Hello Trouble!

June 16, 2013 § 2 Comments

Pinot is trouble. “Hello trouble!”, my neighbour says every time he sees her. “Hello trouble!”, or “Here comes trouble!”; this is one of my new puppy’s nicknames. I remember a Facebook post with a series of photos of catastrophes, earthquakes, floods, and the like. And then a photo of a border collie puppy in amongst the shreds of something now unrecognisable he has shredded. Meticulously shredded.

Pinot, one could say, is a little bit like that. Maybe I should have taken the momentousness of the question ‘Should I get a second dog?’ more seriously. Life was much, much easier with just one dog. And almost every day hears me moaning to the sky, or the earth, or a friend that I know nothing about dogs and training after all and what an idiot I was to fancy I could be a dog trainer. But hey, she’s a puppy. And as a friend of mine says, one of the ugly things we see in a lot of dog training is this intense obsession with control in so much of today’s life. We must control our partner, our children, our dogs, our cats. Puppy must learn controlled sits, downs, and whatever position. Puppy must sit when we say, every time we say so. Even if we say it a hundred times a day, and even if all puppy wants to do is go and explore the world with us.

Pinot is now almost seven months old and full of life. Here is what I have learned about her life in the two months we’ve lived together:

  • Seatbelts must be chewed. Oh the pull on them and the texture; it’s all just pure chewiness.
  • Four paws are for running. You must run, run, run on them, even when they get tangled and you fall over and even when someone somewhere in the distance implores you to come back.
  • Waterbowls really are just dive pools in disguise.
  • Chimneys are going somewhere you haven’t sniffed yet, so you must at least try and climb them. Even if then you and a lot of other things are black.
  • You must let people know you reckon they are a bit of o’right by jumping up on them and grin. Sitting back and looking at them as if to check them out … oh no. You wouldn’t want them to think you think they look funny.
  • Never let go of a tug toy if you can help it.
  • Chicken are cool. Real cool. So cool you just must stare at them. Even touch them, if you can.
  • Holes must be dug big enough to hopefully bury a sheep in it. You never know, you might find a sheep some day.
  • Any dogs that still are there when you wake up in the morning are there for jumping onto and roll around with.
  • If you are happy, just bark. No need to hold back on joy.
Pinot puppet. Aka Little Black-and-White Terror. Aka Muppet. Aka Hello Trouble.

Pinot puppet. Aka Little Black-and-White Terror. Aka Muppet. Aka Hello Trouble.

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“Don’t Shoot the Dog”

January 21, 2013 § 2 Comments

This book is worth a much, much longer review, but alas there are so many other things to do, so just a brief one.

Karen Pryor’s Don’t Shoot the Dog: The New Art of Teaching and Training is an oldie. First published in 1984 it was part of the whole start of clicker training in the dog training world. But although being a time-honoured classic, the book is worth reading–or, if you’ve already done so, even rereading. It’s fun, and it manages to pack a whole lot of useful knowledge into a really readable little book. I’ve been reading, for the first time, the 2002 revised edition, reprinted in 2009.

Pryor explains the principles of positive reinforcement and clicker training. Clear and entertaining–the animal in training in her ‘case studies’ often is us, with our bad habits. For anyone who wants to understand animal behaviour. If nothing else, read the “10 Laws of Shaping” and the “8 Methods to Get Rid of Behaviour You Don’t Want”. These two sections are a good primer on real positive reinforcement training, showing the fallout of the use of punishment, corrections or any other aversives, for that matter.

Get a clicker, or get out your old one and brush it off, or remind yourself of what other marker signal you’ve used (Yes!), and have fun with your dog.

Playing around with Tuhi.

Playing around with Tuhi. Photo courtesy of Sybill Lieber.

How a hot dog plays

January 12, 2013 § Leave a comment

I’ve just signed my dog Tuhi and myself up for a 12 week online Tricks course with dog agility champion Silvia Trkman. It’ll start on 21 January. As part of it, participants send in videos training the current lesson with their dogs.
I’ve never before videoed anything, let alone edited clips, so that’ll be a whole different level of fun. So I’ve taken my phone on our walk this afternoon, and now just had my first video editing session. If there is anything fun among the videos I’ll make for the course, I might share it here. Or I thought it might be fun anyway to start ‘collecting’ the many tricks Tuhi already plays with as vids and share them here. We’ll see.

But if I do that, I want to start it all with a video of Tuhi just playing. I love training with Tuhi, but I love most us just walking together and playing around while we are out and about, and watching Tuhi and seeing what kind of play she loves.

It’s also a good reminder for me when I train with her that a lot of behaviours we use in tricks our dogs actually don’t really technically have to learn. They know how to ‘sit’, ‘down’, ‘dig’, ‘jump’. As Karen Pryor writes in her book Don’t Shoot the Dog, the difficulty in learning skills (such as required for tricks or agility) is usually not caused by physical requirements but by the absence of good shaping procedures*. Working on my training skills therefore for me comes first, before I can be my dog’s coach. But training for me also is about how to get these behaviours into our interactions with our dogs and be able to share them for whatever activity we do together, whether it’s agility, obedience, freestyle, or just fooling around together with silly and funny tricks. So that the fun and the skills become part of a mutual vocabulary we develop and share with our dogs.

Tuhi is just playing at the beach on a hot Wellington summer day (yes, sometimes that happens) — and look at that focus and motivation and fun. That’s how I want her to look when I’m working with her.

The video is a little bit long. But that’s just a good excuse to listen to that song. I haven’t listened to that song in such a long time. It still makes me think of summer-time and wanna jump on a skateboard and eat ice-cream. Yes, skateboard, not surfboard; I’m scared of sharks. And just to add to my bad video editing, I’ve left the wind in the soundtrack. Because it still is windy Wellington, even on a nice hot day :)

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* Shaping is a process in positive reinforcement training used to get all those cool performances and behaviours, such as a dog doing a summersault, or a human iceskating and learning to glide on one foot, or a dolphin jumping through a hoop. The technical term for it is “successive approximation” and it consists of taking every little step, movement, etc. in the right direction and shifting it, step by step (and behaviour by behaviour) to an ultimate goal, rewarding/reinforcing every single step on the way.

Thunder and lightning and other scary things

September 6, 2012 § Leave a comment

The recent Wellington thunder and hailstorms have brought it up again. That old question of what to do when your dog is scared in a thunderstorm, or by fireworks, in earthquakes, etc.

As with anything dog and dog training, there are many different approaches around. Unfortunately, many of them are based on old-fashioned myths, such as totally ignoring the animal so as to not show any weakness as the “pack leader”. Another common one is to not provide comfort in order to not reinforce the fear.

In “Calming the fearful animal”, a video clip from one of Suzanne Clothier’s Relationship Centered Training seminars, she gives a reality check on the myth that we shouldn’t comfort a scared dog because if we do we only reinforce the fear.

Yes, don’t make the fear worse by panicking or overreacting, but don’t leave them out in the cold on their own either. Don’t be scared yourself (or if you are, try to not show it to your dog). Stay calm. Provide “meaningful comfort”, as Suzanne Clothier puts it.

And, most important of all, learn to listen when a dog tells you she’s afraid, so that you can work out how to manage it (i.e. don’t put the dog in that situation), or how to build her skills to deal with the situation in the long run. Because learning how to create a safe environment for our dogs is where the real answer to the question of what to do when our dog is scared lies.

If you need ideas on how to help your dog conquer their fear, Patricia McConnell’s booklet The Cautious Canineis a great starting point. Or have a look at the articles on Thunder Phobia and Sound Sensitivities collected on her website. Quickly accessible, practical, and helpful.

Here is me with my then almost ten-year-old kelpie. Always a quite shy dog, as her cancer progressed she felt stressed or scared more easily in more and more situations. Here she came to me after the neighbour’s dog at my friend’s place started barking and set off the other two dogs in the garden. Leaning and pressing into their human’s body is one of several possible avoidance behaviours for dogs. They use various body postures and signals to avoid activity or environmental factors that make them feel stressed or fearful. Then, I think, she was also not sure about the camera staring at her. But being able to lean into me, and me just putting a hand on her, always helped Fin to recover quickly from whatever scared her. If I had walked away from her and ignored her she would have likely crawled into a corner and taken much longer to recover.

Of dogs and humans

August 30, 2012 § Leave a comment

One of the dog training books has just seen its tenth anniversary. Here is why Patricia McConnell’s The Other End of the Leash: Why We Do What We Do Around Dogs (2002) is still worth reading. Simply, in one sentence, because there still is so much misinformation out there about dog training and dog behaviour that contributes to the problems and miscommunications between humans and dogs and this still is one of the most readable, comprehensive, and scientifically informed books about dogs, their behaviour, and their learning.

The purpose of The Other End of the Leashis to increase our understanding of human and dog behaviour and to improve the relationships between people and their dogs. In New Zealand alone, the dog population is more than 700,000; and we are quite a little country. Dogs worldwide are an extremely successful species, so this is important.

I’ve just read the book for the second time, and here are some of the points in the book that I like most. Actually I like the whole book the most, but anyway, here are some points.

  • McConnell takes the viewpoint of an ethologist — observing, understanding, and respecting the innate signals in animals’ behaviour — and invites us to practice reading our dogs and honing our observational skills. While we are at it, she suggests, why not focus our attention on ourselves as part of becoming conscious of the differences between the behaviour of two species at work: canids and primates. The “contrast and compare” descriptions between humans and dogs are real eye-openers, at times real funny, but often times also real tragic.
  • The power of learning to manage the space around our dogs in order to guide or control their behaviour.
  • The concept of pressure: about how to use space and develop a sense of how close you need to get to another animal to begin to influence its behaviour. We often are way too much in the face of our dogs when training them and it is amazing just how much many dogs manage to put up with. But some can’t, and it would be good for us to become more like a good herding dog and know when to take the pressure off.
  • The power of paying attention and becoming consistent with the words we use to communicate with our dogs and with our visual signals to them.
  • The many passionate anecdotes that are absolute fantastic exemplifications of what McConnell describes. They make the book both a training manual and theoretical book about dog behaviour.
  • The encouragement to find a coach for your dog training and dog handling. It’s a sport and like any sport not all of it is intuitive, so why not get a “personal trainer”.
  • And, finally, if a bit unrelated, I love the cover photo, and am intrigued by it. A human in shoes and coat. And you can only see the shoes and the coat and a bit of the hand holding the leash. At the other end of the leash a black-and-white dog, mid-air, cheeky look straight into the camera. How? The only info about the photograph is that it is by Elliot Erwitt/Magnum Photos. I want to know more about the dog in the air. It just makes me go “God, how much I love dogs”.

I love how books always take you to other books. I must go and check out Elliott Erwitt’s several photographic books about dogs. There is To the Dogs(1992), Dog Dogs (1998), or Woof: I Love Dogs(2002). The tag line on Erwitt’s homepage (elliotterwitt.com) is “for life-like snaps”, and it looks like he really is fascinated with the lives of dogs.

Oh, and by the way, this book is also a great read if you are not that much into dogs, but are generally interested in animal behaviour and human-animal interrelations. There is, for example, also a lot about primate behaviour and research.

Just read and enjoy :)

At Home Beach, North Stradbroke Island. A doggie paradise off-leash beach. Though this one had to wait while her owners were playing at the beach.

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More things:
Elliott Erwitt — official website
New Zealand Survey Reveals a Nation of Pet Owners and Animal Lovers

Friends, not slaves (John Bradshaw)

August 15, 2012 § 4 Comments

“[…] dogs are expected to be much better controlled than they used to be. There has never been a shortage of experts telling owners how to take charge of their dogs. When I took on my second dog, a Labrador/Airedale terrier cross named Ivan, I was determined that he would be better behaved than Alexis. I decided I ought to find out something about training but was then shocked to discover the approach adopted by the trainers of the day, such as Barbara Woodhouse, who seemed to see the dog as something that needed to be dominated at all times. This simply didn’t make sense to me—the whole point of having dogs as pets was for them to become friends, not slaves.”
— From John Bradshaw, 2010,
Dog Sense: How the New Science of Dog Behaviour Can Make You a Better Friend to Your Pet.

John Bradshaw is writing about dog training in the 1980s. But this idea of our pet dogs needing to be dominated at all times, because they are lurking in the corners of our houses waiting for our weak moments just to jump in and dominate us, is still one of the ideas governing a lot of dog training today. Just look at the still popular Cesar Millan. Or take for example Jan Fennell, self-proclaimed dog listener, who insists (and I mean really insists) that we must absolutely be the pack leaders with our dogs. Otherwise they’ll take over. All her protocols are geared towards so-called pack leadership. Her technique is based on ‘communicating’ with our dogs according to wolf pack principles. No mentioning that dogs are not wolves, nor have been domesticated from wolves by humans. Also no mentioning that we humans are usually not all that good at communicating within an extremely complex communication system of another species. ‘Dog language’ consists of visual, vocal, olfactory and probably many other signals. Most of us are not skilled ethologists, and we struggle understanding our dog’s body language most of the time, let alone ‘speaking’ it ourselves.

Whether Jan Fennell promotes a scientifically outdated model of dog behaviour matters, because the old “dominance” model of dog behaviour more often than not goes together with using (physical) punishment methods in training. Fennell does not promote physical punishment at all, but her work still supports a misunderstood idea of dominance. That kind of thinking will have consequences in how we behave towards our pet dogs. If nothing else, it makes us misunderstand so much of what our dogs are actually signalling — to their owners, to other humans, and to other dogs — and what they are trying to tell us. After reading her books I felt brainwashed. You must do this. You absolutely must not do that. Never. Trying to be with, let alone train, my puppy became a constant test of my “dog leadership” skills. But I’m not a dog. This approach of basing dog training on dominance is a shame. In Fennell’s case it’s a shame because the starting point of her method—how to train dogs and communicate with them in such a way so that they want to be with us and work with us—is so important.

Oh, and by the way, Alexis, Bradshaw’s dog mentioned in the quote above, was a Labrador/Jack Russell cross, and, in the author’s own words, a roamer, interested in the opposite sex. Bradshaw dedicated his book to Alexis, a “Real Dog”. One that had more freedoms than most dogs have today in our often overly controlled world, increasingly fearful of all animals and characterised by a stronger and stronger urge to control all things “nature”.

Writing about this quote from John Bradshaw’s book Dog Sense reminded me of a dog I saw on North Stradbroke Island many years back. It was a little black Staffie x, mangy and with a jandal threaded through his collar. He looked so sad and you could feel it so strongly, the image still sticks with me today. Back then I made a memory sketch of him.

Books and other readings

August 7, 2012 § 2 Comments

I always enjoy getting ideas for further readings, so I’ve added a page titled ‘Readings’ to the blog. I’ll fill it up with the books and other readings I come across while learning about dogs; with what I find useful and has influenced my thinking–about dogs specifically, and about our relationship with nature and animals more generally.

I was going to group them (‘dog training’, ‘dog behaviour’, ‘dog nutrition’, &c.), but then I got stuck with the pesky old question of how to categorise things. Things are always connected and can fit into so many categories, and I always struggle with where to stick things in. So I decided to just list them alphabetically and write a short annotation, so that you can pick and choose when browsing.

Happy reading and browsing, and it would be great to hear your thoughts on these and on your other readings.

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