Dogs and their poems

July 1, 2013 § 2 Comments

While procrastinating, tempted to do so by an article by Bruno Latour, I clicked my way absent-mindedly through the Facebook news feed until a post of a friend: Actor Jimmy Steward recites a poem to his beloved dog. That got me. It’s a touching and sweet and funny recitation.
It’s comforting to see that I’m not the only sentimental one who wrote a poem for the dog they lost. Jimmy Stewart is of course much more of a writer of poems than me, but still. It made me dig out the poem I wrote about my first dog, my kelpie Fin, when she was dying. I wanted to let my friends know where she was at; I had had an emotional day, struggling with the knowledge of what the impending loss would mean. Back then I was reading Patricia McConnell’s book For the Love of a Dog. In it she encourages dog owners to see themselves through their dog’s eyes. If the dogs could write down what we do around them (and sadly often to them), what would they write. I had started out trying to do that for Fin, but I ended up just wanting to write about Fin and me. And I wanted to share it with my friends. So I wrote that poem and emailed it to my friends back then.
While out for a walk with a friend and the dogs today, we talked about soul dogs. This made me think about my kelpie. It’s been more than a year since I lost her, and it still hurts. I still feel her. I still look down at my feet on walks and I still startle when she is not there. So here it goes.

Fin, to her human

I’ll be at your feet

While you write, while you read, and while you sleep. 

Until I smell 

an antechinus, or a mouse, or a cat. 

Until I hear 

the waterhose, with my neighbour, 

waiting for me to come and play. 

Until I sense

a tennis ball—somewhere, anywhere

Then I chase. 

I come back and get you. Drop.  

And your feet and my paws run together. 

And later, when we sit down and look out at the world together

I lean into you

and you rub my belly 

while I smile my kelpie smile.



And more

Jimmy Stewart’s poem to his dog.

More about Fin. 


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 ( 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

When they have to go

August 10, 2012 § 5 Comments

The other day I had to get a plumber. The floats in my ancient copper header tanks in the roof gave up, and the overflow turned into a domestic waterfall. So here we were, the plumber and I, crouched in the narrow space under my roof, him exchanging ball cocks & fixing aluminium plates to the outside of the tanks, me handing him tools, and both of us chatting away about everything under the sun. My dog Tuhi was sitting in the hallway, wondering about our feet dangling from the trap door. When we were suddenly joined by her eager little face, after she had decided to join us and, somehow silently, clamber up the ladder, our conversation, naturally, turned to dogs.

“I had a dog once”, the plumber’s story of his little, loyal fox terrier x began. And it ended on how, when he died, the plumber was “really cut up about it, eh”. “To be honest”, he said, “I was more upset than now, that my grandmother is dying. And I really love my grandmother. There’s just something about dogs that somehow makes it different, worse in a way.”

After the plumber had left, I cried. About the dog I once had. Fin only died recently, less than 4 months ago. I still hurt with the shock of this still-there-but-just-not-there-any-more feeling after the death of a loved one. I’m still not used to Fin’s absence, and it still often just suddenly hits me and makes me cry. (I actually scribbled the draft for this post in the car in the supermarket car park, after one of those moments.)

Since Fin died, many people have shared their stories of how sad it is when a dog in our lives has to go. Or a cat. It still amazes me just how touched we are by the loss of our four-legged companions. The many different and deep ways of animal-human friendships.

When Fin was dying of cancer I was struggling. I was reading around, looking for comfort in the experience, and for how to help a sick and ageing dog. I stumbled over a blog post by Patricia McConnell (a most wonderful animal behaviourist and writer) about when her dog Lassie passed on. She was inspired by the famous story about Hemingway challenging his friends to write the shortest story possible. He won the challenge.

Hemingway had written: For Sale. Baby Shoes. Never Worn.

Since then, summarising one’s life in six words has become part of life writing and storytelling.

Patricia McConnell wrote six words for her dog Lassie, and she invited her readers to do the same for their dogs and share it on this blog post. When I was hand-feeding Fin and we were in our grace period of being able to say goodbye, the many responses really helped me. Fin was my first dog, and I was shocked with how intense the experience of losing her was. I think losing our pets hurts so much, is somehow ‘worse’, because they are so much part of our being — just there, with us, around us, without words, without logic — that when they go they leave behind the memories of all the other losses in our lives.

People are still replying to McConnell’s invitation today — more than two years after the post. Recently, I added my six words for Fin and my life with her to Patricia McConnell’s post “Six Words”. Response # 335 :) Somehow it feels good to be on this site with so many beautiful expressions of the love dogs left behind — for us to continue to give.

My six words for Fin and what she has brought into our lives:
Home. Friends. Walks. Fun. Shared forever.

I was going to add a photo of Fin in here. But then I remembered this drawing I made of her. A quick gesture drawing, done in maybe half a minute. In the evening of one of our last days together. She had had a good dog day. Snoozing in the sun, a day full of the pleasures of plodding at her favourite beach, being able to eat.

When I look at that drawing now, I can still feel her in my hands. My beautiful, beautiful kelpie. I hope I never lose that.


More stories about losing a dog and about how dogs touch our lives

A couple of weeks after I wrote this, I read this fine post about men and their dogs on Michael Baugh’s blog, about how the way men love their dogs might be different from the way women love their dogs.

A powerful piece of writing by Neil Gaiman about losing his first ever dog, Cabal, is here.

And then there is of course Fiona Apple’s Handwritten Letter About Her Dying Dog.

Clicker training and Margaret H. Bonham’s Introduction to Dog Agility. 2nd ed. 2009.

August 5, 2012 § Leave a comment

I have been enjoying learning agility with my young dog Tuhi for a few months now. She is a highly energetic collie x huntaway, and really just needed a job. We tried other dog sports, like obedience, but neither of us are doing the ‘obedience’ word very well. Also, for my dog training, I want to learn to work with my dog, and I love clicker training and shaping in order to teach Tuhi to think for herself, rather than just follow my ‘commands’. Clicker training is a great tool for us to discover just how much a dog can do. I want a friend, not a slave, so a lot of the traditional dog training that works on the premise that the dog has to obey your commands, no matter what, doesn’t really make sense to me.

So, clicker training and working with ‘cues’ rather than commands it is for Tuhi and me. In clicker training, a cue is not a command or an order. It is a stimulus signaling that offering a specific behaviour may earn a reward. Clicker training is based on scientific learning theory (and mostly on operant and classical conditioning) and uses positive reinforcement, showing the dog the behaviours that work. If the dog doesn’t do the ‘right’ thing, nothing bad happens other than that either nothing happens (extinction) or that the opportunity for a reward disappears (negative punishment). Eva Bertilsson and Emelie Johnson Vegh in their fantastic book Agility Right From the Start give a great, short description of clicker training:

1) reward what’s’ right’
2) ignore what’s ‘wrong’
3) create situations where your dog is likely to get it right.

This is also what dog training generally boils down to, at least for me.

When Tuhi and I first stumbled into an agility class, Tuhi loved it and I was immediately hooked by the fun we had together. There is nothing like the huge grin on both human and dog faces when a team has just learned tackling a new obstacle together.

Anyway, lots and lots to learn (mostly for me to get my footwork right), and I’ve been looking for books and material to help. I’ll write reviews about the things I read and DVDs I watch to support our training as I go. The first book I read about dog agility was Margaret Bonham’s Introduction to Dog Agility. I didn’t think it was great, or particularly useful for our own agility training, but still one can learn from everything, so here is my review of the book.

It is a manual-style introduction to agility and how to teach your dog agility, which doesn’t go very much into the details of dog (& human) learning. There are however some ideas, or rather assumptions, that made me wonder and think, particularly after recently having read some other books on dog behaviour.

What I found interesting was the point Bonham makes about that teaching agility is learning the obstacles and learning handling and sequencing, for both the dog and the human. She emphasises a lot that agility is a team sport and that both dog and human need to learn to work as a team.

It is on this background that she introduces some positive reinforcement training techniques, including clicker training. But all of this remains relatively general, on the level of get the behaviour and reward. I do, however, like how she bases everything she says about training on the law of primacy, that once a student (human or animal) learns something (correct or not), that lesson stays with the student. “The secret of dog training”, she says, “is to teach the appropriate behavior the first time” and not to give the dog a chance to fail. It reminds me what I have read of clicker training in Karen Pryor’s Reaching the Animal Mind, and I think it makes similarly the point that we need to think through our training techniques and goals, rather than simply expect a certain behaviour from the dog without understanding the processes of learning behind it.

In the opening to the section on “Sequencing and handling” Bonham talks about the need in agility to establish a rhythm between you and your dog. I like this idea, because it is all about learning to watch one’s dog and “listen” to it. Bad runs in agility are most often the handler’s fault. The handler might not have trained the dog properly, signalled the dog incorrectly and confused the dog. Or the handler might have asked the dog something they haven’t learned yet, not understood completely yet, or is incapable of doing (because it is tired or sore, or hot and needs a drink or feel sick). This is a good reminder that training a dog is a lot about knowing the dog well enough to understand it’s nature and how it feels. All of this, as Bonham keeps pointing out, is part of developing good handling practices and to avoid bad techniques, and it takes time and practice. For me that is the most crucial point. Dog training is about developing skills and learning, for both dogs and humans, it takes time, and it will create a relationship that has to be respected. Too many people I see expect instant fixes and instant behaviour—and only often from the dog’s side. And, finally, Bonham emphasises fun as a crucial part of handling practices and skills. Agility as a team sport should be fun together, and not just pushed through from the human’s competitive expectations. Again, it is important to learn to “listen” to the dog. As part of this, the book offers sections with useful information on such important issues as nutrition and pain for the agility dog.

Bonham doesn’t talk about all of this in too much detail beyond the introductory—and as someone rather new to dog training I find myself wanting more details and more “showing”. But it does set me thinking, and there is a video and blog entry by Patricia McConnell which for me demonstrates the above: the importance of “honouring your dog”. The video is McConnell exercising with her dog in preparation for surgery, and it shows how she is paying attention to the dog’s messages and limitations, ie. where he shows that he is uncomfortable or maybe in pain.

This leads me to what I disagreed with in the book or was surprised by. It left many questions for me about the details of learning and training generally, and more particularly about the relationship between positive reinforcement and correction. Bonham talks a lot about the need for correction; she also says, “Always enforce a command” (40). I’ve just been reading Karen Pryor’s Reaching the Animal Mind. So it strikes me that after all the talk of positive reinforcement Bonham ends up talking about commands again, and about enforcing them. I wonder what the “right” way to enforce would be? What struck me most in Pryor’s book is the point about avoiding poisoning a cue—and the relationship with the dog. There is a photo twice in the Bonham book of a man “enforcing” a “sit” by standing right over the dog, pulling upright on the dog’s collar, and pushing down the dog’s rear with his hand. It’s in the back cover and it is inside the book in the training section and captioned with “Training a dog using positive methods is fun and rewarding for both you and your dog” (38). I would have probably never noticed this before, but after reading Karen Pryor’s book this now really grates with me, “making” the dog sit.

The question of physical corrections, punishment, and the like really bugs me and constantly challenges my thinking about dog training. From what I have seen in books and in training classes at various clubs and places there still is a lot of physical corrections in positive reinforcement training. My understanding of positive reinforcement training is that there is no use of aversives of any form. In a way that makes it much harder for us because we need to prepare our training plans and control the learning situations so much more carefully in order to set up the dog for success. And it might take longer. And dogs among themselves use punishment and aversives, don’t they. So maybe we should? Maybe, but in my case, I don’t speak dog language very well, so I better leave that alone. And every time I see a dog in a class or at agility working with its human partner and looking keen and confident and like pure happiness that happened to have taken form in the shape of a dog, and then I see a dog trying to work with its human and getting yanked on the lead or yelled at and crumble into a confused heap I know that my way in dog training is to learn enough about dogs and their learning to not need any aversives.

Tuhi’s interpretation of circle work for agility training.
Photo courtesy of Bill Main.


Bertilsson, Eva and Emelie Johnson Vegh. Agility Right From the Start: The Ultimate Training Guide to America’s Fastest Growing Dog Sport. Sunshine Books Inc. 2010.
Patricia McConnell, The Other End of the Leash Blog: Willie’s exercises and honoring your dog.
Karen Pryor Clicker Training —

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