Thursday, October 29, 2009

Little Things

I love this photo taken by my daughter, Jess. Like a movie that is appreciated at greater depth with each viewing, I find myself revisiting this depiction of a Bullmastiff studiously sniffing something too small to see in the photo. Very likely the dog is engrossed in a blade of grass bearing a few molecules, but that scent signature conveys an entire story to the dog; she may know that a grouse and her brood fled from this spot in a panic when a red fox sprang upon them last night. She knows the grouse was old, she knows the fox was a malnourished male. She knows this, processes the information, and were it anything relevant to her own interests she would be prepared to act accordingly.

Sometimes we humans seem to spend considerable amounts of energy ignoring the things that are under our own noses. Why? To conform. To avoid confrontation. To make nice. To maintain our own illusions. So, unlike the dog, we are not prepared to act according to our own interests. And then we engage in elaborate personal hoaxes to perpetuate the myth that we are, that we really did, do, want things the way they are. That we're content. We're satisfied. We're happy, dammit!

We're really, really good at charades. Dogs are generally perceived as being guileless. While by comparison to us they may be relatively so, I'm not convinced it's absolutely the case. Yesterday I noted they engage in quite a lot of manipulation. Whether that implies the conscious will required to qualify as guile, I'm not sure.

On the topic of yesterday's blog, someone commented (privately) that when a person owns one or two dogs, they get to know those dogs intimately, while my life with multitudes has enabled me to know the breed. Yes, and no. I agree that with one or two dogs you become incredibly bonded and close. But I'm not sure I'd call that intimacy (with the implication of knowing all the intricacies of their personality) because it's far too easy to contaminate our perception of our beloved companions (human and animal) with what we believe we see. What we want, wish, or need to see. Among other things, having so many dogs has taught me that I never really knew those dogs that I was so in love with back when I had only two or three at a time. Kind of like falling in love with another human being and being swept along by an intensity of feeling for years, only to be startled one day by an action or behavior that leaves us wondering who this stranger is, our adoration of our canine companion blinds one to the truth of the other's Otherness...we're as much or more in love with a projection of a love-object as we are with the real thing. So it is with our in-love-ness with dogs. We become blinded to the bigger picture.

Seeing dogs interact with other dogs as opposed to with people, day in and day out, opened my awareness to the subtleties of their communications. They are less polite, more direct, with each other...or maybe it just seems so because messages are immediately comprehended by other dogs, while a dog has to work harder to get their point across to people. But eventually I came to appreciate their individual motivations, fears, interests, preferences, etc. by observing what they "say" to each other as they form friendships and feuds, partnerships and gangs, as they work out their places in the pack or ascend to pack leadership positions.

With those new insights I began to re-evaluate my understanding of their communications with me. I'm not sure yet what, exactly, that means for my relationship with dogs. I'm still sorting it out. I think that's part of my own interest in doing this blog...I want to know what I've learned, and I have to get it worked out in words. Right now the understanding is more or less gut level, a dog's way of thinking, and I have to work a bit at translating it into English ;-)

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Can We Talk?

"I always dreamed of doing what you do." I hear it fairly frequently; someone contacts me about puppies, emails back and forth and maybe comes for a visit. They imagine an idealized world surrounded by warm, cuddly puppies and devoted, noble shepherds. Of course I *am* surrounded by more dogs at any given time than most people would own in a lifetime. Than most people's family, friends, and acquaintances would own in a lifetime! What they don't see is... well, everything else. They don't think of the hours of poop-scooping, exercising, training. They don't imagine having no days off, of working round the clock. They don't think of sleepless nights helping bring pups into the world, or the medical emergencies that arise. They block the thought of the inevitable and reoccurring losses, and don't realize the hard decisions that go with adhering to a high standard for breeding.

But they also can't appreciate what opportunities are inherent in this life. In an earlier blog I referred to the fact that our dogs learn with every interaction, usually without our intent. It's not a one-way street. Most people are blissfully unaware of being manipulated, "trained" if you will, by their dogs. A soft nose nudges their elbow, they pet the dog's head. Intent brown eyes stare forlornly, or a particularly expressive sigh carries across the room, and as if pulled by marionette strings, the owner grabs the leash for a walk.

But what if you understood what was happening and declined to be pushed. What if you pushed back? What if, at all moments of interaction, you were as aware of your dog's thoughts and intent as he is of yours, and you were the one in the driver's seat?

Living with so many dogs has enabled me to occupy that seat by virtue of having learned their language. It's sort of like the total immersion language programs that are offered to college kids, you pack up and move to the country that speaks the language you hope to master, and being surrounded by that culture and that language 24/7, you pick it up faster than reading books or listening to tapes. So it is for me. Days and weeks and years of watching not just one, or even a half dozen, but literally dozens of dogs interact with each other and with me, with strangers and strange situations, has given me a fair degree of fluency in "dog speak."

So when someone asks me "how do I get my dog to____________" I find myself wanting to somehow transmit the entirety of my "dog speak" knowledge so they can read the dog, but equally essential so their messages to the dog will carry the meaning they intend. Most of the time, dogs learn in spite of us rather than because of us, and that's to the dogs' credit...they are better "mind readers" than we are.

Sunday, October 25, 2009


Saturday the wind careened in, exultant and sultry as if loosed from the chambers of some secret mistress. The thunderous wrath of her jilted husband that rumbled unexpectedly in the late afternoon finally spooked the wind on to points east. Like grief reaching a crescendo, the rain increased in intensity for the next hour until it settled into gentle, cleansing sheets.

I am often referred to as the Weather Goddess, by those who hike with me, because of my knack for getting us out of the woods (literally) without a drop of rain hitting us. The rains may close in just as the car door shuts, or we may walk all day with visibly threatening storms all around, but somehow we don't generally get wet. Saturday I must have wanted a good soaking. It was Rio's turn to join me, a privilege she quickly had reason to regret, though, being a good dog, she did not take out on me. We had a lovely mile and a half, just enough to get a good cadence going, before the aforementioned thunder cracked the skies wide open. It may have been "smarter" to turn around, but Rio and I felt no ambivalence about going the distance (she was attached to a leash – it’s possible I misinterpret her degree of enthusiasm).

Walking in the rain, in the fall, the sensory experience is transformative. Looking through a window onto such a scene, the words “dreary” or “dismal” or even “depressing” spring to mind. But out in it, it’s enlivening. The moisture commingles the elements into a spicy broth that nourishes the soul. Four miles down a dirt lane, alongside a brook that tumbled crazily, it required a conscious effort to think of adjectives like wet, dry, cold, warm, comfort, misery. And no amount of effort could determine whether any of those applied to me. There was no relative experience, there was only this experience, this moment when I breathed fish.

Fish. Originating in the creek beside me? A pond hidden from view but revealed by a puff of breeze? Or further? Winds had driven this rain from afar, from rivers and ponds and lakes and oceans. From mountain glens and glaciers. From breath, and death. This rain, this drenching exhalate, had been camel, had been albatross, had been earthworm, had been, apparently most recently, fish. And now, it was me.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Instincts and behavior

Someone recently asked me how to get a Rat Terrier to actually "rat", meaning to chase, capture, and kill their namesake rodent. I'm full of opinions...not necessarily based on personal experience with ratting but from working with the hunting instinct of other breeds.

Two, my barn was infested with rats last winter and I very smugly ensconced two of my highest-drive ratties there, thinking "HA! foiled you, rattus Norvegicus!" And for a week or so it did seem to work. I never found any bodies, but the rats themselves had vacated. Not for long, however. The signs were unmistakable...they were back, but had simply moved up to run along rafters and ledges that the dogs couldn't reach. And, very successfully, they still snuck into food bins from above...rats can climb quite well. Dogs can't. Strike one, Canis Domesticus. So for the remainder of the winter, the rats proliferated above a height of around six feet (my huntress Tuuliki can leap that high!), the dogs kept the floor of the barn nicely free of rats until the unfortunate day I accidentally left the door to the loft adjar and the dogs took out their frustrations (I think the rats taunted them from on high) on my chickens. My flock of fourteen roosters was reduced to four that day. The dogs moved back to the house, and I put out poison. Second observation: if you really don't want rats in your barn, don't keep chickens AND consign yourself to the grim necessity of poisons.

So much for personal experience. Now, truly, I think you could easily train ratties to rat. We do it with the, not to catch rats, but to channel their hunting (prey) instincts into goals we have for them; who would think you'd need to teach a dog to bite? But, for schutzhund, that's precisely what we do. We start with youngsters, eight weeks or even younger, and we play with them in structured ways that channel their natural instincts to chase and bite into choreographed behaviors that ultimately end up with the incredible feats you see Police dogs do. Same for ratties...the local terrier people have competitions for "Earth Dogs" and they train their dogs for it...they buy rats, dig artificial "burrows" and teach the dogs to chase and corner the rats. I haven't done it, but I know the basic principle is the same as teaching my shepherds to bite the bad guy...start young, enhance existing instincts, channel the drive towards your goal, reward with a "taste" of the prey; in the shepherds case that's the guy's sleeve, for a rattie it might be, well, some of the trainers I've talked to go through a lot of rats! :))

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Zen musings on October

So it's after 4:00 AM, and as is becoming the norm, I'm just finished with final chores. Yes, final, as in yesterday's. I'm no early bird, but I've lately come to realize that I may as well say I start my day at 3 or 4 and then take a nap - that's what it amounts to, really - before I start my next round. I made a nice big pot of fresh-cooked chicken that delighted my furred friends; their eyes still hold the glow of the kill-frenzy that real meat evokes. Soon they'll be curled up, twitching and whining as they imagine they chased, caught, and killed the chicken that imbues their dreams.

I was told tonight would hold a meteor shower. I gave the sky a good perusal, but saw none; my neck won't tolerate much craning these days. But any excuse to linger was welcome. October has an indescribable element of shadow to it; bright, brisk days that prod my horse to behave unpredictably on rides, a teasing wind that keys the dogs to the edge of insanity at the merest whiff of deer, evenings alive with incipient...something. I'm drawn out, out to the woods, the fields, my legs never seeming to cover enough ground to satisfy that sense of needing to seek out, gather in, roam...I feel it, the horses and dogs feel it. What is the "it" that we feel? Who is the "it" who wonders what "it" is?

Monday, October 19, 2009

Training v guiding v teaching v modeling

or how do we really train our dogs, anyway? Most people forget, or never knew, that every single moment we are in our dog's presence, he is learning. We had better be sure he's learning what we want him to, because lessons learned are hard to un-learn. It's nigh-on to impossible to say to your dog, "Dog, you will forget you just nudged me and got me to drop my steak so you could eat it" because regardless of whatever disapproving epithets you hurl his way, he did, afterall, get to taste something divine.

Even without something as motivating as a steak, dogs are masterful at manipulating situations to their liking. The poodle has me trained to hold the blanket up to allow him underneath when I sit down on the couch. Stano woofs insistently at the door and knows that while he might, once in awhile, get an angry Beth hollering "Be Quiet!" most of the time he can count on me dutifully letting him in or out, as the case may be.

So I call myself a dog trainer?

Yeah, actually, because I don't kid myself about what's happening. I know I'm being cued by my dogs at least as often as they're being cued by me. It's a constant choreography of signals and responses. I am aware of it, and I monitor for those moments when I must negate the dog's wish or steer its behavior. And because the dog is monitoring me for my response to his cues, the signal I reflect back is almost as subtle as simply having a clear visualization of my expectation. Because clarity is, afterall, the path upon which our intentions either glide or stick; reaching our goals or falling short; having a trained dog, or being a trained dog owner :))

Frost on the Watermelon

Doing final chores last night (well, in the wee hours of this morning) the slick, treacherous footing as I made my way across leaf-strewn grass let me know I'd find a hard frost come dawn. No surprise, then, to awake to be-jeweled glittering on my lawn, roof, and garden.

Oh, dear - the garden. I never did pick all the last watermelons. Frozen treats, anyone? Now I have to pull all that dead vegetation so I can roto-till, augmenting the soil with the roosters' and horses' contributions to next year's crops.

After several days of snow, slush, rain, and generally frigid conditions, Sunday evening's tentative breakthrough of sunlight is today's brilliant autumn day. Which means....too many necessities crowding out most of the more desirable options. The grass needs one last (?) going-over, which is always a two-day operation given all the paddocks and pastures. The dogs (all of them) need training and road work. Pasadena actually looks forward to being ridden now, and the opportunities are drawing to a close. And the garden, well, one final push and it can rest for a few months.

Dog show this weekend. First of the year...I had given myself and the dogs a hiatus this year, after finishing two Champions here in the U.S. and five in Germany. Haven't prepped for it...this could be another of those times I "ring train" with a couple of laps around the ring before the judge calls us in! Just the boys this time around...Ieuan, Vauxhall, and Quasar. Wish the youngsters could just watch Vaux do his thing, learn the ropes, and go out there looking like pros. If only!

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Sunday - Canceled trail ride equals found time for hiking

Hiking with dogs in the fall, can't beat that. Well, yeah, you can hike with your daughter and the dogs on a challenging climb up to dizzying views of the Delaware Water Gap on a day when the sky bears the moodiness of yesterday's snows and the glory of tomorrow's sun.

Jess's little rat terrier, Anubis, amazes with his gravity-defying vertical leaps up boulders and sheer ascents that proportionately must be equivalent to two-story buildings. Anubis weighs perhaps eight pounds, and wears a fluffy aquamarine sweater (his own hair is probably not even 1/8" long) that makes his athletic prowess all the more incongruous. As my young shepherd, Ieuan, puzzles over the best route through jumbled boulders, and as Jess and I lag further behind both dogs, trying not to twist an ankle, little Anubis's silly appearance fades as the reality of his hardiness becomes undeniable. He's kicking our butts.

Last time we hiked the Water Gap we did the usual AT up, looping over the ridge below Sunfish Pond and back down the green trail as it follows along a carefree creek. Today we took the Taminy Trail, a more challenging climb but not a great distance-- combining it with the blue trail back down to the same creek, plus an exploratory venture on along the ridgeline, I'd guesstimate we did perhaps five miles tops. Several stupendous overlooks gave us opportunity to watch the Delaware River disappear to a silver ribbon below. Ieuan, not an experienced hiker, didn't know how to pace himself, but finally realized that Nubi seemed to know what he was doing and began tailing him. He soon learned to take advantage of the humans' tendency to pull a boxy machine out of a bag and stop to look through it (click, click, aww, that's a great shot!) by flopping down to pant and rest. Always ready for action, he'd pop up the instant the lens cap went back on.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

You never sleep

One final, longing look back over the shoulder towards summer. Huddling by a space heater, I really have to fantasize to remember the warmth of the sun.

It's half-past midnight. Haven't started final kennel chores. Have just succumbed to the insistence of friends that I need a blog. That others need me to blog. Like the world needs another opinionated wretch pouring over the keyboard in search of a niche audience. Not convinced, but taking the plunge.

Guess I just contradicted myself.

What can I offer you? I hope this can evolve into a place for those whose interests in animals borders on the obsessive. For those who don't just want to train their dogs, but want to understand them, to learn to read them as one learns gradually to comprehend a foreign language. There is plenty of written material available if you need the technical side of training, but that's not the focus of this venue. Sure, I'll answer questions of how to get a dog to do something specific, I've always got an opinion. If you've got an issue that's bugging you with your dog, we can discuss it privately if you want a more in-depth analysis and problem-solving plan.

But I'm not limiting things. Topics will be wide-ranging. Photos will be willy-nilly. This is for the dogs, truly!