Saturday, May 29, 2010

Hangin' with dogs

An owner of a pup from one of my spring litters posed an interesting question that represents good insights and appreciation of dog psychology: "How do you separate training sessions (which should be short, right?) from walks and things where you’re not actively training? It seems like different rules for different situations could be counterproductive." I recall having had similar thoughts early in my dog-training life, so I'm sure that most dog owners find themselves faced with what appears to be a dilemma. I say "appears to be" because the question needs reformulating; difficulty begins when people think in terms of training versus non-training interactions with their dogs.

Wrapping our brains around the reality that there is no such thing as a non-training interaction would go a long way towards clearing up the miscues and negative learning that takes place in most households. Every moment we are present with our dogs they are learning...they learn that a nudge of your elbow with a nose gets a pet, or gets a rebuke...are you consistent? Have you even thought whether you do or don't want the dog to do that? What about the joyous leap-to-greet? Great for the ego, bad for dress suits. Dogs don't necessarily "get" the difference between weekend sweat pants and workday slacks, and will be understandably confused if you hug him back one time and swat him off the next. You can think of gazillions of similar examples.

So, how to un-muddy the waters? First, to break down the questions asked, beginning with the last: "It seems like different rules for different situations could be counterproductive." Agreed, it does seem so. However I give dogs tremendous credit for understanding context and being able to apply different behavioral rules to different situations. For example, indoor versus outdoor play. I don't think I've ever had to "explain" to my dogs that you don't race around my living room shaking a stick - the same dog that out in the yard would knock me down in her attempt to grab a ball from my hand will upon coming indoors immediately seek a patch of floor to hold in place and will do so for hours. Different situation, different rules; how does the dog understand that outdoors is for rough housing, indoors for self-restraint?

Furthermore, if one defines the rules from a broader perspective, then there really isn't any discrepancy, there's only one Rule to follow. The Prime Directive for dogs is Do Master's bidding. If Master bids you walk by her side, do so. If Master bids you walk hither and thither at will within the range of the leash, then feel free.

My contention is that dogs are so attuned to our body language that their ability to infer our wishes is virtually like mind-reading. So, in order for our dogs to follow the Prime Directive, someone has to actually be the Master at all times. If we are certain that a behavior is or isn't ok, the dog will know our opinion on the matter by observing the tiniest muscle tension or intake of breath. If we are uncertain or ambivalent, be assured the dog will know that, too.

Once you stop thinking "now I'm training my dog" and "now I'm done training my dog" you can begin utilizing the Prime Directive. The puppy owner asked the question in the context of walking, so let's look at that. I'm guessing she wants to give the pup freedom to just be a puppy out for a walk without having to formally heel, yet doesn't want to be yanked from pine tree to pond. So, take a few moments to determine for yourself what's allowed and what isn't? In my case, for my dogs pull on the leash is acceptable so long as the force isn't enough to pull me off balance; if I can restrain the dog with just two fingers on the leash, that's allowable. They must always be attentive to me...if their enthusiasm escalates and they "forget" that they're answerable to me, they'll be "reminded" that there are rules to be followed...that they have crossed a line that I drew in the sand. I use conversational cues, commands if you will, to let them know that something specific is expected of them. If they're pulling too hard, "easy" combined with a purposeful slowing of my speed will convey the message. They settle down, I'll speed back up to reward them for compliance. They choose to continue to act up, I might stop or turn around. This isn't "formal training" in the way people tend to think of it, but it is absolutely effective in conveying a concept to the dog.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Workin' Dawgs

I'm frequently asked whether my dogs are from "working lines" or "show lines." The answer differs subject to the point of view of the questioner. I have to establish some commonality of definition before I can begin to answer. Are these pet people who have seen the terms somewhere and been told that "show dogs" are genetically inferior to "working dogs"? Are they folk who have done schutzhund and want a pup to compete for regional or national placements? Have they owned a GSD before, and if so what was its bloodline?

Generally speaking, from the perspective of the competitive schutzhund folks, my dogs are "show dogs." From the perspective of AKC show competitors, my dogs are "working dogs." And from the perspective of the German and international organizations that establish the Standard for the breed, my dogs are from the "High Lines" that epitomize the versatility and functionality of the true German Shepherd Dog. With such disparity, where's the consensus?

I once belonged to a few online communities of GSD folk, and discussions would arise that reminded me of the old Kennel Ration commercials (who out there is old enough to remember the brand, let alone the commercial?). The jingle went like this:
"My dog's better'n your dog. My dog's better'n yours. My dog's better cuz he eats Kennel Ration - my dog's better'n yours." If you substitute "bites harder" or "has way more prey drive" for "eats Kennel Ration" you'd have the gist of the argument. The focus in these exchanges wasn't so much an honest discussion of what constitutes true working character in a dog, it was a building-up-by-putting-down process of comparing single elements of the dogs' vast array of capabilities.

For instance, biting. Now, the word tends to conjure a picture of inappropriate aggression, but in the venue of these discussions it referred to the Schutzhund "grip" or the drive to grip sheep, bad guys, or other "prey" ("grip" being the sanitized equivalent of "bite"). Grip is utilized to stop a sheep from escaping the flock, or just as effectively to stop a thief from escaping arrest. It's a useful and desirable trait that should be inherent in the breed. But if the grip is applied without provocation or is so hair-trigger that the dog is dangerous to the general public, or the dog has so much drive that it is useless for anything other than grip work, or its structure and type are so far off standard that it doesn't have the stamina to trot for hours, is it still a true GSD?

Another single element of judgment often applied by tunnel-vision fanciers: sidegait. The movement of the GSD is crucial from a practical standpoint in that the breed is designed to trot effortlessly for hours on end. The application was originally in huge, fence-less mountain meadows where the dogs would circle the herds of sheep all day, every day, throughout the grazing season. To keep that up, the dogs' conformation needed to allow easy, energy-conserving movement. Dog shows are intended to evaluate that movement. But dog shows don't usually evaluate the "sheep sense" at the same time.

Enter the High Lines. These dogs are evaluated as a package...their tracking ability, response to threat, and reliability in real-life situations are assessed together with a nose-to-tail physical critique that spells out their faults and strengths. Outstanding capabilities in one or a few aspects will not buy admission to the end goal of recommendations for breeding --- each dog must possess the full spectrum of qualities or it is not given the KoerMeister's highest rating.

So, are my dogs "working dogs"? Absolutely. Are they show dogs? Definitely. My working dogs rip into the "bad guy", carry their own backpacks on hiking trips, help locate narcotics and lost persons, and allow me to sleep safe and secure at night. My show dogs bring home trophies, cause people to literally lean out of their cars to gush over their beauty, and can stop your heart with their exquisite form when racing through the pasture. Are these dogs one and the same animals? You betcha!!!

Saturday, May 8, 2010


Having been home a week now, I should be caught up, back in the saddle, in the swing...pick your metaphor. If only that were so. Many have asked me about the trip, and I've intended to synopsize the experience before the details are lost but my Grandma had a saying about good intentions and the pavement along the Road to Hell.

Still, the cold winds, fitful rainstorms and generally moody/glowering skies we had today brought Scottish memories back to the fore. Tonight what comes to mind most strongly are the sheep...everywhere. Sheep far outnumber the humans in Scotland. In New Zealand it seemed to be a point of pride that there are sheep an order of magnitude more than the humans. I didn't hear any Scots bragging about their woolly citizenry, but it appeared that if you live in northern Scotland you're either a sheep farmer or a Bed & Breakfast owner. Or Royal. Other options weren't readily apparent.

The rusted heather hillsides were dotted with the grayish shapes of unshorn sheep, followed by the bright white, unstained new lambs. April is the thick of lambing season, and everywhere we hiked we could scarcely avoid treading on Scottish black faced and Lleyn lambs curled together or dashing out of our way, bleating and baaing their fright to complacent ewes. The Lleyn lambs looked for all the world, when lying down, like Easter bunnies...their fleece is short which gives their erectly-held ears a disproportionately large and bunnyish silhouette.

Fences seem only a means of delineating property lines not of actual livestock containment. Sheep run the roadways and ditches and public lands and highlands, yards and even woodlands. Almost anyplace we stopped to take in the scenery we could watch shepherds working the flocks together with the ubiquitous Border Collies. There might have been a Lab or a mutt here or there, but Border Collies ruled the countryside. What a treat it was to watch true working farm dogs doing what their ancestors have done since the dawn of domestication. Found myself wishing I had tried harder to bring one of the GSDs along...they would have learned a thing or two from watching.

Everything in that land was rugged, from the topography of ancient basalt bedrock to the hardy breeds of livestock and dogs, to the people themselves. We learned quickly that they count on their tourists being rather rugged and capable as well...hiking trails were, shall we say, less than well marked. Blazes like one expects to see here in the States must be unthinkable to these hardy souls. And I've got the bog-stained boots to prove it!