attempt to stop my nose from overflowing. At this point, the combination of tears, attempts to swallow the lump in my throat, sucking back snot, and breathing all meld into one gigantic failure, and my body starts to shake uncontrollably. I try to use my mind to calm the spasms, but it never works. Instead, I find myself silently shaking in one spot, until I can no longer breath without gasping for air (probably because I am also swallowing said lump, blinking back said tears and sniffling up said snot, which is a lot to try to do at once), and the inevitable sob breaks free of my mouth. At which point it is game over. I am now a sobbing, convulsing, puffy-eyed, red-faced, runny-nosed mess.

Now the humans in my life just don't seem to get it. As far as they are concerned, all the histrionics are simply not necessary. I get a lot of this:
  • "Jay, stop being such a drama queen!" or
  • "Jay, toughen up! No one likes a suck." or
  • "Oh my g-a-a-w-w-w-d-d-d-d, Auntie. It's just a movie. You're embarrassing me!!!!"
... all of which boil down to, "Jay, you just are w-a-a-a-a-a-y-y-y-y too sensitive."

Well to that, I say "Humph!"

At least the Beast understands me! When he sees me cry, he is right there with me, letting me know that he understands and that he wants to help.

Like the other morning. I will spare my reader(s) the details of what propelled my sadness (suffice it to say that I am feeling better now thank-you-very-much-for-your-concern), but I was in the absolute depths of despair over some thing, and I broke down. There I was, sitting in my bath robe on my couch, face in hands, a pool of snot collecting between my finger tips (hot, I know), convulsing uncontrollably and wailing like a crazed banshee. Poor hubby had no idea what to do to comfort me, so he just kind of sat there, with one arm around my shoulder, uttering "Everything will be okay," over and over again. Which, I admit, was only making me feel worse because I was quite sure at that precise moment that nothing would ever be okay ever again (which is why I might have been accused once or three hundred times of being a tad melodramatic).

And then, all of a sudden, the Beast, who had been sleeping on his bed, sprang up, ran towards me, put his head in my lap for one second, and then proceeded to lose his shit.

Like really lose it. First, he whined. Then he barked. Then he jumped. Then he twirled around in a clock-wise circle. Then he barked and whined and growled. Then he jumped and whined and barked and growled and pawed me. Then he pawed hubby. Then he barked and jumped and pawed me some more. Then he started whining and barking right in my ear. And barking. And barking. And barking. Until I realized that if I didn't stop crying, I would sustain serious hearing loss. So I had to find a way to stop crying and sobbing or else the Beast would not be able to stop whining and barking and jumping and barking and pawing and barking and whining and crying and barking.

Holy shit! That damn dog really is just like me.

It's kind of eerie, really, to see just how in tune he is to the emotions of those around him. Because it's not just crying that riles him up like this. When I express extreme frustration with something or someone, it usually comes out in the form of a very loud swear word, which inevitably sets him off into his own cacophony of profanity, expressed in the form of barking and growling. When my father-in-law was here last November and the atmosphere in the house was shrouded in a cloak of tension (let's just say the f-i-l and I don't always get along so well), the Beast mimicked my walking around on egg shells by pacing back and forth, heavily panting, and moaning and wailing for days on end. When I watch a football game and jump up and down with excitement when my team makes a good play, the Beast barks and jumps up on me, licking my face to share in my joy. And when, a couple of weeks ago, we rounded the corner to our street only to find one of our neighbours face-down in the snow and the paramedics trying to revive her, the Beast sensed our anxiety and our concern and bucked about like a wild horse, madly trying to figure out what was going on and how he could "help".

Eerie indeed. But also sweet that he is so in-tune with me and my emotions, n'est-ce pas?

Or is he?  Maybe he's not so "in-tune" at all. Maybe by mimicking me and my outbursts, he is really just trying to show me what I look like when I am in the throes of emotion. Maybe he is trying to show me how unbalanced I can be at times. Maybe he is trying to say to me, "Hey listen, lady, if you don't calm down, I won't calm down. And you and I both know that you prefer it when I am good and calm. So you really need to chill, okay?"

Maybe the Beast is joining the chorus of all the others throughout my life who have told me to stop being such a drama queen.

Humph! And I thought he was on my side!

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Dog park altercations

The local dog park (the one that we are fighting to save in our neighbourhood), is a great place to be on a sunny Saturday, the morning after we got dumped on with 10-15 cm of snow. Especially at 9:00 a.m., which appears to be a peak hour. All bundled up to guard ourselves against the -30 windchill, we arrived this morning with the Beast in toe to find dogs, dogs and more dogs bounding along in the snow, chasing balls and other squeaky toys, and giving each other snowy face washes.

And so hubby and I played along, chasing the Beast around in circles, throwing his ball, play bowing and rolling around in the snow with him and his pals. It made me feel like a kid again.

All was going super well. All the dogs were getting along. The kids were having fun. The adults were shivering but smiling. The Beast was behaving like a prince. Picture perfect dog park snowy day.

When all of a sudden, the Beast's pal Jengo bolted off across the park towards a woman who was walking her dog down the street. His owner tried calling him back, but it was too late. He had already spotted the leashed-up dog and was proceeding to mount her. The next thing I knew, the woman was screaming, swearing (words that are too profane to put in writing) and venomously insulting both Jengo and his owner. Sensing the tension and the excitement, the rest of the dogs began to rush off towards the unfolding scene, making the woman swear even more profusely and threaten to call the city by-law officer to have all of our dogs "arrested" and put in the pound (even though we were all in the off-leash park). This of course caused all the humans in the dog park to rush towards the scene to extricate their dogs, which caused even more tension and more excitement, which caused all the dogs to start barking, which agitated all of the humans, which agitated the woman, which made her swear even more, which agitated her dog, which caused Jengo to get even more excited, which agitated his human, which agitated the other humans, which got the dogs all worked up, which got the humans all worked up, which caused the dogs to ignore the humans as the humans panicked more and more, which....

Well, you get the picture. This went on for no more than 3 minutes (although it felt like much longer), the time it took Jengo's owner to catch him and haul him away, which gave everyone else a chance to leash up their own dogs so that they could also take their leave, while the woman at the centre of the debacle continued walking down the street swearing like a sailor at the top of her lungs.

And the whole time, the Beast sat quietly at my side.

No seriously. I know it's hard to believe, but he sat by my side the whole time. He was the only dog that was behaved through this little ordeal.

Now, can I just tell you how good it felt to know that there was an altercation at the dog park that (a) my dog didn't start, (b) my dog didn't take part in; and (c) my dog didn't somehow make worse with his frenetic behaviour? Because it felt damn good. Like holy shit good!

And then it hit me. The Beast stayed calm and well-behaved because we stayed calm. While everyone else was panicking, hubby and I calmly reached out for the Beast, got him in a sit and stay, and didn't get agitated alongside everyone else. We stayed in control.

Holy shit! We're becoming calm and assertive pack leaders!!!

I'm probably getting a little too far ahead of myself. I'll need to navigate a few more dog park altercations before I can earn that title... But I'm going to savour this morning's little victory...

Monday, January 9, 2012

Building blocks

This morning, the Beast and I had a fabulous run. Just under 8k - a distance that we don't normally do first thing on a Monday. But it was just such a beautiful morning - light snow falling, mild temperatures for early January - that we couldn't help ourselves but go that little bit further.

As we were pulling back into our driveway, a little breathless from kicking it up a notch on the last half-km, I was struck by a thought. When I started running just under three years ago, I almost died on a 3k run. And that was with me running for 10 minutes and taking a 1 minute walking rest. Now here I am running anywhere between 6 and 10k on a regular basis with no breaks (except to avoid getting hit by a car at a stoplight), and I feel challenged but don't exactly want to die.

And I got there with a combination of patience, smart training, and persistence. Building on small successes and adding more time or more distance each time out so that eventually, I got to the point where I am at today. Any number of times along the way, I was supremely frustrated that my body could not just complete a 5k without taking a break or under 30 minutes, making me want to quit because I wasn't "good enough". But in the same way that I had to slowly build up my strength for weight-lifting, I knew that I just had to build my endurance and my distance on the runs. One step at a time.

Just like the Beast's training. If we spend just fifteen minutes together each and every day, working on the new things that we learned with Alpha Trainer, we are going to lay the foundation for him to progress to more advanced levels of training, and for him to become a good doggy citizen. Each day, we will build on his successes, challenge him just a little bit more, and watch him grow and learn and flourish. All of us - Beast especially - will probably get frustrated at times. But whenever we get frustrated, I am going to think of that day a very long time ago when I put my running shoes on and ventured out for my first excruciating 3k run. And about all of the hard work it took me to get to the point where I can put my running shoes on today and actually enjoy running a 10k. And I'll know that hubby, the Beast and I will all feel this pride and this happiness when we succeed at this newest challenge together.

So to keep us on track, I just finished putting together a training journal to keep track of our work. And I can't wait to see how much we all progress.

Sunday, January 8, 2012

Boot Camp - The Sequel

The Beast, hubby and I took a ride out to the countryside today to begin our training with Alpha Trainer.

We spent 90 minutes or so with her, going over and over a number of commands in her front drive way, until all of our toes and fingers were completely numb and our brains were completely dead. The Beast slept all the way home. Were I not driving, I probably would have slept all the way home too. Training a dog is hard work!

The only point to this post, really, is to record what we learned today. Because there was so much information. I want to make sure that I don't forget anything!  So very little humour or story-telling today, but if you're interested in teaching a dog a trick or two - or just how to behave nicely in general - you may find this post helpful.

Here is what we worked on: 

Walking

The Beast must heel when he walks (either beside or behind us, but never in front). We place the Beast on our right side (our choice - many people use the left side), keep the leash in a relaxed "j", and take the first step with our right leg. Then we walk naturally (meaning that both arms swing side by side). If he tries to take the lead, we swing our right leg out in front of him like a pendulum so that he can't move in front of it. After doing that a few times, he starts to look out for the leg and heels. So it looks a little funny in the beginning, but a very effective way to get him to stop trying to lead. He was heeling like a pro in no time. 

Out” 
The purpose of this command is to stop the Beast from putting his mouth or nose on something (food, a piece of garbage on our walks, a toy) or someone (a human that he wants to greet, a dog that he wants to herd). Eventually, this command can be used when he barks excitedly because he wants to sniff or mouth another dog or human. 

We learned the first building block of what will become a powerful command back in the summer when the Alpha Trainer visited us for the first time. With the Beast square in front of us, we present a piece of kibble and say "out" as we are moving it toward his face. If he makes a move toward the kibble, we quickly move our hands out toward his face to back him off. If he does not move toward the food, we mark the success with a "yes out", and then a "take it" as we let him have the kibble. He learned this very quickly, and so we kind of stopped because we weren't sure what else to do. Until today.

Stage two of this command is to present a piece of kibble closer and closer to his snout, challenging him to move away from the food even when it is right near him. The next stage is to drop a few pieces of kibble on the floor, and he must maintain eye contact with us rather than try to pick up the pieces of kibble on the ground in front of him. We will keep him on a leash as we practice this one so that if he does make a move for the kibble, we can give him a quick leash correction. When he successfully ignores the pieces on the ground, we retrieve them and give them to him as a reward, because he earned it!

“Sit” “Down” “Sit” and "Down" "Stand" "Down"
The purpose of this exercise is not only to teach him basic positions, but to teach him to hold these positions for a long time. As an added layer just for the Beast, we are also using this exercise to teach him to stop wiggling about, because he has the tendency to "sit" or "lie down" without being still - given his high levels of excitability.  And so using a piece of kibble, we lure him into a sit so that he is square to us. Then we lure him through the positions in sequence. Once he is in position and stops wiggling, we acknowledge that success by saying "yes sit" or "yes down". Then we count to 3 seconds, and if he stays in position for that time, then he has earned his piece of kibble and gets lured into the next position. To further challenge him, we up the "staying" from 3 seconds to 5, to 10, and so on and so on. And to up the challenge once he has mastered these positions, we can move to "stand" "down" "stand", following the same rules.  

“Stop” and “Hustle” 
The purpose of this exercise is to teach the Beast to respond to these commands when he is off leash: "stop" to stop him from advancing any further (like toward another dog or toward a body of water) and "hustle" to get him to come toward us when he has gone too far ahead or when he is lagging behind. But first he has to figure out what these commands mean when he is on-leash. and so while walking him in a heel position, we say "stop". If he stops right away and gives us eye contact, we say "yes stop". If not, we give a gentle leash pop to get him to stop and look up at us. To move forward again, we say "hustle" and as soon as he falls back into heel position, we say "yes hustle". To up the challenge, we can begin to try this exercise with a 20 foot lead in a wide open space.

"Working heel”

This was the last exercise of the day, because we were all freezing cold and the Beast was showing major signs of frustration and fatigue. (Just like me, he doesn't like not being able to figure something out, and the "stand" exercise from earlier had been a little tough on him).

The difference between a general heel and the working heel is that for the latter, the Beast must make very good eye contact and keep his focus on us at all times. This command will come in handy when we are in areas where there are many distractions, and we want to ensure that the Beast pays close attention to us so that he stays safe. Today we learned the very beginning stage of this exercise, which is simply to get the Beast used to hearing the command while seated slightly behind us on the right side, with a wall or other obstruction on his other side so that he can't go anywhere. Then, we simply hold a piece of kibble up to our chest to get him to look up and say "heel" at the same time as we gently pop the leash to signal to him that he needs to make eye contact. As soon as he makes eye contact, we say "yes heel" and give him a piece of kibble. And then we just repeat this over and over and over again (about 10-15 times) before we take a first step. When we do start to step, he must stay in position and maintain eye contact in order to get his piece of kibble. 

Coffee breaks
And since all of the above is such hard work, it is important to give the Beast a few little breaks during a training session. Otherwise, he will get too tired and frustrated and won't be able to learn the lesson. It will also help him begin to learn the difference between work and play - he can be excited during playtime but has to be serious when it is time to work.

...

So there you have it. For the next few weeks, we have our work cut out for us. At least 15 minutes of training a day. It doesn't sound like all that much, but I know it will be a challenge for all three of us to be consistent with this. I mean, really, it's more fun to play fetch in the park than it is to learn how to heel, right? But I know that the Beast has the potential to learn all of this quickly as long as we commit to teaching him. I also know that he wants this leadership from us so that he doesn't have to be the frenetic one trying to take control all the time.

And most importantly, I know how proud hubby and I will be of the Beast when he starts to succeed at all of this. And how proud we will be of ourselves for having taught it to him.

Better set the alarm a few minutes earlier tomorrow so that we can get started!

Friday, January 6, 2012

From shoe fetish to buyer's remorse

I love shoes.

I know, I know. A lot of women say that. But, I ask you, do a lot of women have a shoe rack in their office? Which is the very first thing that people notice when they walk in? Filled up with at least 14 pairs of shoes at any given time? None of which are the same colour?

Well, I do. And it is full of every conceivable kind of shoe in every conceivable colour: sandals, flats, pumps, boots, wedges, Mary Janes, and sneakers, in black, brown, camel, bone, turquoise, red, burgundy, metallic, silver, and even hot pink.

And I haven't even mentioned the pairs of shoes that are strewn throughout every room of my house at any given moment.

I told you. I love shoes.

Indeed, I am incapable of resisting a good shoe purchase. Sometimes the purchase is planned, like the time that I knew I wanted a pair of bone-coloured heels to go with my beautiful chocolate brown silk designer dress, and it took me two months and three cities to find the perfect pair.

Sometimes, I will go in looking for one thing and come out with something totally different. Like the time that I really needed a pair of black flats and walked out of the store with one pair of red wedges and another pair of metallic pumps. (I still haven't got a pair of black flats...)

And other times, the purchase is completely and utterly impulsive. Like the time that I was walking through the mall and spotted a pair of blue suede peep toe shoes and just had to have them, even though they were a half-size too big and I had to purchase inserts to make sure that they would not fall off of my feet as I walked.

All of these purchases, from the meticulously planned out to the spur of the moment, have one thing in common: never once have I felt buyer's remorse after buying a pair of shoes. Not once. It doesn't matter how expensive they are or how little I wear them. Shoes just always make me happy, and have never led to regret.

That is, until now...

Picture it. It's October, and the days are getting shorter, making it more and more difficult to play fetch outside with the Beast before or after work. So I leash him up and take off toward our favourite pet supply store to find a glow in the dark ball. As I am browsing through the toy aisle, out of the corner of my eye, I catch a doggie shoe display. Something innate and primal deep within me starts to stir, and I am drawn towards it...

Suddenly, there I am, standing in front of a rack of winter dog booties. And before I can stop myself from speaking, I call over to one of the girls working there and say, "Hey, I think I should get my dog some booties for the winter. Which ones should I get?"

"What a great idea!" she says enthusiastically as she pets the Beast's head, who is far too busy admiring the treat section to care about shoes (this, incidentally, should have been my first sign of impending catastrophe). "They will protect his little paws from snow and ice and salt!"

"Yeah, sure," I reply. "I like these ones!" I say as I point to a box of UltraPaws, which had caught my eye because (a) they were the most expensive, (b) they had two strips of velcro instead of just one like all the other booties so they were doubly cool, and (c) the Labrador Retriever featured on the package seemed to be having the time of his life while playing frisbee and wearing his set of UltraPaw booties, so these ones promised to deliver the most fun. (The second sign of impending catastrophe should have been that the dog on the box was not playing in snow...)

And this is how I spiralled down a very slippery (clearly unsalted) shopping slope and found myself standing at the cash register with a quartet of dog booties. (And also how I completely forgot to get a glow in the dark ball and ended up having to go back the next day).

Now when I bring home a new pair of shoes for myself, I can't wait to find an occasion to wear them and to show them off to all of my friends. So when it took so long for winter's snow and ice and salt to actually arrive, I was super disappointed for the poor little Beast. I mean, Mother Nature was conspiring to keep him from showing off his fabulous new booties! How was the Beast supposed to impress his girlfriend Ruby if he was still running around barefoot in the grass in mid-December?!?

And then finally, it snowed. I was so excited to get those booties on the Beast and get him out there to show off to all his doggy pals. Yes!

And that is when I discovered that the Beast hates his booties. And I mean H-A-T-E-S them. The first time we put his booties on, he cowered. My dominant, pushy, controlling, bossy dog actually cowered in a corner. Head down, spine curved up as though he was trying to make himself into a small, inconspicuous little ball, and if he had a tail, I am absolutely positive that it would have been between his legs. It was like he was afraid that I was going to come after him with a baseball bat and beat him senseless.

Despite his pitiful state, I persevered, telling myself that wearing the booties was for his own good and that it was my responsibility to protect him from the elements. And besides, getting his first pair of shoes was a big deal, so he should appreciate it. So one paw at a time, I put his booties on. And when we were done, he limped around the house like a foal learning to take his first steps, staring up at me as if to ask, "Mommy, why do you hate me so much?"

I figured that he just had to get the feel of his new shoes. You know, kind of like when you break in a new pair of human shoes and you walk around with blisters for a few days until you can stop putting a band-aid on every time you wear them. The Beast just needed to get used to feeling a shoe on his foot, and then he would be fine. So off we went.

Now the Beast loves to be outside and loves to go running or walking with hubby and I. Not today. Whereas his default position is usually right beside or even slightly ahead of me, he was trailing a good foot behind, even stopping every few blocks and refusing to go any further. I had to pull on the leash to urge him along more than once. It's like he was ashamed to be seen in public and just wanted to go home. I kept reassuring him that he looked fabulous in his new shoes, but he just couldn't be convinced. Even when he received compliments from more than one passerby, he just dropped his head and cast his eyes downward, letting out sigh after sigh after sigh, like the canine version of Eeyore.

But I am not a quitter, so we finished our walk that day with the booties on, and tried again the next day. And the next day. And the next day after that. And each and every time, it was the exact same sad story. Until I decided to take him to his favourite place on earth, the Arboretum.

I figured that if the Beast could have some fun while wearing his booties, he would form a positive association and get over this weird behaviour. And for a moment, there was even a glimmer of hope that this would actually work. He was super sad walking to the Arboretum, but as soon as we got there, he was back to being his old excitable, high-strung self, bounding through knee-high snow banks, peeing on every tree, and eating every stick he could find. "Success!" I thought to myself. "I am so brilliant!"

And then I looked down, and noticed that two of his four booties had disappeared. And I realized that they must have come off while he was leaping like a crazed deer through the snowbanks (so much for that second velcro strap that is supposed to prevent this very thing from happening). Only I had no idea how long he had been bounding along without them or where he might have lost them. And so I had to spend the next 20 minutes tracing his paw prints backwards until I finally found them buried about six inches deep in the snow. No wonder the little bugger was so happy! He'd found a way to take them off.

Mumbling under my breath about these stupid booties and my stupid dog who didn't realize that I was only trying to protect his stupid paws from the stupid snow and the stupid ice and the stupid salt, I reached for his paw so that I could put his getaway booties back on. And he started to whimper. And there, while we were standing in his favourite place in the whole wide world, my resolve began to crumble. Why on earth was I trying to ruin his fun by making him wear these stupid booties?

And then another thought struck me. Not one other dog we know - except for the little Boston Terrier-Pug we sometimes run into in the park - wears winter booties. They all go for their walks and go play in the park each and every day with nothing on their feet, and they seem fine. More importantly, none of them look depressed and forlorn. So again, why was I forcing the Beast to wear these stupid booties?

And so this was the precise moment when I decided to let him just be a dog and walk home barefoot. I took off his two remaining intact booties, stuffed them in his backpack, and let him feel the snow, the ice and the salt underneath his paws. Sure, I cringed a little as I looked down and saw him get big fat clumps of salty ice between his toes. And I worried when every now and then, he would lift one paw up while we were stopped at a stop light, presumably because it was too cold to put down on the sidewalk. But then again, his head was up, his ears were back, and most importantly, he was smiling all the way home.

So his booties are sitting in a box on top of his crate. We haven't touched them in at least two weeks. We've taken him out in freezing rain, in snow, and in temperatures plummeting to -30C, and he hasn't complained or shown any signs of bootie-less damage. Who knows if we're doing the "right" thing (although we did ask our vet and she told us not to worry so much about the booties). But at least the Beast is happier...

As for me, on the other hand... Well, I guess I'm processing my first case of shoe-related buyer's remorse. What a strange feeling...

But if any of you need a quartet of dog booties, you know where to find them...

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

New Year's resolutions

I don't usually make New Year's resolutions.

It's because I don't like to fail. And I can't remember the last time that I actually made a resolution and stuck to it. At least not one officially proclaimed as a New Year's resolution. So I would say that for the past decade or so, I have simply not made one. It's much easier to avoid disappointment this way.

But this year, I went ahead and made a resolution. I blame my Book Club. They have me reading Gretchen Rubin's The Happiness Project, which is a book all about the various resolutions that the author made over the course of an entire year in order to be a happier person. I'm honestly not sure that I buy all that Rubin is selling, but she at least made me think about stuff enough to be willing to face the possibility of failure by making a resolution this year. Which is more than I could say for Elizabeth Gilbert's efforts to inspire me through her gluttonous, yogic, love-stricken attempts to find herself in Eat, Pray, Love.

At any rate, the resolution that I made this year is a big one - which means grandiose opportunity to fail, but you might as well go big or go home, right? It's to make a to-do list, and to plan to actually, you know, do the things that are on it. So hubby and I sat down on January 2 and wrote a "to do" list of all of the projects that we want to accomplish this year - from small things like "install blinds in the guest rooms" to bigger things like "redo the laundry room". Then we took out a calendar and started to map out when we would do each project.

One of the items on our to-do list was to get serious - and I mean really serious - about the Beast's training. We know that we've done some good things with him, but we also know that we've slacked in a few areas. Which is probably why we haven't tackled the monster demon of maniacal barking at the door. So following on his sojourn with Alpha Trainer, we have enrolled him in hard core training, which begins next Sunday. But we also decided to go back to basics with him, and do some of the things that she told us to do when we had our first consultation with her back in June (items on our to-do list which we never got around to because we are just like that).

So the very first item that I got to cross off of our to-do list was also the easiest (begging the question as to why it took us so long to get around to it). Alpha Trainer suggested that we figure out the words we wanted to use as commands for the Beast, write out a list, and post it to our fridge. That way, one of us isn't saying "drop it" and the other saying "leave it" when we are trying to get him to let go of his favourite toy. Ultimately, this makes his training more consistent, and avoids confusion for the little guy as he tries to learn the rules of the household.

So here they are. I am writing them down in this blog not because there is any magic to them, but simply because (a) knowing me, I will lose the list and have to try to recreate it at some point, and (b) it makes me feel like I've succeeded at fulfilling a portion - albeit a minor one - of my New Year's resolution.

Happy New Year, everyone!

Commands for the Beast

"Off" - To remove his paws from a surface or person (i.e. "off" the kitchen" or "off" when he jumps on a person at the door).

"Out" - To remove his mouth from an object (i.e. food, something he should not have in his mouth, a toy, another dog).

"Ah-Ah" - A general correction word to get his attention and "snap him out of it" when he is doing something he should not be doing or when he is disobeying a command.

"Yes" - Praise word to acknowledge his good behaviour.

"Click-Click" - (I don't know how to spell this, but it is the sound people make out of the side of their mouths when they are working with horses. The other option was the kissy sound, but hubby doesn't like the idea of making this sound in a public place like the dog park... Wuss...) To get his attention and to get him to look you in the eye.

"Break" - Release word to release him from a position like "sit" or "stay" or "bed".

"Hustle" - To get him to come back towards us when he is off leash and lagging behind or too far ahead.

"Come" - To come straight to us.

"Stay" - To stay in one spot until released.

"Stop" - To stop coming toward us.

"Take it" - To allow him to take something in his mouth, like food or a toy.

"Bed" - To go to his bed and settle down.

"Crate" - To go to his crate.