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.