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…

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.