Toolin’ Around

We weren’t formally a part of this month’s positive-training blog hop, but the theme — training tools — was right up my alley. Also enjoy these pictures of Titus, mostly taken by the friend who strolled around little Blue Job with us the other day.

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Serious business snow dog.

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…or not!

The positive-reinforcement training tool that has been on my mind recently is actually a method: Kathy Sdao’s SMARTx50 protocol, described in her (great little) book Plenty in Life is Free and also conveniently excerpted here. That acronym stands for See, Mark, And Reward Training. In very, very, very brief, the goal is to reward the dog for making a good choice or doing something that you-the-handler likes fifty times a day.

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I don’t know that Titus ever saw more a proper flight of stairs before he came to live with me. To this day, he is very careful and cautious about our interior staircase and generally doesn’t attempt it without supervision and encouragement (and preferably a lead from Lilo).
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But he really wanted to climb the Blue Job fire tower! This was as far as I let him go, but you can see him enjoying the view.

The protocol is beautiful to me: elegant, simple, and clear. It’s easy for the handler to understand and to implement in a way that even clicker training isn’t, necessarily, especially when you’re just starting out. And — importantly for me and for Titus, it shapes the handler’s mindset at least as much as the dog’s behavior.

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On Little Blue Job, his second summit since July. It barely counts — we walked 2.5 miles and the elevation gain isn’t even worth mentioning — and you can see here how he still, still, still is not rock-solid on that leg, but we had beautiful weather and good company and a good workout from the horrid mashed-potato snow and even managed to get the tiniest little bit lost. A great success!

Titus can be overwhelming. It’s what I was looking for in a dog, but it’s also, you know, true. And Titus can find life, especially house life, overwhelming, too. We had made great progress during his first months with me. As long-time readers may recall, the month leading up to his injury was wonderful. But the injury and recovery period set us back on our heels in so many ways. Now we’re moving forward again.

And with greater freedom comes greater responsibility, both on my part to rebuild what we lost and redirect us towards where I’d like us to be and on Titus’s part to remember how to function as part of the household with — slowly, appropriately, but steadily — fewer management aids and restrictions. We can both be anxious critters; we both tend to feel that overwhelm. (Thank dog for Lilo, who has a clear, strong, and steadying sense of self!)

SMARTx50 helps keep my eye on the prize and also on the presence: on my good dog who is always trying the best that he can. It sidesteps the overwhelm and the sense of playing whack-a-mole with all the many pieces that we have to work on and instead says: Yes. Yes, that. That is perfect, right there. It has been an invaluable aid in helping us renegotiate life outside the crate and off the tether, and while I don’t use it as formally with Lilo, it echoes through every part of my training life and in every way, I am so glad.

 

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Tecumseh Revisited

Mt Tecumseh, hiked from the Waterville Valley ski area, was Lilo’s first 4,000 footer and I remember at the time being so happy that I’d brought her with me because it meant that I would never have to hike that fucking mountain again.

I felt a little bad about how much I disliked the trail, especially since part of the reason was the endless flights of beautiful stone steps that some trail-builder(s) had clearly poured immense quantities of time, effort, and love into. But the effect of climbing an endless stride-regulating staircase through mostly nondescript forest was just not my favorite.

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Very perplexed by the cheering and whooping coming from the ski slopes.

When I adopted Titus, I resigned myself to hiking it one more time. I decided that we’d do it in winter, all three of us together, so that it would count for everyone’s winter list if I ever decided to pursue that and so that the snowcover would smooth out all those stairs.

But then Titus got hurt. I missed the higher summits. Tecumseh from the ski area is a short 5-mile round trip without too much elevation gain (it’s only just barely a 4ker) and a relatively short drive from my house. And so Lilo and I found ourselves in a parking lot full of skiers and snowboarders putting our hiking gear on.

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She actually found the trailhead before I did. We had to walk up through the lot a bit, occasionally stepping between parallel-parked cars to allow another to pass, and one time she refused to step back out again. When I looked over, she had her nose to the ground and when I followed, she footstep-tracked right up over the snow berm, across the shuttle bus lane, and up to the trail sign that I had thought was still a little ways further up. Good bull!

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I was legitimately cheerful for the first part of the trail. Winter Tecumseh definitely beats summer Tecumseh! Everything is prettier under a blanket of snow and everyone we met along the way — this is a very popular winter route — was in high spirits. There was even a light snow for the first half of our ascent: not enough to obscure visibility, but very pretty and festive.

Of course, once you turn away from the outlook onto a ski trail, you’re on the staircase and that section is Rather Steep even when smoothed by the snow. You’re also in nondescript pine forest for nearly all of it and I can’t help it: I’m a forest snob. I loved those pines near the top where they were covered in an elegant layer of ice, but mostly if I’m climbing, I want to be rewarded by changes in the forest that I’m climbing through. So I spent that stretch having determinedly upbeat conversations with Lilo about, “Seriously, this fucking trail.”

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Still funny.

Lilo did bonk pretty hard two-thirds of the way up. I’m not the only one who’s a little underfit right now, alas. I had promised her in the car that we didn’t have to summitif she didn’t want to, but she brightened right up after a kibble break and happily led me the rest of the way to the top. Sorry, girl! Nutritious snacks earlier next time out!

Unlike last time, we did have a pretty, moody view from the (artificially cleared — another strike against this peak!) summit.

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And a nice peekaboo view from the trail not too far below.img_3630

Trail conditions were pretty excellent — well-packed but not slippery — and the wind never kicked up as I’d feared that it might. I ended up using my snowshoes for all but the first and last mile, not because I needed flotation to go with my traction but because I wanted the televators for the slog of a climb. I saw plenty of folks doing well in just spikes, though, and some who were barebooting happily.img_3634

We did step out onto the ski trail outlook on the way back down to enjoy the view and watching the skiers and snowboarders go by. It reminded me of last spring’s trip to watch the skiing in Tuckerman Ravine — we’ll have to get one on the calendar for this year, too.img_3637

Of course, now I’m stuck hiking this mountain yet again when Titus is ready. I hear the approach from Tripoli Road is a bit more interesting — maybe we’ll try that!img_3638

No News is No News

I was originally going to call this post “Setback,” but luckily for you all I waited to write it until I was feeling a little bit less dramatic!

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As those of you who have been here a while know, Titus was originally diagnosed with an iliopsoas strain after coming up mildly lame on the easiest hike he’d done in weeks. This was waaaaaay back on the last day of July. The surgeon who saw him in August was very clear that we couldn’t rule out a CCL tear, but the signs and symptoms at the time all pointed towards the ‘psoas. So that’s what we worked on rehabbing through mid-October, when he came up acutely lame after several weeks of nice improvement.

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The second-opinion surgeon — actually my first choice, but the scheduling in August hadn’t worked out and I liked the one we saw then very much as well — diagnosed the partial CCL tear at that time. She agreed that the original X-rays from August weren’t indicative of the tear having existed at that time, which was reassuring. We still can’t totally rule out the possibility that it had been present but too recent to cause the telltale changes in the joint. But that’s kind of six of one, half a dozen of the other, and it was nice to have two opinions saying that the course of action to that point had been reasonable.

So we did the TPLO on November 1st and hoped that in addition to mitigating what did turn out to be a partial CCL tear (but intact meniscus, hurrah), it would help resolve the muscle injury.img_3578

But an offload of that right hind leg has persisted throughout the post-op rehab. I spent a couple of weeks chatting with our team about it at Titus’s PT appointments and trying to believe that it was, as suggested, simply muscle weakness and fatigue that needed strengthening. Until I finally didn’t at 12 weeks post-op when a slight hitch appeared in his gait. So off we went back to our surgeon for a recheck…

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…and guess what. The knee is in great shape! Which was not a surprise to me but still felt like good news. A tiny part of my brain kept remembering that things just happen to this dog and wouldn’t it be just his luck to trash his meniscus, too? Surgeon concurred with the rehab team that the symptoms pointed away from that, that it was unlikely given the partial tear, and that he would likely be significantly more lame.

The bad but also unsurprising news was that he was — is — quite tight in his iliopsoas and also in his quadriceps. So much for simply needing strengthening and so much for the TPLO fixing the muscle issue. I guess that was a bit of magical thinking in the first place, but man, it would have been nice!img_3648

So Titus has been busted back down to walking the rail trail for a while instead of hiking, even though I don’t actually think that easy hiking we’ve done is necessarily bad for those muscles — and I’m really struggling to minimize the stuff that I think is, because this dog, untethered and unsedated, leaps and capers and sprints and does hard cutting turns just hanging around one or two rooms of the house.  We’ve upped the frequency of his cold laser treatments now that our local vet offers it, too. The surgeon is also a CCRP and is going to touch base with the rehab team about stretches, etc., to target those muscles. She also agreed to give us a referral to a rehabilitation clinic a couple of hours away that I’ve heard really great things about. We can’t go frequently, but I’m really hopeful that they can help us devise an at-home program and then we can do monthly check-ins or something. I guess we’ll see.

So that’s where we are right now. Not where I’d hoped we’d be while closing in on 14 weeks post-op, but I feel like we’re looking at the right problem again and collecting the right tools to address it. Paws crossed!img_3646

And hey, Lilo and I hiked a 4,000-footer again finally! Check back on Friday for that story (and on Wednesday for Lilo’s turn to the Dark Side at a friends’ recent overnight).

Mt. Roberts

Happily for Lilo, there was a warming trend over the weekend and by the time I returned home from breakfast with a friend on Sunday morning, conditions were pit bull-approved! We loaded up and headed for Mt. Roberts on the Castle in the Clouds property.

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Lilo has been struggling a bit with hiking over the last few weeks. I’ve found it demoralizing. She did well through the shoulder season and seemed to love winter hiking last year. In retrospect, last year was mild in temperature as well as snowfall and as a grad student, I was able to cherrypick the fine-weather days to take her out. I really wanted to have a good outing with her and was a little apprehensive starting out, especially when the trailhead itself — surrounded by open fields — proved quite windy. Not her favorite!

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She settled in nicely once we reached the trails proper. Note to folks thinking of hiking this trail with dogs: it does start and finish near a horse pasture. If you don’t know for a fact that your pup is good around horses, please assume they’re not and keep them leashed. Lilo has spent a lot of time at barns in her life and I know she’s trustworthy, but I’ve also done my fair share of waiting for people to remove their dog from under my horse’s belly — so it’s a word that I try to spread when I have the chance!

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The trail up Mt. Roberts is clearly well-traveled. On this day it was largely hard-packed and in a few steep, sunny spots, actually down to leaves and rock instead of snow. We also saw some easily-avoidable water ice. This route, from Ossippee Park Road, climbs steadily but not relentlessly. It got my underfit heart pumping, but never felt stressful, and the grade moderates frequently.

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Sunday was gorgeous, with a vibrant blue sky and little wind at elevation. I’m sure that contributed to the incandescent happiness of nearly everyone we met on trail, including a very polite and handsome Malamute (I think) accompanying a pair of trail runners. I was fortunate enough to share the summit with a group of three who arrived just as Lilo decided that I, in the middle of changing my socks, looked like a good place to sit…

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I normally prefer loops to out and back trails like this one, but the views made for a thoroughly enjoyable descent. Even Lilo, who normally does not approve of prolonged stopping because we have places to go and why are we wasting her time when we could be going there, was happy to find a sunwarmed snowless patch and drink in the scenery.

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Greeley Pond

Here’s one more blog-relevant goal: I’m going to try to be better about responding to comments starting now. I always intend to and often do in my head, but I keep thinking, “I’ll wait until I get back to my laptop,” and then…don’t. Going to try to carve out a bit of time going forward to actually make that happen, now that running up to the office no longer means locking Titus back in his crate as it has for most of the time post-TPLO. I appreciate everyone’s thoughts and input so much.

Anyway! Last Saturday Titus and I met up with a group of friends to hike Greeley Ponds from the Kancamagus Highway. I’ve heard wonderful things about this scenic, gently rolling route, but had not quite gotten around to it yet. It turned out to be a perfect fit for a companionable amble with two hikers (one human, one canine) who are coming back from injury.

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I waffled all week about whether to bring both dogs. Between Titus’s redeveloping manners, a recent spike in Lilo’s reactivity for reasons not clear to me, and the narrowness of winter trails making it difficult to get out of the way of passersby, 1:1 dog:handler ratio is optimal right now and this trip was originally planned to be Titus’s show. Lilo knows what the pack means, though, and it’s hard to leave her behind. In the end, the weather decided me. -1 degree F at the start is way too cold for this pit bull.

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The trail was in great shape aside from one minor blowdown at the start and contrary to this hilarious recent trail report. Heavy use and a recent thaw/freeze cycle had the footpath well-developed. Stepping off did mean postholing and I may have at one point ended up in double postholes above my knees while returning from a bathroom break. Luckily — since Titus was busily trying to steal a mitten from the friend I’d left him with — I managed to free myself without too much trouble!

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The little guy did me proud. This was his longest hike since October and second-longest since July(!). 4.4 flat-to-gently-rolling miles seemed like a reasonable next step from his recent adventures (mostly not documented here), but I watched his gait like a hawk and was prepared to turn around in the event of any change. He finished up tired but not noticeably sore. Even more important, he still looked good several hours later when the adrenaline and joy of being out! on! a hike! wore off. And he handled himself beautifully on the trail. We did have to discuss alternatives to pulling like a lunatic early on, as the poor mite was Very Excited (and the other dog with the group was definitely taunting him). Once he grokked the rules, though, he was a joy to hike along with and even demonstrated admirable patience when the group stopped for socialization and snacks.

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He was also his usual weird self, of course. Wouldn’t have it any other way!

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Hike Dreams

I don’t believe in New Year’s resolutions as such. Mostly I think that if there’s something you want to do, then you should go ahead and get started already. That may mean the very tiniest of steps! It may not look anything at all from the outside like meaningful pursuit of your end goal. But for me, it’s both important and motivating to take concrete action. I can (and if I allow it, will) plan endlessly. Movement matters.

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Judgment matters, too.

But I do love the symbolism of the holiday with its the arbitrary turning of the page and its invitation to reassess and reaffirm. In that spirit, here are my relevant-to-this-blog intentions for 2017.

1) Return to the New Hampshire 4,000 footers. What with one thing and another, I’ve drifted away from the higher peaks. Note that the focus here is hiking these mountains and reminding myself that I can, not necessarily checking off the list. Just climb Tecumseh a couple of times would count. That would be very silly of me, but it would totally count.

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Not a 4,000-footer, but…

2) Sleep outdoors three times. I miss backpacking, you guys. This is not a backpacking goal. I think Titus will be ready to sleep in or outside my tent without eating my sleeping bag this year, but I don’t know that for sure. I want to leave myself room for car-camping with his soft crate to feel like a worthwhile thing. But yes: tent, sleeping bag, dogs, outside. Go.

3) Work on the paw-protection puzzle. We’ve done well thus far with bare paws most of the year, Musher’s Secret in winter, and rare occasions of minor on-trail first-aid. Lilo would appreciate a bit more protection for even just local walks on very cold days, though. Titus lost most (all?) of his paw conditioning during his layup. And there is a lot of rock in this state, yo. I would feel more comfortable with a set of boots in my pack. We’ve already started the proof-of-concept testing with a loaner set from Paws of Peaks. Now that I know that Lilo doesn’t mind wearing boots, I’m ready to start trying to find her the right fit. For Titus’s part, our initial work will be just the ongoing effort in increasing his comfort in having his paws handled at all.

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Tango of Paws on Peaks, showing off his fancy feet.

4) Hike in Vermont, New York, and/or Maine. I really love New Hampshire, but our nearby states are full of equally scenic and interesting trails. I want to continue to expand my adventures and explore new-to-me options outside of what has become my geographic comfort zone. I have a few ideas already; I look forward to coming up with more and then following through!

5) Train each dog in public once per week. I take a lot of pride in having well-trained good-citizen dogs. They’re easier to work and live with. Both of mine really get a kick out of training. And I am also very vain; I find it very reinforcing to present a flashy heel or fast recall. But we’ve fallen off the training wagon since Titus’s injury to the extent that I’ve been writing a blog post in my head titled “On Having the Bad Dogs on Trail.” It’s time to knock off the rust, including confirming that our work holds up in the real world. What this effort looks like will vary by dog, day, and context, but the point is that I want to reestablish the habit of doing more than just hiking and noodling at home.

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Practicing the voluntary sit-stay of “I can’t even believe those goons are playing on the ladder when we could be zooming down this hill.”

6) Invite the possibility of new hiking buddies on four separate occasions. I’m an introvert who likes people. This is sometimes a problem. I really enjoy solo hiking. Under most circumstances I have no reservations about soloing, especially with a dog or two along. But I also really enjoy hiking with good company and there are certain situations — winter hiking along remote and/or high-elevation routes in particular — where it’s just smarter to have (the right) companion. And I can get a little weird in my head about the tap dance of making new friends. So this goal is in service of getting a little more practice in finding hiking buddies. The invitation is what counts. The outcome will be whatever it is and that’s fine; I just have to put myself out there enough to ask.

(For an actual write-up of the hike behind these pictures, please visit Paws on Peaks.)