The Greatest Gift – The Deepest Pain

I’m not really sure where to begin. How does one truly describe a life altering event? Does it begin when the event itself happens or does it begin at the very beginning?

The briefest synopsis is that I was given my Missy on April 6, 1993. We shared more experiences than I can really explain in a reasonable manner that may interest anyone other than me. Or a stalker, but I’m certain that I’m not interesting enough to have any of those. During the 24 years, 7 months and 11 days of our journey we covered countless wooded miles of trails in 3 states. She saw me through high school, college, jobs, boyfriends, a husband (who had no idea truly what marrying a “horse girl” meant, poor guy), jobs, babies, homes and starting a business. She jumped jumps I had NO business pointing her at. She saved my butt landing those fences when she had every right to let me hit the ground. I felt the exhilaration of a full gallop in wide open spaces with her. I felt the terror of a full gallop in wide open spaces with her too. I saw the pride in my children as they learned to ride her and the pride she seemed to exude in protecting her small charges. I rehabbed her from injuries and illness that could have killed her. And by the way, horses do things that could kill them with relative frequency.

Missy was the reason I chose my college major, my college, my jobs, my homes, when to have children. I’m fairly confident no major life decision was made without Missy as a driving factor. Without Missy I would not have met my best friend who would not have introduced me to my husband. Good god how different life would have been.

So when one goes from a wild, unstoppable, unruly, untrusting, unbroken in every sense three year old thoroughbred mare and hears people tell you at every turn to “get rid of her”, “kill her” and “you have to keep bad kids, you don’t have to keep bad horses” (yes, exact quote that crushed my 16 year old self), and despite it all perseveres to end up looking at a nearly 28 year old best friend who can’t keep weight on despite feeding roughly 10 times the amount of feed that used to make her fat and then hearing the vet tell you that her heart murmur has gone from mild to “sounding like a washing machine” in less than two weeks time, what do you do?

You cry. A lot. Then you make the gut wrenching, soul crushing decision to make the only fair choice to your best friend. You agree to let her go.

But you also have kids. And you need to tell them that the magnificent, larger than life creature who has simply always been there, who has carried them around making them feel invincible, who they visit daily and love feeding cookies and peppermints to when they think you aren’t looking, will not be a part of their lives any longer. And you need to do this in a way that honors their grief while still not having any remote control over your own.

And you are scared. Scared of your grief. Scared of your future. Scared of not knowing who you are without being a horse owner and going to the barn and working around them every day. Scared of the final moment when you know from experience that it is not always peaceful. It can be dramatic and awful and dreading that being your last memory of this amazing creature who has helped to create you as the person you are today. And terrified that your final memory may be crushing and scary.

I felt all of that. And more. So much more than I can put in words. I also felt love. I felt the love from those around me who know how much I love her. I received so many calls, texts, messages and in person visits leading up to euthanizing Missy. I had an army of people standing by us as it happened.

I had an AMAZING vet who changed her schedule to be there for us and I only found out when she arrived. I was so happy for that that I walked away from Missy’s open stall door, leaving only her stall chain across the door and the barn doors open. Something I’ve told every single person in the barn not to do, as she will crawl out under and go for a jaunt. And that is exactly what she did. And then the horse who has barely had enough energy to amble around her stall in weeks was off like a shot with her tail in the air, galloping around the farm and teasing every horse in every paddock. She was whinnying and in a lovely, uphill gallop. She really looked amazing. I was somewhat afraid in that moment that her heart would just give out. But I was also inwardly high fiving her for making this her goodbye tour on her terms. What the hell, she lived her entire life on her terms. Why stop now??!

Of course I’m going to openly admit that she made me second guess myself for a brief moment. But the harsh reality was that she was failing fast. She had an amazing time but her body was truly failing her. With the cold coming on so fast and her body so thin, her upcoming weeks were more likely than not going to be a brutal struggle with a terrible outcome. Today was windy but sunny and bright.

When she was done she stood quietly for me to put her halter on and we walked to the field where she would be buried alongside her friend who had passed away a few years prior. A horse she stood beside as he passed away.

As I sobbed the vet sedated her and when the sedation made her very relaxed she administered the final injection. The vet tech was well versed and assisted Missy beautifully so she did not have a horrible fall. It was slow and controlled and she was at peace. I was so deeply sad but also relieved that I would not find her one morning having fallen down overnight and struggled until she was found in the morning. This amazing animal gave me her all. I owed her this much. She had a dignified death with a grand adventure that lead to a story that will always make me smile.

The tears come in waves. I tend to do a huge amount of “pre-grieving” with loss. I’m NOT about to say that means I don’t grieve after. I so very much do. But the peace and knowing that I very much let her go when the time was right, she was failing but not failed, it makes it easier. She did not suffer. She was declining rapidly but was not so declined that death itself was a relief. We should all be so lucky.

I laid on the ground over her for some time patting and kissing her beautiful face. I removed her halter. I have her blankets which I hope to repurpose into pillows and tote bags for myself and my daughter and cut her tail to have made into bracelets for us as well.

Each day will bring its own wave of challenges and sorrow and I will honor those waves. They are important and necessary. But it will also bring smiles of amazing memories, even more necessary. I wouldn’t trade those for anything. They made me who I am.

Someday I may consider another horse. I can’t envision a world where they aren’t a part of my life. But for now this wound needs to heal. I look forward to a time when it does because I think Missy would want the many lessons she taught me to go forward and benefit another.

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Shaking Up Beliefs And Coming Out Stronger

Some people will totally get where I’m coming from on this exhausted ramble. Some may be horrified. Read it through anyway.

I am a cross over trainer. I grew up reading traditional dog training books since they were the only ones at the library and I’m fairly certain I read every dog, horse and rabbit book there!

As I got older I continued to expand on what I learned from those texts, as well as taking various training classes over the years. Etta led me to positive training and all in all I never looked back.

Well, not never.

When times get rough we all resort to what we “know”. Yesterday was admittedly rough with Rious and made me question everything I thought I knew to my core. I questioned, I brooded, I doubted, I thought about going back to what I “knew before”.

Then I stopped, looked at my dog and said no. I know *THIS* works.

And today I went out and redoubled my efforts and put a big old check in the relationship box.

I have pushed my brain to the maximum this weekend about all of the ups and the downs and kept saying to myself “What is the lesson in this test”. After much deliberation and soul searching I think I know.

Etta taught me to love positive training. Rious taught me to believe in it.

Every journey has tests and every test should challenge your beliefs. It will either make them stronger or show you something new. I was shaken to the core and I came out a better trainer for it and one more step removed from the “cross over” end of the spectrum. And I am pretty damn pleased with that lesson. The dogs are our teachers as soon as we are ready to be the students and every dog has something to teach us.

Not only that, it has given me an even bigger reminder about where my students may be coming from when they venture away from their lessons when times get tough. If I even considered it knowing all I know and having done all I’ve done, how can someone essentially new to this get through it??? They need as much redoubling of my efforts as the dogs do, if not more.

Ultimately I have to say “Thank you Rious for being my best boy even when I almost forgot to be the best mom!!!!”

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Trusting My Dog

Trust is such a huge factor in any relationship. Trusting your dog, trusting your training, those things can be SO hard to do.

We have a rally trial coming up this weekend. The first one of the season for us and the first on since the end of November. Also our first time going out without any puppy level runs at all. We also HAVE to qualify in both runs in order to enter level two, which we already paid for. Nerve wracking.

I’ve been stressing about this and trying to figure out how to cram in “enough” practice, how to set up “enough” challenges.

Tonight we did a few things in between my students practices at class. Rious rocked everything I asked him! If he works half as well this weekend I can stop stressing!

I tell my students all of the time “Trust the training you have done. Trust your dog”. Once again Rious is making me put my money where my mouth is and live the words I teach.

I can’t say it enough, I love this dog!

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Catching up and competing!


have been so busy in recent months and terribly neglectful of my blog!  Well, here goes a few brags!

For 2013 Rious ended up being nationally ranked in the WRCO as the number 6 puppy in his division!!!!  He would have ended up higher but I ended up bumping him up to Level One for his last run of 2013, not even thinking about rankings!  In addition to that incredible honor he earned his Puppy title with an Award of Excellence, meaning his first three scores needed to title were all over 190 (out of 200 with a perfect score being 210 with a bonus).  Ultimately I think of his 11 or 12 runs only his first two were under 200.  We have managed a 208 but still chasing that elusive 210!!.  He is just an awesome dog to trial!  His ending official 2013 title was RLPX2!

The 2014 trials for us begin in 4 weeks where we look to complete his Level 1 title and begin his Level 2 which is off leash!

We have also begun agility classes which he absolutely loves!  I am blown away every single week watching just how naturally he approaches the obstacles.  At one point we were making it a bit harder for him because we were working on drive and that is one thing Rious has PLENTY of!

Last session he had a bit of a panic attack when the dog walk made a very quiet metallic noise and it ever so slightly wiggled.  As a tiny puppy he crashed into a metal stepladder, which fell on him and did hurt him (not severely, but enough to make him limp for a few minutes).  Ever since then things that wiggle and make metal sounds are really hard for him.  I spent some extra time after class having fun with the dog walk and this week he totally OWNED IT!  It was awesome, he was so confident and kept going to it by himself!

Later we introduced the weave poles using a shaping exercise.  I love watching Rious absorb shaping exercises.  He loves it when his brain is solving a puzzle!  He got it right away and from that point on just did it!  He really is so much FUN!!!

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Long Time Since Last Update!

Shame on me! I can’t believe it has been almost four months since I’ve written something here!

We have had a few more competitions since my last entry. Rious has done really well in all of them. He has taken first or second place in every class, and every score has been over 200, with several 208s! He achieved his RLP (Rally Level Puppy) at his first show and even earned a title of excellence because his first three scores were over 190! He went on the get his RLPX (Rally Level Puppy Excellent) at his next show. We have one or two more shows left this year, and fingers crossed he will end the year with his RLPX1. It all comes down to number of qualifying scores beyond the title earned. Then next year he will debut at Level 1!

All in all Rious has continued to grow up to be a handsome and smart dog. He is hovering around 50 pounds right now, he is glossy and the biggest character! In recent weeks he is looking much less puppy and much more dog!

He is testing out a few teenager behaviors these days, like seeing if he can army crawl around the room when he is supposed to be on a down stay! I think his theory is “Well, I’m still down!”. Stinker! We were calling him a Ninja the other night because he would stealthily make his way around without making a sound!

But overall I can not complain about the funny, loving dog I have!

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Our First Day of Competition!!!

WOW!  What an incredible day!  I am just so overwhelmed with all that happened today, I will try to get it all down in some sensical order!

First off, Rious was an absolute rock star!!!  He handled everything like such a pro!  Nothing phased him at all.  I was really trying to just look at this as a series of experiences and any ribbons would be a bonus.  Well, we achieved that and more!

The first thing I wanted to have Rious experience was being crated in the crate room with all of the strange dogs in such close quarters.  He just went in and nearly fell asleep!  He watched things with interest but was just so relaxed in his crate.  Having had one dog who would bark because she wanted to join the fun and another with claustrophobia/separation anxiety and will tear a metal crate to shreds, I can not begin to describe how thrilling that on its’ own was!

The second goal was working on his attention amid so many dogs, smells, people with treats, close quarters, etc.  He had very little difficulty answering to my requests and all in all for a seven month old intact teenager Border Collie-ish dog, I have no complaints!

Next was heeling, straight “fronts” and making sure our communication remained fluid, despite my tendency towards ring nerves and getting too focused/tunnel visioned.  Our first run we had a few times of a mildly tight leash.  Nothing horrific, really.  There are four levels of “tight leash” penalties, 1 point, 3 point, five point and disqualification.  We got a 1 point on each.  In the second run I actually kept my leash longer and increased my rate of reinforcement for heeling, as in the puppy level you can treat freely, with the only exception being no luring with a treat.  In the second run we did not have a single tight leash penalty!!!  The first run we also had one slightly crooked sit, but again it was only in the 1 point category.  I can totally live with that at this point!

I really liked both of the courses, but the second one was my favorite.  I felt like it really played into Rious’ strong suits.  The faults we got on that course ended up being mine!  Lol!  I misread one sign – a 5 point deduction (so did the winner of the class!) and had two treats stick together and one hit the ground, which is a no no, as it can create an unfair distraction for later dogs in the ring.  I stopped to retrieve the food which probably highlighted the drop to the judge, but I could not in good conscience leave it there.  That was a 3 point deduction.  {Shoulder shrug}  I always say it is about the experience and the ribbons are the icing on the cake.  I have said it before and it applies here, Rious makes me practice what I preach and I am 100% okay with that!  🙂  We had one other 3 point deduction when Rious got confused on a 360 degree turn to the left and sat at heel.  That was a 3 point deduction, BUT we nailed the bonus and got 9/10 points so we made up for most of our deductions.  The kicker is that if I had not misread the sign and had not dropped the treat we would have won the class by 2 points!  Oh well!

So the final breakdown was that we got two third place ribbons, two awesome scores of 197 and 198 out of a total possible 210 points and some incredibly valuable experience.

I am so immensely pumped for tomorrow!  As a fun extra, if we get one qualifying score on either of our runs, and based on today I don’t see why we won’t unless I choke (!) we will even earn a title in our level!

I have to say that this was SUCH a welcoming venue and community.  Any question I had I simply turned to anyone near by and if they knew they explained or showed me, if they did not know they led me to someone who did.  One of the women in my class happened to be crating her dog next to us.  We swapped tips we knew as we walked the course.  I really enjoyed it all.  And the ultimate icing on the cake was how many people approached me to compliment Rious’ attention and his handsomeness!  🙂  The judges all asked his age and were all obviously surprised at how young he was, so that really made me feel great!

He was struggling to stay awake on the car ride home and is now passed out on his pillow beside me!  Rest up buddy, another big day tomorrow!!!

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He Continues To Amaze Me!

I have said it before and I’ll say it again, I love this dog!!! We went to Rally class today and after our first run through the teacher and other students actually gave us a standing ovation, said our run was perfect and they could not believe the intensity of his workability at only six months old!

It felt pretty good but I was working and focusing on him so much in the moment that I really did not notice it all until it was over. But yeah, we were totally connected and just “on”!

Not to mention the fact that my almost four year old daughter tagged along to “help” today… Lol, help distract maybe! They were amazed by how well he could focus on me with her doing her thing around us.

The only piece I really want to focus on this week is getting a straight “front”. He has gotten so good at swinging into heel position that his fronts are twisting to the left. I think that should be relatively manageable.

With only two weeks until our first competition, today was a very motivating and exciting event!

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Beginning Heelwork

Tonight I managed to get outside with Rious for about 15 minutes of Heel work. He started out ok but by the end he was clearly getting it!

I started just walking around the driveway and going back to basics of click and feed for position by my side. He started out about 18″ away. By the end he was right up against me.

I began to add in straight sits by my side. He tends to want to swing his butt wide. By the end he was nice and straight.

I also played around with changing position from heel to front and back. His fronts tend to be slightly crooked to my left so we focused on coming in nice and straight.

Last I was playing with some pivots and having Rious find heel by himself. By the end he seemed to really like that one and was leaping into position!

When the session was over he really wanted to keep going. He followed me around much of the rest of the night and clearly wanted more! I look forward to bringing him to classes this week for continued practice!

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When the Teacher Becomes the Student

Last week I had the wonderful chance to finally get to take Rious to a training class! I have not been a student in a dog training class in about five years and it is long overdue. I have missed it! He is doing wonderfully and I am very excited for our upcoming debut in a Rally Obedience competition next month.

Today I had several wonderful revelations and it has made me very introspective.

I am what is considered a “cross over trainer. I began training dogs with a very traditional mindset, believing in dominance as a driving force and being okay with the use of pain and aversives in my training. This was not a conscious decision on my part, it was just what was “out there” in the available information and what I learned to do. I was not brutal to my dogs, but I definitely would not use the same techniques that I used then on dogs I train now. To paraphrase Maya Angelou (because I can’t remember the exact quote!), “You do the best you can with what you know. When you know better, you do better”. I think that sums it up well.

This type of training did not do great things for my work with dogs. I take great pride in them and their performance and the general gist of that training is that if it doesn’t work, get tougher. Taking great pride tends to lead me to be a bit of a perfectionist about them. “Back in the day” this led to me putting too much pressure on them and letting myself get frustrated by “what they were doing”. Ultimately this led to activities not bringing me the joy I was looking for.

So fast forward to today, many years and what feels like a lifetime of learning about positive training theory and technique later. I was working Rious on some skills that were new to him and rusty to me. Having last practiced them with Maggie (rest her sweet soul) who was a rock star at this(!), I felt myself getting momentarily flustered with him and myself. Almost simultaneously I reminded myself this was brand new to him and I needed to break it down better. Amazing things happen when I do that. It worked! The lightbulb came on and he got totally into his work! It was really exciting to see that happen and to walk away truly feeling like we accomplished something great together. A true working partnership is blossoming and that is exactly what I have always strived for.

At one point in class I felt all thumbs juggling my leash, treats, clicker, watching where I was going, paying attention to everything at once while being watched by a teacher and class of other students. This made acutely aware of what my students feel when they are learning these new skills that I take for granted. I always try to empathize with my students and I think I do a decent job. But today kicked that awareness up another notch. To me, this is so incredibly important and I treasure any personal struggle that helps me relate to and help my students have a better learning experience.

One of my most relevant personal take aways today was that years ago I would have looked at our struggles on various exercises today as “failures” but now I was actually excited by these things as it made my training plan for this week abundantly clear! And a clear training plan makes life a whole lot easier and more clear to me and my dog. It reminds me of a song lyric I have always loved (and forgive me because I remember the song line but I can’t actually remember the song, but it is sung by Garth Brooks!!!), “Failure isn’t failure if a lesson from it’s learned”. Never in training have these words echoed so true for me as they do today.

This journey of dog training is such an incredible road of learning more about myself, inner peace and truly feeling like a better person. I feel so privileged to work with dogs and their families and I just can’t imagine how many paths I might have chosen differently in my life that may not have led me here and I am thankful every day for the “lucky disasters” that landed me where they did!!!

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Rious’ first Rally class!

SO proud if my boy today! We finally found a class that worked with our beliefs in positive reinforcement and schedule! I got to take Rious to a Rally class and am SO pumped to get him into a competition next month! He was just SO good! I am on my phone right now so I can’t directly link the video but I posted one of his first run throughs to my YouTube listed under PuppyPleaseLLC.

I have always wanted to compete and I am just so excited to finally see that coming to be! And I have always been a strong believer that a border collie NEEDS a job! I am so thrilled that Rious seems to like the one that I like too!!!

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