Hands on Heads People!

This Stuff’s Easy!

I'm still in a daze at having this much cuteness constantly around.
I’m still in a daze at having this much cuteness constantly around.

There is so much going on in my life right now that my head should be exploding. But I fret not, for I have internalized the sweet knowledge that soon enough I’ll be dead; the race will be run and I can double over, panting in exhaustion, gasping, about to puke, if not actually puking. Ha ha-I was taught to never ever double over. Stand up straight, hands on head, winning didn’t really tax me much. “If you puke, puke standing up proud,” some coach might have once said.

Sure, I should be concentrating on actual dog routines but at this point there would be so much pressure to get them “right” that my head would explode; or more likely I’d ruin the tricks altogether. No, I simply can’t even consider going to all the trouble of setting up the different scenes to have the dogs go through their routines. In David Lynch’s book “Catching the Big Fish,” (and I’m going by memory here, so that might not be the guy, the book, or even a close paraphrasing of this possibly fictional person’s ideas) he mentions a childhood (likely make-believe) friend’s father saying something along the lines of, “(and why do I use a quotation mark after all that prevarication?) It takes four (a total guess at the correct number) concentrated hours of effort to get one hour’s actual work done.” I just wish I could approach that kind of efficiency.

Happily, every single dog training seminar for Freestyle, the closest dog competition to my dog performances, hammers home the idea that one never ever go through the actual routine until the competition. If the dog really knows each individual “behavior” (I prefer the term “trick”) (s)he’ll do it when it’s cued. And I am totally confident that my dogs know their tricks.

I’ve been talking recently in posts about teaching the retrieve and that’s what I’ve been falling back on for training during these very stressful days-and the stresses are totally non-show related. With six dogs, a parrot, my juggling and unicycling skills I have no worries about filling an hour of riveting entertainment. Plus, for this show I’ve added five other performers that I go and watch regularly to play with me and the dogs….well, look, the stresses I’m dealing with come from some people that refuse to honor commitments-written ones in some cases! In times like this I just think about what horrible things must be going on in their lives and psyches and be thankful that I’m not actually them. Knowing that they exist is plenty bad, and dealing with them??? it could be debilitating to one weaker than a six-time Ironman finisher.

So what do I do with the dogs when I’m under this kind of stress? I keep practicing their retrieves! And guess what? That’s become a great backdoor way to get the dogs to work on their tricks. Plus I’m adding a tertiary reinforcer. Instead of getting a click they get me to throw a toy to “mark” the behavior. Here’s the thing-they know the behaviors so a clicker becomes less important as a marker. What I really, ultimately, want is dogs that’ll interact with puppets. Each dog is at a different stage with the retrieving but they’ve all learned that toys are a great way to get treats. Except for Squirrel anyway. Squirrel simply does not care about treats at all. I just have her out during all of the other dogs’ sessions-I throw a toy to the other dog who performs his level of retrieve and I click and treat appropriately and then just throw a toy to Squirrel who plays with her toy until I get the other dog to chase his toy.

So the dogs have gotten good enough at having toy drive at this point that I can get them to do their show tricks to get the toy!

What’s the point here? Keep it fun-don’t worry about the ultimate goal of your dog making you look good in front of that person of the same or opposite sex. Keep your dog having fun, and when you need him to come through for you he’ll do it because, of course(!), playing with you is always the most fun thing in the whole world. “Always” to your dog takes commitment and the larger perspective of a self-aware human’s framework.

If practice makes perfect, why practice with stress? Practice the fun stuff and that’s what you’ll get. Fun!!!

The Austin Chronicle Recommends The Mutt-Cracker (SWEET!)

What is our Great Dane’s Purpose?

Well, there’s been a spate of activity going on with The Mutt-Cracker (SWEET!). And little wonder….the show opens in a sickening 10 days with all of the Christmas activity to help eat up some of that short time.

I was reading the Austin Chronicle’s recommendation to the dogs and look, they were all ears!The Pup-illons were "All Ears" when I read them this quote from the Austin Chronicle.

The Pup-illons were “All Ears” when I read them this quote from the Austin Chronicle.

KUT is going to interview me and my balloon-making Great Dane, our lucky seventh dog, Dane Dawson of balloonsbydane.com, simply the best balloon twister in Austin. I mentioned that we won’t even be using this, his best skill because Moose and Mouse get a bit freaked out by the popping-plus it could eat up a minute of performance and that’d just slow us down.  Moose and Mouse sure had plenty of chances to get acclimated to the popping when I was practicing making balloons myself so they may just never get used to it.

I didn’t care so much about the twisting, but wanted to make something special for one person while showing off Lauren Macaw’s ability to differentiate colors and name them correctly.  The thing was that during shows I preferred when she got the colors wrong and would (and still do) pretend to get upset, throw things on the ground, yell at her for embarrassing me, and generally give her way more energy and attention for saying the wrong color. And I don’t need balloons for that.

Incidentally, since this is supposed to be a training blog, it is exactly the above-described phenomenon that causes people the most trouble with parrots and kids. They get more attention when doing something wrong….and dogs barking and then they get yelled at? Think about if you were an alien from another planet and you see dogs barking and then the owners start yelling at them. What would that look like? Simply a bunch of aliens screaming together. PS-if the dogs stop after you give them a quick “Stop” that’s impressive.

Parrots love yelling at each other in the wild. And they totally do everything they can to provoke humans into yelling back at them and storm around like little ineffective Hitlers. It’s the second most common reason parrots get kicked out of their loving homes. Biting is the number one reason. A good, measured program of Time Out is the only way I know of to humanely address parrot issues.

I digress. This is a piece about Dane and what his role in the show is.

Dane has played in numerous jazz bands and I’d say he might even be as good of a musician as he is a twister, but no, we won’t be using much of that skill of his either as we already have four amazing musicians in the cast. Dane will help me tie everything together. He’ll keep the action moving by doing short clown bits, some with an instrument, other times simply with his wit and charm (whatever-he seems to show up on time) while I prep the next act (catch a dog after I let him out of the crate).

Anyway, it’s shaping up to be an even more jam-packed show than normal, and normally people are stunned at how much I do in just my solo routine.

The Mutt-Cracker (SWEET!)

2013_Dec_15.Squirrel_MuttcrackerAA Circus Musical with Puppets!

Well, a note about our upcoming show at The VORTEX is long overdue, but here it is. We are proud to include Jungle Jill and the Jaybirds in this year’s show. Jill Jarboe, Bruce Newman, and Kirk Williams make up the trio of musicians that weave puppets and original lyrics into just superbly positive songs with great messages. Jill creates her own puppets and loves getting jokes, parables, and life-saving information across in fun ways. Kirk Williams was the bass player with The Austin Lounge Lizards, and Bruce Newman has written songs that have been picked up by many groups you’d recognize (The Uranium Savages, The Austin Lounge Lizards, etc etc), and has been a regular performer at Nutty Brown Cafe, Strange Brew, Ruta Maya, and more.

Let me simply say this: I go see everything I can in children’s entertainment and this group is my favorite in many ways-I mean they don’t juggle, so there’s a limit to how much praise I can lay down, but they do everything else–I have plenty of the circus skills to fill in.

And, coming back again this year, we have pianist Bowman Maze. He blew me away with his talent last year and he will be the anchor for Tchaikovsky’s Suite while Jungle Jill and the Jaybirds back him up and fill in with some more upbeat music and songs. Bowman plays in jazz bands around the state and has even managed to play at the White House.  I don’t care about any of that-he just plays really original versions of the Nutcracker Suite while staying true to the spirit of the music.

I would (and actually have, now that I think about it) pay just to hear either one of these musical talents-and I’ve managed to put them on the same bill and throw in juggling, unicycling, parrot tricks, and six circus dogs. That’s going to be one jam-packed show. My biggest regret is that I won’t be able to watch it.

To make it an actual figurative (I can’t believe I just said that) train wreck, I’ve added the owner of Balloonsbydane.com, Dane Dawson, our very own balloon-making Great Dane. We call him our lucky seventh dog.  His best skill, balloon twisting, we won’t even be using. Balloons are like kryptonite for Moose and Mouse. This is proof that they are super hero dogs from another planet, balloonton, or something like that anyway. Anyway (ha ha), Dane is talented enough that there’s plenty more for him to do to keep you entertained (like a train wreck is wont to do) and then maybe, with enough roaring shouts of encouragement made while the entire audience stands in amazement at the end of the show (or appreciation of us mercifully ending), which is sure to happen, maybe, just possibly, Dane could be persuaded to entice, lure, tempt the audience out of the theater and into the swanky Butterfly Bar and large patio area with a delicious food trailer with even better-tasting food to enjoy while you wait for your amazing artistic creation.

Ok, there is so much more to say about this show, but I promised to get a short blog out about it today and I hate writing. And the dogs–what can I say? If I don’t feed them soon I might wind up missing a leg.

Finding Meaning in Chaos

Space for Fetch

I took Coyote out to the old burial house yesterday to visit the grave-cue the sounding of the lie detector. Actually, I was going out to get some work done. The house is on a double lot with nineteen large oak trees and a totally fenced in yard. The house isn’t much, especially now with all of the holes in the walls and broken out windows, but the property itself would make a great neighborhood natural park.

Too bad it wasn’t appreciated by the tenants. I’ve about given up on trust after my experiences giving “affordable housing” to people. When I started buying properties I heard stories from other landlords who said they’d get a tenant in and never raise the rent and they’d wind up in a symbiotic relationship-everyone gets stability. Oh, the counterpoints I could make. I had one cook from a popular restaurant that had knee high trash with what looked like every cigarette butt he’d ever smoked laying on the floor.

I saw the benefits of giving low rent from the tenant side as well. I dated a woman who had been in a house for 15 years and she often commented on how she never contacted the owner except to give him money. She appreciated her good situation and never wanted to give him any reason to notice her at all. But one needs enough awareness to appreciate the good situation.

Now my life is thrown into chaos, needing to get out to the house to fix it up. As I mentioned earlier, I took Coyote out to keep me company. Dead dogs just don’t do it, you know? I let Coyote out of the van and he kind of tentatively wandered around for a couple of seconds and pretty soon was doing that drag racing thing that dogs do where the rear end stays low and he was peeling out from place to place, stopping and panting for a second before getting a good pouncing start again. That quickly turned into complete circles of the house and yard until he eventually came back in to find me working, and collapsed on the floor in exhaustion, panting on his side with his eyes wide open staring at his dreams as if they were prey being ferreted out.

Seeing Coyote’s joy at having all of that space, combined with my general attitude of always living in the worst one of my rental places in order to fix it up, has catalyzed me into moving out to the house. I’ve put my current apartment up on craigslist and have already made appointments to show it while getting my stuff moved out to the house.

Get ready dogs-you’re about to live in an awesome off leash dog park! I’m looking forward to having the space to build some fun doggie playground equipment-think agility equipment with a circus flair. I have several ideas. Plus there’s plenty of space to coerce *er* “train” the dogs to play fetch.

It also occurs to me that I had Moose out there recently and she was acting almost exactly the same way the original Chickendog acted when I first got her as a puppy and was trying to come up with a name for her. They were both scared of everything in the yard. Great-one more thing to  habitualize Moose to. But that’s the thing about playing fetch, I’ll get her to fixate on the object, and then any new environment will narrow down to playing with the object and interacting with it and our routine of giving it back to me and (from her viewpoint) coercing me into throwing it for her to chase.

These tenants trashing my house is a good thing.  Right? Everybody has a lesson to teach-it couldn’t be as simple as they are atrocious human beings. Right? Gotta make it more complicated. Get ready dogs-you are now taxed with giving those people’s actions some meaning through this chaos.

Jumpin’ Jack-Out!

Boo Hoo….

Well, no easy way to say it….Jumpin’ Jack didn’t make it.  He’s dead.  That was supposed to be my last dog ever. Now I’m stuck with six more.

When Hefty, from my college years died, it was hard enough that I didn’t want to go through it again and simply didn’t want to get another dog.  I looked at Chickendog and Jumpin’ Jack and just saw dead dogs, and eventual loss. I intended to let them get old and, uh, you know…..And it happened- they both checked out recently. I can’t imagine how much harder this would have been if I hadn’t had puppies crawling over me distracting me while I was petting JJ.  It might just have been so hard that I would have been glad I hadn’t gotten any more dogs!

Jumpin’ Jack was going to be my last dog and then I took my first road trip with a budding romance who’d found a dog on the PetFinder website.  She was my first contact with the world of formal dog training and had lots of competition experience. People from that world seem to just accept that poop is going to move through their life-and it isn’t stepping in dog poop that’s the problem, it’s letting it hang around.
If you mention, “No dog, no poop,” they’ll just be like, “What does that even mean?”

Someone brought up with lots of dogs reminds me of immortal characters that have captured my imagination—Samantha on Bewitched, The Immortals in Highlander, or even, sadly, in many cases, Vampires.  Only it’s the humans who are “Immortal” and supposedly have the larger picture in mind for the dogs. Breeders will simply go through a thousand dogs, culling the ones they most desire out of the litters that come out-did I mention vampires; ha ha. I’m talking in this case about the breeders who care and just want to have great dogs to train and compete with, not the ones that the media like to show during sweeps week. There is no doubt in my mind that I’d want a Moose or Chickendog puppy if they hadn’t been fixed-they are such great dogs, though neither of them were a specific breed.

And there’s the flipside right there: They were both abandoned dogs. Neither one was bred for any specific reason but simple “accidents” and nobody else wanted them. Chickendog had even gone through six homes. In fact, all six of my current dogs have been discarded and they’ve proven to be great pets, extremely trainable so you might as well adopt a dog from a shelter. They tend to appreciate having someone petting them and are more likely to return the attention they get more than those ungrateful new puppies. Jumpin’ Jack? That was the worst of the dogs (I know, this is some eulogy for him) and I got him as a puppy. His mom was apparently owned by an unresponsible person and had gotten knocked up by a neighbor’s dog who also had an unresponsible owner. “Hey-I taught them abstinence. Let everybody else in society deal with the consequences.” Such great trainers-they couldn’t even keep their dogs in a fence.

Well, the new gf was looking for a new dog, even though I think she already had seven at the time, and we showed up and there wasn’t just that one, but four litter mates.  They’d been scheduled to be destroyed the day before we got there, but the facility knew that we were coming and, long story short, we went home with all four.  Looking back on it, I can’t believe how easy this decision was but we were sure we could find good homes for them.  And we did; OOPS!  She took two, and I took two.  Lucky dogs.  I had a momentary lapse.  I see a day when there will be a 12 step program for people like me, and trust me there’s a need. In the case of normal substance abuse, once you stop you, you can be done. With dogs, once you stop you have to keep literally feeding your habit for another 15 years. And picking up its poop, and making trips home to let it out before you meet your buddy after work for a drink or run, and eventually have to bury it.

I never know if it was a predictor of the future, a cause of the ultimate result, or simple maturity on our parts, but early on we definitively made definite decisions on whose dog was definitely whose. There was no sharing of dogs. Like I say, dog people have seen it all. I had to learn fast.

So anyway, Jumpin’ Jack is dead. He died in his sleep out at his puppyhood home while I was working on the house. He was able to take a walk around the property and get one last pee in to mark the property. I’d left the other dogs at home, partially for Jumpin’ Jack’s comfort, partially so they wouldn’t have to try to figure out what death is-we certainly don’t need another religion to get started based on their understanding.

I’d been feeding JJ about a pound of ground beef a day to keep him eating and so he’d been putting on some weight and had decent energy from where he’d been.
While Moose and Mouse have taught me that positive reinforcement is the only way to go, it was Jumpin’ Jack that proved that negative methods simply do not work. It is those methods that I’ve buried in that hole with Jumpin’ Jack.

Ha ha-just kidding, negative methods are still alive and thriving, being promoted right there on the Animal Planet.

Training the Retrieve Part 1

Be a Good Mommy

I don’t know how he did it, but Jumpin’ Jack keeps getting better.  I’m going to say it: His poops even look great!  I’m not disappointed that he seems to be pretty much 100% on getting outside to go to the bathroom.  That’ll help any dog stay alive, for sure.

On that note, a brief comment on house training: vigilance.  Another note: The only time you get to yell at your dog for a “mistake” is when stuff is coming out of him.  That’s the only negative reinforcement you get—you are reinforcing his stopping by removing the negative of being screamed at.  Warning: your dog will next learn to not let you see him and wait until your back is turned for just a second, or he’ll meander behind something so you can’t see him.  You can’t trust a dog. I mean you can, but you know the saying, “Fool me once, shame on you.  Fool me twice, shame on me.” That’s what vigilance is: catching him every single time.

Imagine needing to watch seven dogs!  I made the mistake of already having too many dogs (five!) and then compounded it by getting two puppies at the same time.  There is no longer any doubt that seven is too many dogs.  And this is coming from someone who loves dogs.

This realization of having too many dogs has been very present after a friend watched my group for less than 24 hours.  When I came to collect them, she was in a daze, saying, “No one should have seven dogs…..nothing happened, they were fine, they were great, but just letting them out….” She went on with trivial examples that I am intimately aware of.  Simply feeding them has become a Kaizen study in efficiency.  I arrange their bowls in a baking pan (my original attempt at lining them up in order failed due to too short of a counter-actually the counter is long enough, it’s simply too many food bowls), get a quart scoop of food, and then fill them to appropriate levels.  Pro tip:  Have the dogs in their kennels already or you’ll wind up with unbelievable chaos after the puppy knocks the pan of food out of your hands.

Yesterday, I found myself with only two dogs for much of the day and I realized how much easier it is to train a smaller number of dogs. Sure, I just got done marginalizing my friend’s comment about my having too many dogs, but I’m a dummy. I have too many dogs! I am reminded of back when I had only Chickendog to train. I keep remembering her as a super-trainable dog but it’s more likely that she just got the benefit of my full attention. I certainly know more about training now; actually, that could simply be a further barrier. The best way to train is…..ready? Playtime! And that’s what got Chickendog started on her illustrious career…simply playing with the frisbee to burn off energy.

Playing is at the heart of free shaping, but the playing easily gets pummeled by the rules if you’re not careful. Over the last couple of weeks I’ve started taking Moose and Mouse out front to play fetch by themselves-I started with them individually and I’ve quickly gotten to the point I can train them this way together.  A year ago they were too scared to go out the front door.  The big world was just too scary. If I forced them out the door they would just sit and quake on the porch, leaning back on the door to try to open it.  They simply couldn’t be coerced into leaving the porch, even for a piece of steak. There were many times Moose would literally lose her sphincter control. It’s good for me to remember this as I work through getting improved retrieves.  There’s a whole process I’ve been working out for getting a retrieve and if Mouse (he was way more reluctant than Moose) can learn it, I am confident that just about any dog can.  Moose and Mouse are way down on the scale of natural retrievers.

To teach a retrieve totally from scratch you want to train all of the separate steps individually.  First there’s the completed hand off, the last step in the completed retrieve. This is a bit counter intuitive. It’s natural to get dogs to chase things.  I mean that’s what they love the most, right? Right! But remember, you are training them so it behooves you to make it as boring and horrible an experience as possible.  Just kidding.

Yes, the chase is the most enjoyable thing for the dog.  It’s what I love seeing a dog doing but the retrieve will give the added bonus of awesome amounts of exercise in a fairly confined space in a short period of time.  There’s an exponential bonus as well. This bonus is why I’ve worked so hard on this one thing Moose and Mouse started off with no interest in. The retrieve can be made into a reinforcer better than any treat. When I see someone with a naturally enthusiastic retriever?  I seethe with jealousy.

Yes, I’d love a natural retriever, but these are the dogs I’ve wound up with and there’s a reason. Whatever… Ha ha…the thought that the universe provides reason: Ha ha ha; but I might as well go along with the joke-I’d rather laugh along than, well, who knows what that universe would do…..I’ll admit this at least: I am happy that Moose and Mouse came along to create a situation where I can never use force or any physical “correction.”  These dogs simply shut down under any stress they aren’t used to. It has been a really life-changing journey to explore and use positive reinforcement-it changes the way I see all interactions.

Anyway, back to training a retrieve….The reason you want to work on that last step first is that you want there to be such a natural tendency for the dog to hand you the object that he naturally brings it back to you.

Then you play tug of war and let the dog win most of the time. Old methods would adamantly insist that you win every time.

 WRONG!!!! Think about it as if you’re a three year old.  You have a toy and your mommy is playing with you and you’re having the most fun you can ever imagine; and then she just yanks it away! Then she teases you with it, lets you touch it but not grab it, lets you have it again, gets you engaged until you’re happily playing with exuberance again;  and then she just yanks it away.  Let’s say that happens a hundred times….What do you learn? I suggest you’d learn that your mommy takes your toys away.  What kind of mommy is that?

Be a fun mommy! Let your dog win every time, at least at first.  And don’t make it too hard. Let him tease you with the toy, grab hold of it and let it slip from your grasp, and then ejaculate in exasperation! He’ll love the happy, fun energy!

Here’s the thing: If you pretend to be exasperated in fun now, it’ll keep you from being exasperated in reality later.

Speaking of later, Later Gator.