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.