Friday, March 23, 2012

A is for Apathy

Last week the Doonesbury comic strip covered the recent political furor over abortion. One of the frames featured a clipboard with a large red letter A, a touch from Hawthorne’s classic tale. Perhaps the scarlet letter in Trudeau’s strip was A for Adulteress as in the original book. Perhaps it was A for Abortion. The scarlet A was intended as a mark of shame. As such, maybe A is for Apathy: the apathy of the many who feel sure that the hard fought rights of women for reproductive freedom in this country are secure; the apathy of the many who grew up honoring the social rule to not discuss religion or politics; the apathy of the many who don’t want to risk offending their friends, who they know to be Christians.

The ground is fertile for emotional zealots right now. Our economy suffered a devastating blow in late 2008. We came frighteningly close to an economic depression. It has been a long hard road of recovery and many are still out of work. Troubles in the European economies keep the worry fresh. People are looking for assurances, looking for someone to blame, something to be confident about, and something to be superior about. Those preying on our psyches at this time are not religious zealots, they are manipulators and misogynists. They call themselves Christians…Christian - a follower of Christ. I may not be able to quote chapter and verse from the Bible, but I grew up going to Sunday school and church regularly. I learned about Jesus of Nazareth who walked the land as a remarkable example of peace, forgiveness and tolerance. The grandstanding politicians today are hypocrites, not Christians. Anyone can call themselves a Christian, drawing on the cloak of righteousness like wolves in sheep’s clothing. True Christians will not be offended by your open support of women’s rights.

The fact that this reactionary movement against women’s rights has gained social acceptance is evidenced by the number of politicians in a public competition to be the most adamant in opposition to birth control. We cannot afford be silenced by social niceties. There is legislation being proposed to allow employers to deny birth control coverage to employees. There is legislation being proposed to force a woman to carry a dying fetus until her body initiates labor, despite the risk to the woman. Wake up people. This is not religious freedom. This is religious tyranny, and women are the victims.

The wolves are at the door. It is time to speak up. Speaking your belief in the rights of women is neither rude nor disrespectful. Speaking your belief in the rights of women is a declaration of esteem for your mother, your daughter, your sister, yourself. Speaking your belief in the rights of women gives voice to your support for women of every faith, color, and economic status. Think about it. Marie Curie, Rosa Parks, Amelia Earhart, Margaret Mead, Florence Nightingale, the list goes on for pages. Intelligent, creative, courageous and strong, women have cured diseases, governed nations, led armies, created music that touches the soul, written books that touch our hearts. Women have quietly led by example, and marched boldly before their opponents. Women have the power to give life, the strength to raise children, and the sensibility to make their own reproductive decisions. We are remarkable. We are not mindless and soulless reproductive tools to be controlled and abused by men.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Give the Gift of Clarity (You know what I mean)

If I had a dollar for every time I watched someone get frustrated with their dog’s (belligerence, stupidity, sulky nature, laziness, unwillingness) inability to understand the requirement and perform to specification I would be rich. The trainer honestly believes the requirements have been clearly communicated to the dog.

My first class on my first day of college, I was handed a blue book and told to write. I was a cocky teenager, sure of my abilities. Two days later my assignment was returned. My written words were blanketed with red circles and comments, clearly having fallen far short of the mark. Over the course of that semester I learned to write by learning how to read my work as the reader. Writing is putting words to an idea, building our thoughts into a transferable structure. Writing is communication. Sounds trite, but we tend to forget that the essence of good communication is framing our thoughts so they can be understood by someone who is not already thinking them. When we read our own words we already know the thoughts they describe. We read what we think we said. One of the greatest gifts of intelligence is a curse when reviewing our own work. Our minds constantly interpret incoming information, skimming the data, assigning meaning, and building it into thoughts and concepts. This relentless interpretive process is what allows us to carry on conversations, quickly evaluate a situation, and recognize shapes that are not clearly formed. Ideally we pace the interpretation to match the speed of the information we receive. When we form the new information into concepts too quickly we jump to conclusions, too slowly we lose our ability to respond in real time. In the case of reviewing our own work our mind is primed with far more information than any other reader. A loose group of words seems sufficient to describe our thoughts completely, because the thoughts are already there. It can be frustrating to explain a concept that is fully formed in our mind to another person. The words we put forth in our argument seem more than enough to describe the reality that we are living. The other person can seem deliberately obtuse. Whenever you hear the classic words “You know what I mean” you are likely hearing someone who has described their thoughts with a handful of words, sufficient only to another person who is currently engaging in the same thought process as the speaker.

So how does writing apply to dog training? It doesn’t. Dogs can’t read. But the challenges to clear communication I describe above are equally present in training a dog as in writing a paper. Let’s get back to that frustrated trainer. How could the dog possibly not understand the objective that is so clear in the trainer’s mind? I see dogs confused and the handlers repeating the commands and corrections over and over and louder and louder, like the classic depiction of the tourist speaking English louder and louder to someone in a foreign country, as if simply emphasizing the unclear and unchanging message will miraculously make it understandable. And like the tourist, the trainer is unable to comprehend that they themselves are the ones responsible for communicating in such a way as can be understood, the other party is neither stupid nor stubborn.

In communicating with a dog our best tools are consistent requirements and consistent feedback. The dogs are learning from the patterns we create. If you enforce the dog’s stop every time you ask for a stop then very quickly the dog will begin stopping. Yes, there are some tough dogs that are relentless in challenging the stop. With these dogs you can’t let a single stop command go unenforced. With dogs that naturally pace themselves and stop easily you can let it slide, but that’s not easy on the dog. Lack of enforcement is lack of consistency, which disrupts the pattern and makes the requirements less clear. Some are worried that a soft dog will have trouble with consistent enforcement when in fact quite the opposite is true. If your dog is soft you need to be particularly attentive to consistent enforcement. The dog will quickly figure out what the requirement is and how to be correct.

When I say consistent enforcement here, I’m not talking harsh enforcement. For many dogs just taking a step towards them is sufficient for the stop. Most folks I see who can’t stop their dogs only enforce the stop occasionally. I always cringe inside when I watch someone make a dramatic correction, driving the dog back up the field, after I’ve watched them let at least a dozen stop commands go completely unenforced before this display of dominance. How is the dog to figure out when you are going to lose your temper? If you give a dog a command and don’t enforce that command then what does that command really mean to the dog? They don’t speak English. If I were to occasionally say “purple” to my dog, sometimes following up by yelling “PURPLE”, and every now and then run up to the dog and chase it up the field yelling “PURPLE”, a spectator would have trouble figuring out what I meant by “purple”. If I were to say “purple” to my dog and block the dog until it stopped, then every time I said “purple” I did the same thing, both dog and spectator would quickly become clear on the meaning of “purple” in this context.

Years ago I took a chicken training seminar with Bob and Marian Bailey. Chickens are quite easy to train, and completely unforgiving of poor training technique. It is all about timing and consistency with a chicken. Bob and Marian spent their lives training animals professionally, working with many other trainers over the decades. I recall them saying that the worst trainers were often those who worked with dolphins or monkeys, as their subjects were smart enough to figure out the requirements despite poor training technique. I feel the same way about training Border Collies to work stock. Walk to sheep with a decent Border Collie and you are half way to the finished product. These dogs are intelligent, determined, hardworking, and come to the field with an innate knowledge of how to manage stock. The trainer needs to setup the situation to encourage the instinct to develop properly, and put commands on the work. So often the dogs cover for our poor training that perhaps we just assume that we are communicating well.

Some rules of thumb I try to keep in the front of my thoughts while training:
1. Corrections must be consistently applied. Let the dog know when it is not complying with a command immediately and consistently. There is seldom need to be harsh if you are consistent.
2. Yelling at the dog is nowhere near as effective or informative as using your body to block the dog and force the behavior you are looking for. Walk, don’t yell. It’s cheaper than a gym membership.
3. Let the dog know when it is right, immediately. This helps the dog to learn the precise behavior you are looking for. Saying “good dog” 5 minutes later after you have ended the session is nice, but not helpful in communicating the job to the dog. When the dog complies take off the pressure immediately. Let the dog have the stock. Make your voice soft and appreciative on your next command.

Pay attention to your own training, not just the dog’s behavior. Pay attention to how you handle the situation at all times. Notice if you are letting commands slip by with only partial compliance. Notice your own body language, tone of voice and words used to work with the dog. Think hard about whether you have been clear from the dog’s point of view, remembering that they are counting on you to teach them your language. Give the gift of clarity and you will receive the gift of partnership.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012


Well it is that time when the blog becomes dedicated to updates on the puppies. They will be three weeks old in a couple days. They are eating some solid food now. A significant amount of the food ends up smeared all over them, which they then lick off each other. Fina enjoys cleaning them up as well. I use ground salmon for weaning pups. They all love it and it seems easily digested. I mix with some evaporated milk to make a slurry, decreasing the milk until they are on just the meat. I dislike salmon and even the smell of salmon, which is all over the puppies, the whelping box, my hands, etc. Oh well. Soon enough they'll be on to other foods.

Each morning I feed breakfast in the whelping box, then move them out for the day to "Puppapalooza". Much of the living room has been taken over by plywood on the floor, covered by newspaper and surrounded by pen panels. They've beds, a water dish, and toys. They are not much taking advantage of the space yet as their walking is still pretty clumsy. But they get around and are exposed to all the noises of the house.

Marcus, 10 months old himself, has decided that the pups are fascinating. I found him walking around the whelping box with them this morning when I'd left the door open to the room that is in. He is also prone to hopping over the barrier into puppyland, but that is more in search of the toys and food that the pups have.

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Herd Immunity

I’m regularly bombarded with folks decrying vaccines as unnecessary and potentially dangerous. Certainly some dogs do react to vaccines, and many vaccines are given far more often than necessary. To some degree I’m one of those natural type folks. I have fed raw diet for over 10 years. I don’t use combination vaccines, space my vaccines a week or two apart, and only vaccinate for parvovirus, distemper, rabies and lepto. I do rabies on the legal schedule of 3 years, parvo and distemper are not repeated on dogs over a year unless I’m going somewhere that requires it or it is a bitch to soon be bred. Lepto is annual as it is expected that the effectiveness of this vaccine is not long lasting.

I am thankful for vaccinations. I don’t need to worry about my dogs getting these potentially deadly diseases.

The idea that examples of dogs who were not vaccinated and did not become ill is proof that the vaccines are unnecessary holds no water. The bulk of dogs are now vaccinated for the common diseases. Outbreaks of parvo and distemper used to be quite common. These diseases have not been eradicated, but we have attained what is called "herd immunity". Infectious diseases require hosts. They travel through a chain of hosts to get to a particular individual. When a significant number of the population is immunized, the chain breaks regularly. The immunized individuals break the chain, protecting the individuals with no immunity. I'm on the board of health in our town and was well involved with our vaccination at the school for swine flu. The goal was not to vaccinate every child, but to get a high enough percentage that should the virus enter the school it could not travel freely through hosts. The children who were not vaccinated were protected by the children who were.

There are folks who don't vaccinate at all and proudly display this as proof that vaccines are un-needed or that their dogs have a better immune response. As long as we have herd immunity, basically as long as most folks vaccinate their dogs, we will know nothing. The health of the unvaccinated individuals is more a tribute to the herd immunity than proof of the resilience of those individuals or that vaccines are unnecessary.

If you want a true demonstration of whether dogs should be vaccinated we need to stop vaccinating all dogs. With parvo and distemper many believe that the immunity created by the vaccine is lifetime. I tend to agree with this. So if we stop vaccinating dogs now, in 5-10 years we will have lost the herd immunity and will be able to see whether or not it is a good idea to refrain from vaccinating our dogs.

Saturday, February 18, 2012

The Power of Intent

Fina whelped 7 pups yesterday afternoon. I walked into the room where the whelping box is setup late yesterday and Song slipped in behind me. Song is undeniably the Queen of the house. She needs only a cold stare to send Fina slinking off to a corner. As I walked in Fina looked past me at Song and showed her teeth. Fina was nursing most of the litter at the time and never moved. She was calm, dead serious, and completely confident. Song came no closer. I shooed Song out of the room and closed the gate. Fina calmly put her attention back to the array of pups attached to her. Fina never questioned her ability to stop Song. Song never questioned Fina’s commitment to defending her pups.

Many years ago I had a Thoroughbred mare named Scooter. Scooter was low man on the totem pole in the pasture, always giving way to any horse that chose to push her. I was concerned when first turning Scooter back into the pasture group with her new foal. I watched as she went out, her filly trotting at her side. The other horses all trotted over to see the new arrival. Scooter stopped, laid her ears back, and looked at each of the other horses in turn. None came closer, and eventually all went back to grazing and gave Scooter and her foal a comfortable berth.

In both these examples the mothers had the tremendous commitment of maternal protectiveness. They were completely willing to back up their message with the full force of their mental and physical beings. Yet neither mother made dramatic gestures, outward signs of the seriousness of their meaning. They were completely understood by whatever subtle body signals, eye contact, or energy transfer that animals use to communicate. They communicated more with mental intent than visible gestures.

This ability to transmit intent is a big part of working livestock with dogs. We need to remember that even between species animal communication is far more sensitive than ours. I first started herding with my big Belgian, Sundog. I went to a clinic in our early days where there were many green dogs. The sheep wanted nothing to do with these dogs and were jumping out of the pen. Several sessions had sheep jumping despite the dogs seeming fairly controlled and unassuming to the human eye. When I walked to the pen with Sundog, a good deal taller, bigger, bouncier and more forward than the other dogs that had worked, we all assumed the sheep would sail out over the fence and be gone. Sundog was a further along in his training than the dogs that had worked so far. Despite his size and forward work he was good to his sheep. We walked into the pen with Sundog forward and staring at the sheep and they never even looked to leave. I sent Sundog to gather, which he always did too close and too fast, and the sheep came off the fence to me as he rounded them. He was working fast so the sheep were moving quickly, but they were relaxed. Despite all the outward appearances that had the humans, including several experienced handlers, predicting the sheep to be afraid of this dog, the sheep read this dog’s true intent. He was there to gather the sheep to me. There was no thought of gripping or diving, no thought of driving them onto the fence, none of the mixed messages and confusion that green dogs inevitably transmit. He was clear and committed on how and where he was going to move the sheep and they relaxed.

The term “puppy power” refers to the effect on the sheep of a pup’s lack of control. The pup does not need to actually do anything egregious to show the sheep that the controls are not yet in place. The sheep read this lack of control very accurately even when a young dog walks onto the training field in an outwardly calm and obedient manner.

Green dogs are hard on sheep, even if they are not prone to trying to grip. Green dogs are unclear about what they want the sheep to do. A green dog may begin a gather and then as soon as the sheep begin to move the dog will panic, run to the heads to stop the stock. This lack of consistent purpose makes it harder for the sheep to comply and feel safe. Intent is not simply intent to work quietly or do harm. Intent is a plan for the movement of the stock. Watch a young dog trying to get mild mannered stock off the fence. Most young dogs start by coming in too fast, not sure of their job and not giving time for the stock to move. Cornered by their own speed, the fence, and the unmoving stock, they peel off the fence line and end up holding the stock to the fence. They were not clear on the job in the first place. The handler steps in and either takes the dog on a line to lead them along the fence, or uses their body pressure to keep the young dog slower and on the fence. Yet the sheep don’t move off easily even when this green dog is in the right place. These same sheep float right off the fence when an experienced dog goes to move them off. The experienced dog is clear on its purpose, mind and body working together to move the sheep off the fence. The green dog is unsure of what it is trying to accomplish, how to accomplish this job, and unsure if it even wants the sheep to “escape” off the fence. When that green dog is jogging nicely along the fence to scrape the sheep off, parts of that dog are considering other actions. The intent is not clear to the dog, therefore not clear to the sheep.

Moving uncooperative stock is another facet of sheepdog work where intent is a dominant factor. A dog with confidence and a sure and ready grip can walk onto the stock quietly and the stock will likely not test that grip. The stock reads the intent of the dog to move them even if it requires force. Allowing and teaching young dogs to use force appropriately builds their confidence. The dog needs to know what it will do if it gets to the stock and the stock either fights or simply refuses to move. If the dog is sure of the next step it can move forward with confidence, transmitting the options to the stock. These dogs are less apt to be questioned in the first place because the stock knows the grip is there. The same holds true of dogs that grip from tension or a predatory nature. The stock senses the underlying grip, but on these dogs the stock also senses the lack of control. Sheep tend to move off these dogs with alacrity, worried and trying to keep a good distance. A dog with little or no grip, but a great deal of courage and determination, is also able to move the stock as it will come forward communicating that determination and intent. Though this dog may not meet a charge, it will continue to work the stock until they comply.

Dogs that work with determination and a clear purpose will communicate their intent to the stock in ways that are obvious to human handlers and also in ways that we do not perceive. We tend to assign more importance to the factors that are clearly visible to us, and forget that the most subtle communication is often the most powerful.

Friday, February 17, 2012

Learning to Focus on Ourselves

When we learn to ski we are forced to consciously concentrate on our own movements. It is exhausting mentally. It is the same with learning any new skill. We have to slow our minds down and focus, pay attention to our movements and actions and look inwards to consciously push ourselves to the goal we are working towards. Whether it is keeping our heels down when riding a horse, or bringing our head above water last when rolling a kayak, actions that are not natural require us to completely break down our automatic responses and think carefully through every movement. We are clumsy during this process, our responses and actions are slow. It is difficult and frustrating to work through teaching our body and mind to work in a new way. It takes some time to accomplish. It is only when these newly learned actions become second nature that we can stop focusing on them individually.

Unlike skiing or kayaking, when people handle a sheepdog there are three parties to the work. Learning to pay attention to the stock, while keeping sufficient attention to the dog to be able to react to the dog’s work is a project in and of itself. This environment makes it easy to focus on the dog or the sheep as the source of problems, forgetting our own actions. Our movements, demeanor, and words are every bit as important to the overall success of the work as anything done by the dog or the stock. More importantly, our movements, demeanor and words are the only things we can control. We cannot improve on the dog until we can control and improve our own actions.

The classic example is sending the dog on a gather. Most green dogs will crowd the sheep. Green handlers will push into the dog to force it out. It is the most natural reaction from us, and indeed there are times that stepping into the dog is appropriate. However the best way to get a dog to relax and kick out wider is to step back and take the pressure off. It took years before I would naturally step away to take pressure off in this situation. I needed to set aside a piece of my consciousness to focus on my own path, making sure I gave space instead of crowding. I needed to focus on myself to improve the work of my dog.

Another skill that eludes those who focus on the dog is calm. For most of us staying calm in the face of chaos is a learned skill. The first instructors I had exposure to, Cheryl Williams and Kathy Hughes, had a great ability to maintain and transmit calm when the situation invited frenzy and panic. I would picture them in my mind when going to work a dog, willing myself to mirror their relaxed demeanor. This is very much a Zen thing for me. It did not come easily and requires maintenance.

Your dog is dependent on you doing your job. If your dog is not improving at a reasonable rate, odds are you need to do something different. To do something different you need to take a hard look at yourself. When you are completely focused on your dog you are unaware of your own performance. It is easy to keep focusing on the performance of the dog, never improving yourself so the dog can improve, then getting more frustrated with the dog leading you to focus more on the dog.

Appreciate your own role. Stop worrying about the dog and put your energy into yourself. Listen to your words, notice your steps, your body language, your timing. Teach yourself to listen closely to your commands if you want your dog to listen. Teach yourself to move appropriately around the stock if you want your dog to move appropriately. Teach yourself to be calm if you want your dog to be calm. If you are truly paying attention to yourself you will feel clumsy, movements will be delayed. That’s part of the learning process. If you are not feeling awkward and slow then you are not really focusing on yourself and not making the changes that will take you forward, make you a dog handler, and bring success to you and your dog.

Friday, February 3, 2012

My Choice

Recently there have been vocal political statements against abortion and even against birth control. Birth control is what allows a woman to choose the path of her own life whether it be no children, one child, two or three children, or a large family. Without birth control a woman’s path is determined by bearing and raising many children.

I’m pro-choice. I vote pro-choice. The pro-choice vote I cast is not only at the polls. I vote with my money. Unless I’m in an ambulance in critical condition I won’t go to a Catholic hospital. I won’t even go to a doctor’s office in a Catholic hospital. I’m fortunate to live in an area where there are secular hospitals as well as medical institutions with a religious mandate. I’m fortunate to have a car so my doctor and hospital choices are not limited by transportation. I’m fortunate to have health insurance so my doctor and hospital choices are not limited by where I can get free or low cost care.

I believe that the only official religion in a hospital should be in chapel. Religion does not belong in the administration or in the board room. Hospitals are a key part of societal infrastructure, large institutions critical to the health of the population surrounding them. Secular hospitals cannot simply spring up beside a religious hospital any more than a new stadium can be built beside an existing facility. Running a hospital is undertaking a great responsibility for the health and welfare of the people who depend on that hospital. Not everyone has the luxuries I enjoy in being able to travel and choose. What reasonable choice does a low income woman have when the only secular hospital she can get to is across town?

I’m fortunate to be able to make choices. My choice is to not support hospitals with a religious mandate. If you are pro-choice, if you believe that a woman has the right to use birth control so that she may choose a life other than long term child bearing and parenting, consider voting with your money as well as at the polls.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Martin Luther King

Martin Luther King Day is on Monday. As time goes by it is easy to minimize the social crises of the past, our memories softening the transgressions with the haze of time. We have not changed as a species. Humans are humans, capable of great strength and great weakness. We are social animals, emotional decision makers, and well able to rationalize positions with which we are socially and emotionally comfortable. We have not changed our basic nature in the over 40 years since Martin Luther King was assassinated. We have not changed in the many decades since the holocaust. Our strength comes from our ability to face our personal weaknesses and recognize where an argument carries the light of truth and where it simply cloaks a position from which we personally benefit.

Do a search online on Martin Luther King. Many of his speeches are available to hear.

He was a powerful and eloquent speaker, willing to stand up and call people to fight racial injustice with their hearts and souls, to face violence and hatred with strength and character. He did this at a time when bigotry was a dominant pattern in the weave of culture, so much so that violence against anyone who threatened to unravel that culture was practiced by some and condoned by many. His words lay bare the reality that comfortable society chose to ignore or rationalize.

Martin Luther King was a citizen of this great country. Of that we should be very proud.

I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal."
Martin Luther King Jr., I Have a Dream, 1963.

I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.
Martin Luther King Jr., I Have a Dream, 1963.