Titus and Lilo’s New Ride

My darling little hatchback rolled over 180,000 miles recently. The air conditioning died. And a couple of circumstances miraculously lined up to allow me to go in search of the superior two-dog adventure vehicle that I had given up on acquiring any time soon.

The catch was that I love driving and don’t tolerate fine-enough cars very well. And the other catch was that “fun to drive” is not the usual highest priority in the “relatively inexpensive, capable of carrying two adults plus two large-ish dogs (one crated), and preferably with light off-road capacity” category. We measured A LOT of cargo spaces, y’all.

But we found it in the end.

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Of course the dog furniture got added within minutes of bringing it home.

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Hoping to find out how it performs as hiking-dog transport this weekend! And I can replace my expired WMNF parking sticker now…

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East Pond

Titus was cleared last week to resume hiking on flat, easy trails.

His recovery had plateaued the week prior and I was feeling pretty down about it…but he started looking sounder again over the weekend, was released by the surgeon on Monday, and the iliopsoas was deemed still sore but no longer in spasm by the rehab vet Wednesday. He does not tolerate most of his at-home regimen, alas: warm compress, meds, and paws-up stretch, yes, but passive range of motion is a big no. But he liked the therapeutic ultrasound and cold laser at the vet and we’re hoping to get him on the underwater treadmill soon. I think he’ll like the strengthening phase much better!

For his first hike back, we made the short trek to the East Pond trailhead off Tripoli Road.

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Never thought I’d be so happy to be judged by them both at once!

I had no idea what to expect from the little guy. Lilo has at last been emerging from her late-summer weirds and likes cool weather morning starts, so I was pretty sure she’d be good to go. But what would Titus think about being back on a proper trail after a full eight weeks away?

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Back where he belongs.

On the way out, he picked right back up where he’d left off! He was on a handheld leash because he’s not cleared to run yet and I had forgotten my preferred set-up for him (Kurgo Quantum hooked to my pack). He was calm, confident, and happy; he sniffed everything in sight and went down the trail like a pro. And thigh she’d never admit it, Lilo seemed to enjoy having her pet dog along again.

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Derping and looking noble both at once: such talent!

East Pond is just 1.4 miles from the trailhead. I opted out of the longer loop to Little East Pond for his first hike back; we went out and back the same way with a few very short side jaunts to investigate campsites. The overnight lows this weekend flirted with freezing. We’re not seeing much color change in foliage yet (and I don’t expect much given the horrific drought conditions), but hopefully soon!

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Guarding our stuff and someone else’s orange peel that we packed out.

Titus did lose the plot when we stopped at the pond for a snack and took probably half a mile of the hike back to regain his senses, the poor kid. He didn’t regress too far, though. We had a lot of leash biting and some demand barking and general frantic behavior, but he was trying hard to grab the tug leash and to offer self-control in the form of a nice heads-up heel(!). He eventually settled back into calm hiking. So, something to work on, but we fixed it before and we’ll fix it again. I’m pleased with how much of his good hiking manners remain intact!

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And then he did this for an hour, and that pleased me, too.

It’s been a long eight weeks. He has a lot of healing still to do, but it’s so good to be back on trail with both my friends.

Positivity

So there’s a share-your-positive-reinforcement-training-journey blog hop going on; I found out about it via Tenacious Little Terrier.

I’m pretty committed to positive training for my pups. I’m only human; I raise my voice or pull on a leash more often than I’d like. But I’m as much as a practical purist as my developing understanding and skill set allows. It’s what we try to do. Some of my reasons are ethical and philosophical, but what got me started on this road is a little different than what seems to get most folks started, so here we go: the three factors that won me over to the R+ side.

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I don’t have any good training pictures handy, so here’s Lilo bushwhacking a gravel wash on the slopes of Clough last weekend instead.

I should maybe note, at risk of getting thrown out of the hop, that I don’t actually feel super-strongly about what methods other folk use with their dogs. For me? For my dogs? I’m cheerfully and stubbornly committed. And there are certainly hard lines of objectively-not-okay that I’ll draw. But if dog(s) and handler(s) are happy, both in their skins and in their work, then I figure that’s good enough for me.

I’m suspicious of many-roads-to-Rome claims because I don’t believe that the ends excuse all means and because I’ve too often seen it used to justify bad handling, but I’m also suspicious of one-way-true-way-isms because I’ve too often seen The Way turn out to be…well…not. So I’m mostly, within what I think are reasonable bounds, content to let everybody be where they are and get where they’re going in their own time.

And I kind of figure that my dogs are a better proof of my methods than anything that I could ever write or say.

…most days, anyway!

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It only took me seventeen tries to fit out heads in the same selfie frame.

Anyway. My three reasons for starting and loving training positively.

#1 is FUN. I didn’t start training positively because I had a timid, reactive dog, although I did (and do — same dog!). I didn’t start because I had a dog who is easily overstimulated, although I did (and do — different dog!). I started because I had, some months before Lilo came into my life, fallen in with a group of folks online who were using training techniques that I had never heard of with their obedience and agility dogs and because they were not only getting good results but having so much fun. I loved the idea of training as a game and I loved even more the idea of training in a way that actively engaged the dog’s mind in a creative way. I’ve always loved sports in which the animal is an equal partner; I’ve always been fascinated by watching animals think. So I was an easy sell on positive training. It wasn’t a way to fix my dog problems or a last resort: it was this awesome, exciting, interesting way to have FUN with my dog.

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Although I didn’t realize what a short step it would be from thinking her own thoughts to actively judging me!

#2 is having a physically really strong dog. As above, I don’t necessarily think that training with corrections is the very worst thing in the world. But also as above, I do have my personal lines in the sand. And Lilo — the dog that I started with down this road — is really strong, you guys. She’s smaller than you probably think if you’ve only seen the pictures in this blog — only knee-high on me (and I’m not tall) — but she’s seventy pounds of muscle and bone and low center of gravity and intense determination and for all that she’s a delicate flower about weather and shadows and such, she’s still a pit bull. By which I mean things like, she smashes into walls on a regular basis while playing and barely notices. She is the irresistible force and the immovable object. She is a kind and loving girl, but her baseline temperament is fairly hard. Simply put, trying to disincentivize this dog would require more force than I personally would find acceptable. So I just don’t do it. We went another way. We’re both much happier and more successful incentivizing her instead. And funny thing: once she (and now Titus) understood the game, the training is incentive in its own right…

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The transition from woods to open space is one of my favorite, favorite things.

And #3 is just that I’m kinda good at training positively. Which I think is an important consideration in any choice of training method. I do think that method matters! And I do think that we’re all students, always learning and developing (fortunately!). But I skill and timing count for a lot and I was, frankly, a crappy corrections-incorporating trainer. I tried and studied really hard. But I sucked. I had too much to think about, my timing was off, and my frustration tolerance was decidedly suboptimal. I’ve had and continue to have a learning curve with positive training, too, of course. There is always more to learn. But the basic idea catching the dog doing something right came quickly and easily to me. The idea of thin-slicing and reinforcing what I wanted to see more of, ditto. I had good timing with the clicker (or verbal marker) from pretty much day one. And reframing challenging moments from failures into hilarious surprises and/or questions to work through as a team made all the difference in the world.

That is, training this way isn’t just something that the dog and I can enjoy together or something that I think is kind, functional, and fair for the dog. It’s also something at which I can be successful. Which isn’t the absolute most important consideration; I do think the rhetoric about putting the dog first is important. So important! I do!

But I think that sometimes it’s easy to get so focused on what’s good for the dog — especially (but not only) when we’re talking about other people and their dogs rather than about ourselves and our own — that we forget that the human part of the team has feelings that matter, too. So I guess that’s the moral of my particular positive-training journey so far: the dogs and I do what we do because it’s fun and effective and good for us.

Emphasis on the us.

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Camp Dawgs

For my birthday last week, the dogs and R. and I reserved a site at White Birches for a couple of nights. I did some backpacking in and around college and have been itching to get back to it; there are so many interesting wilderness trails and some longer loops that I’d be comfortable dayhiking but wouldn’t ask the dogs to do in one go just yet! But most of us are rusty and Titus just plain isn’t ready. A little car camping trip on a couple of post-holiday weeknights seemed like a good way to ease into it.

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The most important part of any trip is the food!

I’d requested a Topknot (“premium wooded”) site on the advice of a friend and could not have been happier with it. We were way down at the end of the park. The long walk to the bathroom was more than outweighed by having plenty of space between ourselves and our nearest neighbor. The site was small but pretty, well-wooded, bordered by (but uphill from!) a streambed that would probably have been running if we weren’t in the middle of a drought.

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Are pit bulls afraid of the dark?

Lilo remembered her former camping experiences and settled right in. Titus got a little overstimulated on the first afternoon; I should have put him up for a nap (in his soft crate in the back of R.’s car, with of course the a/c on when the weather dictated) sooner than I did. But he’s consistently more comfortable in the outdoors than in any building and by the afternoon of day two, he was impressing the heck out of me with his ability to chill.

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Not quite chill yet, but a few hours after this, I took a (short, but still) nap in a grassy field while holding his leash.

I’m not usually a fire-builder while camping but this trip’s food mostly required it. I took the job over on day two, initially just because I was up first and then because I wanted to see if I could build a better fire for dinner. I could!

Lilo enjoyed warming her belly in front of the fire. Titus, well…

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Some cattle frogs just want to watch the world burn.

We didn’t do much hiking, but we did stroll up to the Basin (not the Franconia Notch one) one day for Titus’s first post-iliopsis strain wallow and down the powerlines the next. I’d had bigger plans before the trip. Once there, though, it was nice just relaxing. I don’t do that much!

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Lilo is a big fan of relaxing, including on the way home.

We still have a long way to go before the crew will be ready to backpack anywhere. This was a good start, though, and a good adventure in its own right. Hoping to get out once or twice more before the weather turns prohibitively (for us, for now) cold.

Hike for Mental Health

Weekend before last, Lilo and I got up early and headed north to meet ten or so comrades and three of their dogs for the Hike for Mental Health up Mt Washington, New Hampshire’s highest peak. Our group made a loop — up Ammonoosuc Ravine and Crawford Path, Gulfside to Jewell — instead of joining the main HfMH group going Jewell trail both ways.

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The Cog railroad as seen from Ammo.

I’d heard good things about Ammo and was even more impressed than I’d expected to be. It’s just a lovely, lovely trail with plenty of water down low transitioning into interesting scrambles as you climb, climb, climb. The spur trail to the Gorge is well worth the (minimal) trouble. Lilo was not quite as careful on the first ledges as I would have liked, but smartened up eventually, and she was endlessly patient with the inevitable good-weather-summer-weekend crowds.

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Lilo doesn’t understand why we’re posing *here* when the trail is *over there.*
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Mountain for days like ocean waves.

Ammo tops out near the Lakes of the Clouds hut, just 0.3 miles from the summit of Monroe. Lilo and I both need Monroe still and the faster-moving members of our group ran up to tag it while waiting for the rest, but I decided that I’d feel silly if I ran out of dog on the way down because I made her do an extra peak on the way up. (She’s done higher-mileage hikes, but this was her greatest elevation gain to date and the rocky footing was not forgiving for a heavy-moving dog.) So we’ll have to come back! Somehow I think we’ll suffer through that experience just fine.

After a pit bull nap, we proceeded over the Crawford Path, the oldest continuously used hiking trail in the northeast, towards Washington.

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Thanks to the observatory, George’s summit is hard to mistake.
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Passing one of the Lakes.

I’d worried a bit about the usually-abrasive rocks on the Presidential range, but Krista had told me that Crawford wasn’t too bad (and that Jewell was rougher) and lo, so it was! The trail was delightfully good going and all those boots over all those years had worn the rock surfaces mostly smooth.

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Rocking her new Groundbird Gear!

Lilo really seemed to enjoy this stretch of trail. She didn’t even want to stop when we ran into Paws on Peaks, who had come up Tuckerman Ravine.

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Tango is a gentleman and the heathen dingo is up to no good.
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This is Lilo’s, “Why are we stopping?” face.

She was test-driving her new custom harness and pack from Groundbird Gear and you guys, I am so impressed. The harness fits her like custom (because it is), the pack attachments and design are very thoughtful, and the whole unit is super lightweight and feels beautifully-constructed. Time will tell how it all holds up to miles and New Hampshire rock, but friends who have used these packs hard report only good things. My expectations were high and so far, I’m thrilled.

The blissful amble across the ridge may have been my favorite part of the day. The summit of Washington itself was, alas, unsurprisingly a madhouse. I ducked briefly into the summit building for an ice cream sandwich before retreating to join our speed demons at the top of Crawford to wait.

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Lilo and her friends.

Our descent began with another ridge walk, this time along Gulfside (and I believe there was a connector trail in there as well) across the Cog tracks and along the rim of the Great Gulf. This trail, though allegedly the easiest route to and from Washington, was quite a bit rougher than our ascent, with more than enough (for me) of the northern Presi rock-hopping and vastly more abrasive rock. I’m sure it’s easier than Ammo if you’re not into scrambling, but I’d take our route up any day. The view of the cloud-shadowed northern Presis and down into the wild Great Gulf to distant Spaulding Lake was pretty fantastic, though!

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Madison, Adams, and Jefferson beyond the rim of the Great Gulf.
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Loving life above treeline.

Lilo protected herself pretty well through this section. She clearly agreed with me, though, that the rock-hopping was getting old. Her pads held up better than I had anticipated to the sharpness of the rock, but she had some wear around them and a very minor dime-sized scuff on one back paw began to juuuuust open up as we started to descend. We paused for some repair work with moleskin, VetRap, and duct tape, and some passing admirers volunteered to feed her treats while I doctored her foot. She’s a good soldier and would have tolerated the work regardless, but I was all in favor of making it as pleasant for her as possible!

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Our makeshift bootie on her left hind.

She was pretty tired in the last few miles and I don’t think I’ll ask her to do such a long, rocky descent again or to hike the northern Presis without boots. She manages herself well and I used leash and harness to ease her drops down from one rock to the next as much as I could, but it’s just a lot of pounding on such a big, solid, powerful dog. I have a Franconia Ridge loop coming up in two weeks and I’m struggling with whether or not to bring her; it’ll probably be a game-time call. But I’m proud of how well she handled herself all day, both moving out with enthusiasm on Crawford and slowing herself down on Jewell, and she not only bounced back quickly but clearly thought she was a big deal for days after the hike!

So that’s #31 for me, I think, and #15 for her.

Results Are In

So I’ve been meaning to get Titus tested for the MDR1 mutation, because herding mix. And I’ve been putting it off, because money.

His injury made the whole thing a bit more pressing. I ordered the test. Actually, I ordered a Wisdom Panel on the theory that it wasn’t that much more expensive to add the breed analysis and I could use all the entertainment that I could get.

I’ve never been all that curious about the composition of my mixed breeds in the past. I felt like I knew enough. Lilo is a shelter pit bull and while there may be other stuff in there, I sure doesn’t see it either physically or behaviorally. With Casey, our best guess (Boxer and Beagle) was much more guessy, but he was a sufficiently special snowflake that it didn’t really matter: he was Casey, that was all.

I felt pretty good about the consensus opinion on Titus, too: mostly cattle dog, probably some husky, and potentially a dash of who-knows-what. (Thus the MDR1 concern; I couldn’t be confident that the who-knows-what excluded Border Collie or Aussie or the like.) I was honestly a little worried that the result might come back totally off-the-wall. It wouldn’t change the dog, of course! But would it change how I related to him? I didn’t know.

Turns out I didn’t need to worry.

Mostly cattle dog, some husky, and a dash of who-knows-what!

I do think it’s likelier that he had one parent who was full heeler and one that was a husky mix than that there were a couple of intact mixes running around central New York. (Although maybe that’s wishful thinking…) But I’m pretty tickled that we guessed right and that Titus comes by all his charming weirdness honestly!

And his MDR1 result came back normal/normal to boot.