Gimme the broom

February 8, 2013 § Leave a comment

One of Tuhi’s most favourite games is us fooling around with a broom. She just loves chasing brooms. It’s one of our let’s just go crazy and get really excited fun times. Oh, yes, and in between some tricks.

This is one of our videos for Silvia Trkman’s online tricks class. For week 2 we were to continue exploring different ways of playing with our dogs … and to post our dog’s favourite game.

“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.

When you’re not looking

October 24, 2012 § Leave a comment

I’ve been not getting around to writing posts apart from keeping up with the weekly photo challenge. In one of these little things that just suddenly happen in life, I’ve rather suddenly ended up with a foster dog. He is big, he is hairy, and he is lovely. But he has never had a day’s training in his life and is a strong 12-months old stubborn beardie.
He was going to be put down after his time in the pound was up, and now he is living with me and my friend Bill.
Speak of a big challenge.
I’ll post about our adventure of finding a home for Scruff, formerly known as Dougal … once I get time between trying to help him turn into a wonderful pet dog.
But in the meantime, meet Scruff, the beardie x:

Scruff, the beardie x. Foster dog and Houdini artist.

If you have time, check out his stories on his Facebook page: Dougal the Dog Needs a Home.

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.

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

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