Saturday, August 14, 2010

Neglect of, well... everything

So what's become of my summer? And whither the energy for blogging? Plenty of ideas, plenty of inspiration, just zero, absolutely NIL, in the time department. I used to (only semi-jokingly) refer to the dogs as the hobby that stole my life. Now I've added chickens, rabbits, horses, and a garden that resembles the jungles we saw in Costa Rica. Maybe a tad *too* much horse manure this spring???? The squash plants are almost scary-big! And the single squash is large enough to feed me for a week, so what am I supposed to do with the rest? I so enjoyed them last year that I planted about twice as much this year. And about four times as much corn and at least four times more beans...which means now, only about halfway through harvest, I've filled all my freezers and don't know how to can, so what to do with Nature's largess? Does *anyone* out there need fresh, organic produce?

Other than weeding, picking, processing, freezing, eating, picking...summer has been a blur of puppies. The rat terriers proliferated in my absence last spring so I had a wondrous array of little tuxedo and piebald cuties to contend with, followed by Ember's litter of eight and Godiva's singleton. Some will head to new homes this week prior to my departure for Colorado (!). Now Elatha's litter is three weeks old and starting to eat solid food, so the fun will continue well into the fall. I haven't yet been able to determine whether Vixen conceived three weeks ago (a repeat of the lovely "V" litter of earlier this year) and then there's the possibility of the Champion-to-Champion breeding of Beemer to Giddy. With so many dog shows & trials this fall and a houseful of visitors in October, all these puppies will make for some challenging logistics.

The Edgar Sawtelle discussion is still uppermost in my mind, and as I walk dogs or play with puppies there are countless observations that relate to various ideas in the book. Or, from my perspective the book gives me reference points for discussion of concepts I've been mulling from my observations.

Those observations together with other research I've come across catalyzed some theories I've been pondering. Dogs and people have co-evolved for many tens of thousands of years. In so doing we've synchronized our evolution in ways that almost imply a conjoined species...dogs have lost their ability to live independently of us, and we've lost much of the strength of our physical senses that we had earlier in our development. We count on their superior scenting ability and they depend on our superior technological ability...dogs eat better than their comrades in the wild, at least dogs whose owners are savvy to the crap marketed as "dog food." So it makes sense that dogs recognize, correctly interpret, and respond to our facial expressions, gestures, and other body cues better than our primate relatives or their own wild canid brethren. They need to understand their packmates in order to have efficient function within the pack, and we are that pack whether we know it or not.

One interesting factoid I came across recently referenced a study that demonstrated dogs' mimicking human behavior. For example, if a person used their hand to reach under furniture to retrieve a lost item, the dog would take its paw to reach. If the human used their nose to open a door then the dog used its nose(this was a controlled experiment...not that people would normally open doors with their noses!). At first glance this may not seem all that profound, because living with dogs provides so many daily examples that we take it for granted. But to me this suggests that dogs have mirror-neurons, as we do, that enable them to empathize and make inferences of our internal states and intentions based on the "lighting up" of comparable regions of their own brains when they watch us do something. One could infer that any strongly social animal has mirror neurons. I also read about a study proving that people's minds really do "meld" (a la the Vulcan mind-meld, minus Spock's hand-to-forehead grip) when they're involved in a mutually gratifying conversation...research subjects referred to the feeling of "clicking" at times when their brain waves had synchronized.

So now I'm wondering how much our minds might "meld" with our canine this really what's happening when we "train"...I, like David Wroblewski (the author of Edgar Sawtelle) think that training is really just a means by which the dog and the trainer can come to agree upon a vocabulary to convey ideas. We can use whatever words we want and eventually, if our body language and voice tone are consistent, the dog will catch on to our meaning. If it's a cooperative dog, it'll agree with us about the meaning. If we are observant trainers, we'll catch on to signals (non-verbal "words") that he dog offers to us, and then we have the chance for instructive two-way communication. Hunters, search & rescue personnel, police k-9 handlers, drug-detection handlers and anyone who has walked a dog alone at night down a dark, scary street knows that dogs communicate a legion of's usually our own inattentiveness that leaves us clueless. I, for one, want to learn to live with better, preferably constant, openness to the information our co-evolutionary partners have to offer.