“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.

1000 pictures

October 4, 2012 § Leave a comment

I’m fascinated by dogs and by their behaviour and body language. I often wonder what the relationship with my dog would be like if we could ‘talk’ a little more directly to each other. I want to be more able to ‘understand’ dogs, and I want to learn how to ‘read’ the signals given by dogs.

Barbara Handelman’s Canine Behaviour: A Photo Illustrated Handbook (2008) is a pictorial guide to canine behaviour. It gives a detailed look at dog behaviours and signals. These behaviours are illustrated by many photographs, but also by texts compiled from scientific work, letters to the author by various dog behaviour experts, as well as by quotes from poetry and other literary writings about dogs. The last section provides the opportunity to try and read photos of behaviours yourself first, and then provides an answer key.

These various forms of explaining and illustrating behaviours make the book a useful resource. I did not find it an easy to use resource, though. Although the key to using the book says that related behaviours are grouped in categories with section headings, the headings to me don’t make any sense other than its alphabetical order. A lot of typos in the text I also found a bit annoying. But these are questions of use rather than of content, and the book is full of useful information, such as in the section 11 ‘Learning Theory Terminology and Methodology’, which is a good primer (or reminder) of learning theory for dog training.

The many, many photographs (1000 of them), by various photographers, are exquisite, particularly the wolf photography by Monty Sloan. They themselves make the book worth having as a resource on your bookshelf. And the pure joy with which the book’s author revels in the love of dogs, celebrating their beauty with the many photos and quotes from literary texts that intersperse the behaviour terminology sections.

Here is a photo of my two dogs. They so often looked like they were ganging up on me, and their interactions always made me wonder what was going on.

It sure looks to me like my cheeky puppy Tuhi (on the left) is trying to talk my good dog Fin (on the right) into mischief.

The light in a dog’s eye

September 26, 2012 § 3 Comments

I’ve just finished reading Suzanne Clothier’s 2002 book Bones Would Rain from the Sky: Deepening Our Relationships With Dogs. I’ve heard it mentioned so many times, and seen referenced in many other books and on websites, and after months and months on my to-read list, I have finally read it.

I’m not sure where to begin and how to write a review of this book. I loved it. It is a beautifully written and deeply engaged book about our life with dogs. It is beautiful, honest, funny, sad at times, informative, and always courageous. Writing about the spiritual aspect of our relationship with dogs is a challenge, given how difficult these things are to put into words that do justice to the experience rather than fall into new age talk. Suzanne Clothier makes you think about how we treat and connect with animals on every page.

And this is what the book is about: our relationship with our dogs, the experiences that develop out of this connection. Clothier writes that this is actually what we want from dog training and from wanting to know about dog training. We want to know about this connection between ourselves and our dogs — something which is about more than knowing how to teach them tricks and how to stop them from destroying our garden or couch. Bones Would Rain from the Sky is a wonderful essay on the need to learn to understand dog behaviour — and the beauty of this learning process, together with our dogs as our teachers. Clothier calls us into educating ourselves continually in the technicalities and mechanics of behaviour and training, but then to not get lost in them and continue to be able to see the art of animal training.

The book is not a training manual as such, but every page brims with training tips and with explanations and exemplifications of dog behaviour. One of my favourites is when she describes her gold standard against which all training techniques and philosophies are tested:

[…] I need look no further than a dog’s eyes to find the precise moment when my connection to that dog shifted away from clear and free agreement between us. Did my approach to the dog create resistance, fear, distrust or pain, dimming the clear trusting light in his eyes? Then I had to find a better way. At first unconsciously , and then with deliberation, I began to evaluate all methods, philosophies and techniques against just this simple standard: the light in a dog’s eyes. Over and over I asked myself, “Does this allow the light to shine?”

And once you’ve seen that glitter of joy in a dog’s eye, you never fail to notice, painfully, when it is not there, or when it suddenly disappears. In the dog’s eyes also lives what Clothier calls the “responsibility of togetherness”. She reminds us of the need to keep the covenant we enter when we take a dog into our lives — and this reminder of our responsibility is still necessary today, ten years after the first publication of Bones Would Rain from the Sky. Just think of the huge numbers of abandoned or abused dogs in shelters. The relationship between dogs and humans is as old as human history. A good reason to think hard about how we treat dogs and to respect our responsibility when we touch an individual dog’s life, but also, more generally, when we continue to integrate dogs into human society — as working or assistance dogs, as pets, as entertainment, or even as a source of food.

Bones Would Rain from the Sky is probably the first book that as soon as I finished reading it, I immediately wanted to read again — in case I had missed something, not “learned” everything in it and absorbed it so that it would now be part of how I treat dogs and of my being with dogs.

Friends at Makara Beach, Wellington, New Zealand.

The Dog’s ode to rain (Murray Ball)

September 13, 2012 § 4 Comments

Rain is a very New Zealand thing. In some places on the globe, winter manifests in snow. In many places in New Zealand, winter manifests in mud. (Remember those scenes trudging through mud in the film The Piano?)

After weeks and weeks of rain and mud here in New Zealand we are finally walking into spring. Phew. Maybe one wouldn’t notice the mud so much if one weren’t walking a dog every day. Or wasn’t a farmer. Not that I’m a farmer. But I’ve just spent at least three months toweling a wet and muddy dog at least two times a day. And for three long months I’ve tried to arrive at work without shoes caked in mud or without mud splashes all over my black pants. Not possible if you have a very lively dog that needs running before you ask her to wait in the car or sit still in your friend’s house while you are at work.

The other thing that was always there over the last three winter months was another real Kiwi thing: I’ve been reading all of Murray Ball’s Footrot Flats cartoons. When I first moved to New Zealand so many people told me that if I wanted to know what New Zealand is all about, I really really have to read Footrot Flats. I went yeah, yeah and never bothered. But when I had to put my dog Fin down and sat on my neighbour’s garage roof sobbing (I shall write more about my neighbour and that roof later), he gave me his collection of all the Footrot Flats cartoons. My neighbour Maurice is a retired South Island High Country shepherd and musterer, was a dog man for most of his working life, and is very proud of his Footrot Flats collection. He keeps them all in a plastic bag together. He said, “Here take that; it’ll help.”

If you haven’t come across Footrot Flats yet, by any weird accident, you really should have a look. The cartoons are just so funny, and, yes, reading them did make me laugh and it did help after Fin was gone. The Dog, a black and white working border collie with an unspeakable name and tortured by Horse the cat, tells us all about New Zealand life. The Dog is just so .. well … so much dog. Murray Ball captures everything that is the essence of dog. The drawings are superb, and all the characters are bigger than life. Wal, Cooch, Pongo, Rangi, the Murphies, Major, Jess, … Go meet them.

But anyway, to get back to what started me off, that very New Zealand phenomenon: rain. When it first starts it’s great and beautiful and fresh and all the plants look fresh and all the surrounds look clean … and then it rains and rains and rains. Here is the Dog’s ode to rain:

AH, THE GENTLE KISS OF SUMMER RAIN SPRINKLES LIQUID DIAMONDS ON GRASS BLADES. WATER-FAT LEAVES EXUDE HEAVY SCENT AND FANTAILS SPRAY SILVER IN THE DRIPPING BRANCHES … MILK TURNS INTO SCUMMY GREY WATER AND UNEATEN MEAT ON BONES HANGS WHITE AND TASTELESS LIKE SOGGY COTTONSHEEP DROPPINGS SQUASH THROUGH YOUR TOES LIKE SMELLY PEA SOUP; FLIES HANG IN A HUMID, HUMMING CLOUD AROUND YOUR HEAD; MAGGOTS HATCH ON UNCURED LAMP-PELTS

B____Y RAIN!

— From Murray Ball, 1983, The Cry of the Grey Ghost

Photo of a page in my reading diary. A quote from Footrot Flats #7 (Murray Ball 1982), from the dedication to Horse.

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.

.
.

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

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.

Where Am I?

You are currently browsing the reviews category at and also, dogs.