Sunday, December 26, 2010

Christmas Cluster 2010

Another show weekend has come and gone. We had a bit of success this year in Saturday’s show, which was nice to see. It can be tough to handle your own dogs, especially against polished junior handlers and professionals. I confess the degree of subjectivity and politics makes the conformation ring my least favorite venue. I’d rather be doing agility, rally, obedience or field with my Tollers where the performance criteria is more clear cut.

Tobago (Zephyr’s Flusher of Dux) made his conformation debut in Puppy Sweeps. He treated his first circle around the ring like a road race, though as we continued to work together he settled in and did some nice gaiting. He loved the attention from both the Sweeps and regular judge, and was acceptably wiggly considering his age and experience. I look forward to working with him as he matures. His co-owners Brad and Amanda have been very appropriately referring to him “Bambi”, as at just over six months he is all leg. In Sweeps Tobago was beaten by a very nice puppy named Morgan, but he managed to turn the tables on Morgan in the regular show.

Next I showed Major (Zephyr's Epic Journey). He is a very nice male from June’s litter with Breaker. He won the Open dog class, then was awarded Winners Dog and Best of Winners for a 5pt major. Major only needs one point to finish this Championship now. He showed quite nicely for me and seemed to be enjoying himself.

I also showed Major’s sister Eta (Zephyr's Eta Carinae). She was a bit bouncier than her brother, but gaited and stacked nicely for me. She won the Bred By Exhibitor bitch class, then was awarded Reserve Winners Bitch. So close! Eta is only one major away from finishing.

After our judge handed out ribbons in the Best of Breed ring he put up his hands, palms open both to frame and stay us for a moment as he said, “Just as you are, that’s what I like to see. Not over groomed.” His comments were a pleasant affirmation our breed is to be presented naturally with minimal grooming. It’s not often we show under a judge who rewards this, let alone one makes a point of mentioning it.

We’ve now put our show clothes away until the end of January and are headed back to the agility ring until then.

Monday, December 20, 2010

In the shadow of her mother

Lark is an amazing Toller. She is social and curious and loves to play with other dogs. She sailed through puppy obedience and agility classes with many compliments from her instructors. At home, Lark has proved to be an easy keeper, always eager for a retrieving session or a walk, but equally content to cuddle up on the couch and watch TV. Lark is adept at getting her much more serious mother to play with her and it is very entertaining to watch them wrestle or tug on a toy together. Because Lark's mother June has so much drive and requires so much of my attention, it’s taken me some time to realize Lark has been standing in the shadow of her mother. She’s been left to simmer on the back burner while her mother enjoys the power burner spot.

It’s not that Lark never gets out. She has both majors for her AKC championship, as well as five agility titles and a first leg toward her Rally Novice title. But I’m starting to recognize she is capable of so much more, if only I would spend a bit more time and attention on her. Lark’s achievements to date have all been accomplished in a somewhat offhand manner compared to the amount of resources I focused on June at the same age.

Last week I decided to take Lark to my progressive obedience class instead of June. June is working at the Open level in obedience and is about ready to trial, though she could use some additional fun match experience. Lark hasn’t been focused on obedience since completing a basic obedience class following her puppy class, though she does go to agility class regularly,  conformation class sporadically and we manage a bit of field work now and again as well. We actually do train outside of classes, though not as much as we should. It was only this fall I finally focused enough on Lark to teach her to retrieve a dumbbell using clicker training methods. I wasn’t sure this accomplishment was yet transferable to a class environment, let alone any other obedience skills, but I was pleasantly surprised. She readily fetched and held the dumbbell in class, with only her front needing work at some future point. Her recall was fast and straight, though her finish was a bit wide and crooked. I forgot Lark is better at a “swing” finish, while June shines more on the “around” variety. Lark’s attention while heeling was pretty darn good considering it’s not something we’ve practiced much in quite a while. She did have a tendency to swing around to face me in her best self stacked conformation pose while the instructor talked. Obviously it’s something she learned, whether I intended to teach it or not. “We aren’t in conformation class,” I admonished her, though she persisted. Something else to work on, but overall I’m pleased. I’m starting to get excited about what we could accomplish together if I approached her training with more purpose and intent.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

The significance of names

What you name your dog says something about you, and it often says something about your dog as well. Names can become a self fulfilling prophecy of sorts, for better or worse. A gardener would be ill advised to name his dog Digger, for example. I know agility dogs named Fly, Flash and Dart. I know hunting dogs named Gunner, Hunter and Rueger. Diablo, Spike and Rowdy sound like dogs you might cross the street to avoid, while it’s hard to imagine Fifi, Queenie or Cupcake doing anything but lying about on fluffy pillows and eating liver flavored bon-bons.

The standards and etiquette surrounding the naming of pure bred dogs may seem quite peculiar to the uninitiated. It is common for breeders to have a kennel name which becomes part of the registered name of all the puppies they produce. It is also common for breeders to have a naming theme for each litter, whether it be a letter of the alphabet, or something more exotic such as race cars or cheese (yes, this is a true example). With the exception of our Lab, I have always taken the naming of our dogs quite seriously.

Our Lab Zephyr didn’t come with any of the above mentioned naming requirements, though we were familiar in a general sense with the concept of pedigreed names. Just enough so we couldn’t resist a bit of nose thumbing when determining her registered name. Our first choice was Princess Zephyr of 1000 Galaxies, but that wouldn’t fit on the registration paperwork, and in 1991 the AKC didn’t have an option which allowed you to shell out extra bucks for a longer name. George’s second choice was Princess Zephyr of Uranus, but I thought that took the nose thumbing a bit too far, so we compromised on Princess Zephyr of Neptune. Throughout her almost 15 years, Zephyr was a sweet and friendly dog who was quite gracious about putting up with all of the Tollers who arrived after her. She was pretty unassuming for a princess, but perhaps that is the norm on Neptune.

Gem’s registered name was a much more serious affair. Sans titles, it is Lonetree’s Gem Adamantine. Lonetree was Evelyn Williams kennel name and Gem was from her “G” themed litter. I added “adamantine” because I thought it went well with “gem”. Adamantine is commonly defined as something along the lines of a “hard, unyielding, diamond-like substance”. Also not to be missed is the relationship of adamantine to “adamant” - impervious to pleas, persuasion, requests, reason. This has described Gem to a T on more than one occasion. Gem has lived up to her name; she has been both a brilliant and unyielding canine.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Special(ty) Gem

I decided to enter Gem in Veterans and Veterans Sweeps at the NSDTRC USA National Specialty in White Bear Lake, MN this year, then immediately began second guessing my decision. Gem was born February 21, 1995, which put her at over 15.5 years of age at the time of the Specialty. She was my introduction to the breed as well as my foundation bitch. She attained enough titles during her performance years to earn a Rusty Jones and a VCX. She is also one of the NSDTRC USA’s first ROM dams. Gem looks pretty good for her age but she sleeps a lot and has a pretty set routine at home. Her eyes are a little cloudy with the beginnings of cataracts, and she’s a bit stiff in the morning from arthritis. How would she handle the long drive from IL to MN as well as staying four nights in a hotel?

As it turned out the old girl was a bit restless being away from home and I did spend some time each night walking her around the hotel. I worried the trip was too much for her and thought about pulling her entry. Maybe she would get in the ring and freeze, wondering what the heck we were doing there. Even as we were standing outside the ring waiting to go in for Veterans Sweeps I was still unsure. And emotional. I thought about all of the things we had been through over the years; all of her accomplishments and my great love for her and felt my eyes well up with tears. I walked Gem around to keep myself from bubbling over. Finally it was time for the 10+ Veteran Bitch class.

You can see as we entered the ring she was a bit hesitant. I coaxed her in and started to relax as I got down to the business of handling. There were only four bitches in the ring. Everyone would get a ribbon. We were just there to have fun, to let Gem show off one more time. As we gaited around the ring for the first time memories of the show ring seemed to come back to Gem. She started to act like she knew where she was and what to do. She stacked quite nicely for the judge and looked her straight in the eye. I think this impressed the judge. She asked me how old Gem was and I told her proudly, “She’s over 15.5 years old!”. The judge told me she looked wonderful, and I thanked her.

Our pace on the down and back and around the ring wasn’t as quick as the other dogs, but her movement was sure and balanced. She did manage to speed up a bit while gaiting around the ring when the crowd started to clap and cheer for her. Still I was a bit shocked when the judge pointed to Gem for first place in her class. We left the ring in a happy daze, though had to turn right around again for the Best Veteran in Sweeps judging. By now Gem had her game on. She happily trotted back into the ring and repeated her performance for the judge. When we went around the ring this time all the clapping and cheering had a sort of “Tinkerbell-esque” effect on Gem; the years seemed to drop away from her. It was quite an emotional moment for me when the judge awarded Gem Best of Opposite in Veterans Sweeps.

Better than any ribbons, Gem has been more alert and engaged since the Specialty. Her time in the ring has given the old girl a new spark. Now when I watch her sleeping I wonder if she dreams of her time in the ring. Though no matter what she dreams of, she is a grand old girl and we are quite fortunate she is still with us.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

How it started

I have been intrigued by Tollers since I first read about them in an April 1992 Dog World article. One of the photos in the article pictured a Toller stretched up against the trunk of a cherry tree in blossom, looking as if it had every intent of leaping up into the boughs. I had no idea at the time this turned out to be not so very far from the truth. When we picked up our first Toller puppy in 1995 we watched her dam climb up into a fir tree to retrieve a bumper she had been thrown. 

The timeline from initial interest to acquisition spanned three years. After purchasing a house with a large backyard in 1994 we decided we were ready to add a second dog to our household. By that time I was doing obedience and agility with our Lab Zephyr and was particularly interested in adding a dog who would enjoy training and competing in those sports. I considered Golden Retrievers, Border Collies, Australian Shepherds and even Flat Coat Retrievers, but my mind kept returning to the article I had read about those little red dogs.

It was not easy to find a Toller in those days. I remember writing to the NSDTRC USA secretary, then Gretchen Botner, to ask for information about the breed. With her assistance I found a breeder in Wisconsin, Patty Beran. Patty helped arrange a visit with a dog she had bred who lived within 30 minutes of us. Following this, I trekked up to the Berans to meet more Tollers, and at that point, if not at some point prior, decided they were the breed for me. To me, Tollers represented a remarkable melding of the most interesting characteristics in both retrievers and herding dogs. They are clever, quick and personable, and captured my heart as no other breed has done.

Patty did not have any litters coming up in the near future so she referred me to Evelyn Williams of Lonetree Kennel. I remember really trying to sell myself to Evelyn as a great potential owner, not realizing at the time how my existing involvement in various dog sports with my Lab qualified me as a desirable “working” home. There are a couple of things I clearly remember telling Evelyn. One was that I wanted a female because I thought they were smarter. I still think that’s true, though I also think it’s true that females are often more challenging and independent than males. Second, in trying to describe what I was looking for temperament-wise, I told her “I want a dog that might think it’s a good idea to jump up on the dining room table, but one that you could train not to”. For me, that simple statement continues to epitomize what I find most engaging in this breed, and is a large part of what I strive to produce in my own very limited breeding program.

From the get-go, Gem was not exactly what I had expected. Sure she was smart, and cute in a geeky kind of way. And she was oh so very agile, especially when compared to our Lab as a puppy. Gem could leap on the couch in one motion like a cat, and in her younger days would often lay on the arm of our couch or loveseat. But she was also amazingly standoffish for a puppy, a very serious soul from the beginning. An invitation to jump up on the bed was obliged, grudgingly, to pacify us, though she would then jump off again at the earliest opportunity. I remember thinking at one point if I hadn’t wanted a Toller so badly I might have sent her back to the breeder. And yes I’m anthropomorphizing, but I swear it seemed she was often thinking (in a very uncomplimentary manner), what did I do to deserve ending up here?

Happily, somewhere in the 3-5 year mark Gem seemed to decide she was stuck with us and decided she would make the best of it. She has managed to gradually lighten up in her later years. Still, it’s no accident her main nickname has always been “the curmudgeon”.