Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Pure Positive

The biggest problem with the “Pure Positive” training movement is that they refuse to discuss how to use corrections (punishments).  All corrections are lumped into that giant emotional trash bin called “abuse”.  The Pure Positive folks completely rule out corrections in training, despite the fact that the quadrant of operant conditioning includes positive punishment and negative reinforcement, both of which involve pressure on the dog.  The pure positive movement preaches like the abstinence only sex education classes. 

I think the abstinence only sex ed is a disservice to young people.  I think pure positive training is a disservice to pet owners and pets.  We need to talk about corrections.  We need to accept training in the pure punishment quadrant.  MOST IMPORTANT, WE NEED TO TEACH PEOPLE HOW AND WHEN TO USE CORRECTIONS.  Because if we don’t then someday Fluffy is not going to come when called, or nip the neighbor’s kid, or jump all over mom who is dressed to go out, and it won’t go well for Fluffy.  Those people who you lectured at length on the evils of correction are now frustrated with Fluffy, sure that all correction is abuse, and far more likely to be abusive than if the proper use of corrections had been discussed and practiced.  They’ll correct too hard.  Because Fluffy has never been corrected she’ll see it as a personal attack rather than a result of a behavioral choice.  Then the owners will feel guilty and not correct her the next time.  Reinforcements work on a variable schedule, punishment does not.  You need to be consistent, correcting essentially every time.  But Fluffy’s owners don’t know that.  So Fluffy can’t figure out the pattern and know what to do to avoid the correction.  Fluffy’s owners get more frustrated, and probably correct Fluffy again, harder this time.  Why, because their instructor never taught them that corrections must be consistent, and very seldom need to be harsh.  Their instructor never warned them that escalation of corrections is not a substitute for consistency of corrections, and indeed escalating corrections without being consistent is abusive because Fluffy never figures out exactly what to do to avoid the corrections.  All the instructor ever said was that corrections are abusive, don’t go there.  It doesn’t work for sex ed and it doesn’t work for dog training.

First, let’s get over this abuse thing.  Properly done corrections are not abuse.  They are feedback on a behavioral choice.  And if you say that pet owners won’t correct properly, well whose fault is that?  Since the pure positive movement won’t allow any reasonable discourse on corrections then there is no learning.  Corrections are everything from a pop on the leash, a quick scold to blocking the dog from its goal, etc. 

I’m not even sure the pure positive folks even let themselves learn the basics of correction:

1.       Correction must be consistent, think V1 (if you really are a positive trainer you should know what that is)

2.       Correction needs to be adjusted so that the dog thinks about it.  For some dogs a hard word or body block is enough.  For a snarky pup pinning it to the ground until it gives up is appropriate.  For a pup that loves to bite and is not responding to being redirected to toys, scruff it or give it a smack, hard enough that the dog stops and thinks about it.  The dog should neither run away nor launch back into the behavior. 

3.       Sometimes, in the case of interrupting a dog mentally involved in its behavior (example a keen young dog working stock) you may need to be fairly harsh to get the dog’s attention.  Once you have the dog’s attention you may need to back way down.  

4.       Do not correct when you are angry.  Indeed better to nip problem behavior before you get totally frustrated with it.  Many folks avoid correction, allow the problem behavior to get established, then not only are they frustrated but the behavior is much more difficult to stop.

5.       You need to be calm and quick when delivering a correction.  No emotion, no tantrums.  Sort of the same as 4, but very important.

6.       Correct at the moment the dog is bad, then stop.  The dog learns from when you stop the correction.  If you continue to berate or correct the dog after it has complied then the dog has no chance to figure out what it is you wanted. 

7.       Timing is everything, just like reinforcements.

8.       Use reinforcement when you can.  Recognize where correction is a better option (simple single behavior you want to eliminate) or the only realistic option (you don’t control the primary reinforcements)

9.       For heaven’s sake when the safety of your dog, or someone else’s dog, or your cat, or the sheep are at stake don’t stand on your pure positive pedestal and think you are some almighty savior because you did not administer an aversive.  While the sheep are terrorized in the corner or the cat is living in the basement you are responsible.  No Pontius Pilate washing your hands clean for you.

10.   If you don’t control the primary reinforcements you are not going to solve the problem with positive training.  To train with reinforcements you need to be able to control the dog’s access to those reinforcements.  Much more difficult in the real world than the training class.  Yes, superb and determined positive trainers can proof a behavior extensively so the dog never thinks about the distraction, but the Jones family is not going to do that with their Lab.  And even that fails when you are training a dog in something self-reinforcing like working livestock.  Yes, you can still use positive reinforcements, but you will need some form of corrections to keep the work in a zone where you have something to reinforce.

I’ve seen quite a few trainers who do incorporate corrections looking for euphemisms to describe corrections.  Let’s not change the word.  Corrections fall into the pure punishment quadrant, nothing wrong with that.  Let’s keep the language clear rather than coming up with new terms to avoid ruffling the clicker cult.

For those who now picture me training with a whip and chair, I have lots of clickers.  I train with clickers.  I went to “chicken camp” with Bob and Marian Bailey and loved it.  I had a great conversation with Bob Bailey about the challenges of training in a self-reinforcing environment.  I love training with positive reinforcement.  I’ve brought in a clinician for a clicker seminar I put together.  I’ve gone to other clicker seminars, including travelling quite a ways to attend.  I put lots of agility titles on dogs using positive reinforcement and my trusty clickers back when I was doing agility.  But these dogs did get corrections for certain life behaviors.  I live on a busy road.  Dive past me to get out the front gate and you will be corrected, every single time.  My dogs work stock.  I don’t control all the reinforcements.  I use corrections to keep the work in a zone that can be reinforced.  I used to foster retired racing greyhounds.  I have cats.  Those dogs wore a muzzle and were kept on a leash when they came in my house.  They were corrected for any intent on the cat, corrected hard for trying to go after it.  Within a day or two a cat would walk in the room and the dog would look away…click/treat/praise.  Several of these dogs who were quite aggressive with cats were able to be placed in homes with cats and live in peace together.

Monday, December 21, 2015

Home for the Holidays

I stopped at Home Depot this evening to pick up some metal rods to finish my corner assemblies on some fence.  I remembered that the long drill bit I use to drill for the rods is bent, so I grabbed another drill bit while I was there.  I selected a bit of a matching size for the rods, then considered if I should get one size larger diameter as well.  Sometimes the wood is wet and it is easier to tap the rods through a larger hole.  But really, the next size up was $10.47 and I was making an excuse to buy it.  I put it back on the hook, gave one last longing look, and headed to the checkout.  But, how could I walk away?  I really think that drill bit and I made a connection.  I felt his little heart beat faster with anticipation as I lifted him from the hook.  Could I be so callous as to inspire a fluttering hope for a home for the holidays, only to discard him back to the hook like a piece of metal?  It’s Christmas.  I went back and found him, lifted him gently from the hook and carried him to the checkout.  He’s now nestled with his little brother in the shop.  I think I’ll name him Twist.  Welcome home little buddy.  Welcome home.  

Sunday, December 20, 2015


I took my mom food shopping this evening.  Usually she does the food shopping.  She likes to shop.  I hate to shop.  But I needed to drive her.  She’s been using my commuter car since we scrapped her old wagon.  Last weekend she ran my car into a cement planter at the church.  She did quite a bit of damage, then drove home without looking at the damage to make sure the newly flattened tire on the newly bent rim being rubbed by the newly mangled bumper was destroyed.  I confess to being short on Christmas spirit last weekend, particularly when she neglected to mention the incident until I asked her to pick something up for me.

So I finally bought her another car this morning, pictured.  It arrives Wednesday.  Small, safe, solid, and inexpensive to insure and maintain.  My own redneck version of the Lexus “December to Remember” ads with the expensive lacquered machine in the driveway wearing a giant bow.  Maybe I’ll take out some curling ribbon and put a little bow on the antenna.   
Back to the shopping…  I asked the checkout girl if it was normally that busy on a Sunday evening.  She and the bagger looked at each other, then studied me for a moment, and said “It’s dead tonight.”  I’ll go back under my rock now.  Oh well.  Mom then suggested that I bring the car around for the groceries, as it would be easier to make the turn from the exit up by the store.  Apparently she was unimpressed with my standard parking methodology.  Pull into the parking lot, take the first spot you see then walk.  I agreed to get the car, deciding to swing left and around the rows so I could get lined up at the curb at the store.  There was traffic in the direction I chose.  Traffic that was keeping me from getting around and back up to the store.  My language took a bad turn, Christmas spirit meets construction site.  If Rudolph had been there his nose would not have been the only thing turning red. 
Home again.  Christmas spirit is returned, courtesy of olives and rice thins purchased at the market.  If I could have found the damn gluten free croutons I’d be downright angelic right now. 

Sunday, December 13, 2015

Dark December Mornings

Dark December mornings
Up early to enjoy the lights on the tree,
the warmth of the house
Up early to see the black soften to gray,
the world lit for our eyes 

Last days before the solstice
Up early to celebrate the rebirth of the sun,
the coming long days
Up early to enjoy each bright hour,
till the low sun wanes 

Saturnalia, Feast of Juul, Alban Arthuan
Up early to revel in anticipation,
bringing joy to now
Up early to embrace life as it is given,
ride the waves of days

©2015 Maria Amodei

Friday, December 11, 2015

It’s Time for a Change

Training a dog takes time.  Sometimes Spot seems to grasp a new concept quickly, but then you find he does not understand as well as you thought when you place that job in a different context.  Sometimes Spot seems to lack the required intelligence or desire or talent to get the job.  I’ve despaired of a dog ever becoming merely competent at a certain task, only to have them become quite expert over time such that I’d completely forgotten the early struggles. 

Though training a dog takes time, you should see progress.  It may be slow progress, but it must be real progress, not wishfully imagined.  If you can’t look back to a week or two ago and see you have made some measurable progress then you need to change your training picture.  The young dog is still very tough to stop, sometimes blowing past you to the stock, but two weeks ago you had him on a long line with the sheep behind you in a corner and had work to get him stopped and caught as he tried to dart past you.  Maybe the other dog you started at the same time is now stopping well on the back side of the sheep and beginning to learn his sides, but this young dog that is still tough to control has made measurable progress. 
If you are not making real progress then you need to change your training picture.  Some ideas:
1.       Train more often, short sessions-more often.  With hot dogs your first session(s) of the day are often just working the edge.  If you can get several sessions in a day the edge will diminish and learning will take its place.

2.       Make the job simpler.  If you can’t stop the dog well, then keep the job to very small and simple gathers with one criteria – stop, now, always immediately enforced.  The more criteria on the table at one time the more difficult the task even if you are in a small pen with quiet sheep.  If the dog is struggling to improve, don’t be working flanks, stops, sides, pace all at the same time.  I’m not saying forgive any behavior, but setup your exercises to keep focused on the main problem.

3.       If you can’t stop your dog without a fuss, fix that first before you do anything else.  You can’t much help a dog that you can’t control.  Yes, working on the stop is boring, but a requirement for all other work.

4.       Pay attention to yourself.  Are you enforcing your requirements immediately and consistently?  If not, fix your own responses. 

5.       Just as important, are you taking the pressure off the moment the dog complies?  Continuing to harass a dog that has complied with the requirements is just that, harassment.  Your dog learns what is wanted by the moment you release the pressure.  If you do not release the pressure when the dog gets it right then you just lost the opportunity to show the dog what you want. 

6.       Does your voice come back to normal after correcting a dog?  If you find you are tense and grumpy, in particular even after the dog has fixed whatever you just corrected, then quit the session.   It is easy to let frustration corrode your training when your dog is not making progress. Temper will only take your training backwards.

7.       Still getting nowhere?  Spend some time thinking about the problem.  Not while you are on the field with the dog, but while driving to work, feeding the sheep, whatever.  Really think about it.  Look for the pattern of when things go wrong and that may help you come up with a new training picture.

8.       If a dog fails an exercise over and over and over again for heaven’s sake change the exercise.  Make it smaller, shorter, simpler in some way.  I aim for about an 80% success rate.  Success is defined according to what I can expect from that particular dog at its current level of training.  More experienced and established partners can tolerate a higher failure rate, but repeated failures are not teaching the dog what is right. 

9.       Try another training environment.  A new field, different sheep.  If you don’t have anything yourself, find someone else.  In particular with green dogs if your stock is difficult or the field challenging they may need a simpler environment to get their understanding of a concept down before they can apply it in all situations.

10.   Get help.  Another set of eyes, preferably very experienced eyes, may see your dog a whole different way and offer a much better approach.  Even if you are an experienced trainer, get help.
Don’t keep slogging on the training treadmill.  Constantly evaluate if you are making real progress.  It does not need to be fast progress, but it needs to be clear progress.  If you are standing still, make a change.

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Christmas Tree Menorah

My first job out of college was writing movie descriptions for cable TV guides. The pay was lousy, hours unreliable, and the office was so cold we fought for the chance to use the photo copier as it generated a lot of warmth. It was grand fun. All kids right out of college. We sat around tables and wrote the descriptions, sized to fit various slots in the guides. We laughed together at the hopeless schlock we created. Anything older than 20 years is a "timeless masterpiece" regardless of actual quality, trust me on this. The most fun was writing descriptions for "Escapade", later renamed the Playboy channel. We would be in stitches writing provocative bits that could still be printed in a guide that would land on family coffee tables. 
The staff were about 50/50 Jewish and Christian. When we planned our holiday party I sketched a Christmas tree menorah. My sketch was hideous as I've no talent with my hands, but we had a department full of artists and one of them created this festive image for our invitation. I remembered this today, and dug through some old files to find it. Yellowing a bit, but still fun.


Thursday, December 3, 2015

Trust Your Dog

Rhyme, self-appointed royalty in her current life, was an opinionated creature to train.  Certain commands were deemed irrelevant to her rarified consciousness.  Commands like “Lie Down”.  She’d come around the top on a lovely cast, turn in, and drive into the sheep and catch one.  I would go up the middle and push her back over and over and over and over.  I’d send her and start walking, every time.  This was understandably frustrating.  It was difficult to keep myself calm.  I grew tired of constantly reprimanding her and holding her back, struggling to keep the annoyance from my attitude.  I knew that to some degree the constant corrections added energy to the situation.  One day on a large open field with a group of ram lambs I decided to trust her, stop the nagging, just turn around and let her bring the sheep along with me.  I started with a small gather.  She stopped at the top, good.  As she brought the sheep to me I turned around and started walking.  No nagging, pushing on her, nothing.  It was working!  I stayed looking ahead as I walked briskly along, but could hear the quiet patter of the group of sheep just a short distance behind me.  Rhyme always had lovely balance and never was one to let any of her charges wander off.  I relaxed.  This was the secret.  I’d been sustaining her bad behavior with the energy of my constant corrections.  Hallelujah!  I walked about 50 yards, the little group of ram lambs trip trapping along behind me.
Not wanting to go too far and tempt fate, I turned around to stop her.  I was not so idealistic as to believe she would stop with my back turned.  There was the little group of ram lambs about 10 feet behind me, walking along, occasionally glancing back at the one poor sod who Rhyme had caught.  She must have gotten a hold of him right after I turned my back.  This was when I had Navajo Churros.  Long draping fleeces in a variety of colors.  She had a huge swath of fleece from the britches of this poor lamb and was using it like a rope to haul him backwards.  Her feet were spread and dug in, muscled bulged on her fit little body.  She was hauling on that hunk of fleece like a champion tug of war contestant.  Inch by inch she was pulling this poor lamb backwards.  The only part of him making forward progress were his eyes, bugging out of his head.  The rest of the group was showing the classic ovine survival response.  “She’s got Joey.  Just keep moving.  Poor Joey, but it’s not my turn to be eaten today.” 
It was a long time before I turned my back on Rhyme again.      

Silent Communication

On some level dogs are clearly getting information from us beyond the auditory cues and more blatant body moves we do to support the work and training.  Perhaps this is just their sensitivity to the most subtle body language, but it seems to work at a distance as well when our body language will be lost in the yards.  The dogs are sensitive to our intent and our focus.
I bring this up because some of the questions asked on various topics can be answered the same way:  You put your focus on the stock and the path you want.  Whatever you are trying to do, outrun, fetch, drive, pen… if you are focusing on the dog then the dog’s performance will deteriorate.  Maybe this is only because when you are paying attention to the dog you are not paying attention to your sheep so your plan becomes irrelevant to the current situation.  But it matters on outruns as well.  If a dog is struggling with outruns the worst thing is to pay attention to the dog.  Keep the distance reasonable and focus on the stock intently.  You’ll be able to see the dog in your peripheral vision.  If you need to walk up the center line to help, do this with your entire attention and energy on the stock.  If you want the sheep on a line, keep the sheep and that line on the forefront of your focus.  Spend less mental energy on the dog and moving the dog around. 
Like I said, I don’t know the mechanism(s) of this communication.  But it is there.  When my head is in the job my dogs are able to work with fewer recognizable cues.  Everything is smoother.  This is one of the major differences between experienced handlers and novice handlers.  Be the sheep, seriously.  This is a very important mind set to practice.  Who cares how it works, just know that it does.

Sunday, November 22, 2015

Why I write

I see the world and frame it in words.  I’ve no skill as a photographer.  My photographic attempts are flat and lifeless reprints of what I was trying to capture.  Although drawing and painting appeal to me my hands are unable to shape what is in my head.  So I write.  Superb photographs capture the visual elements and invite the imagination to fill in the sounds, scents and feelings.  Drawings and paintings pull harder at the imagination to flesh out the moment.  Words demand that the reader actively engage themselves:  their desires; their history; their imaginations; their souls.  Words are the mind’s coloring books.  Each of us takes the outlines and fills the moment with color, light, history, destiny, and feeling.  We read through the lens of our lives, making our own personal edition, our own snowflake.

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

November Comes

November comes and
strips the green robes of summer,
scrubs away the blush of the rose,
lays bare the world for all to see.
Her lines and shape, the solid forms,
the substance lovely and essential.

© Maria Amodei 2015

Monday, November 9, 2015

Tending sheep on a November evening

Early dark robs the colors and leaves only contrast.  The sheep pull fresh wads of grass, squeaking and munching sounds clear in the cold air.  They are only light outlines against the dark evergreens that make the horizon.  A filigree of maple trees stands against the sky, like nets waiting to catch the stars.

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Don't be Rude

I had two ram lambs in with my ewe flock. I had agreed to loan one to a friend in town, so needed to separate him out and load him on the trailer. The flock was behind electronet on a remote graze. Since the rams had been in with them for a few weeks I wanted to be careful not to move the ewes excessively. Extracting a particular ram lamb who blended well with the group was not going to be easy. Song is my best dog to sort with, but I had brought Levi, definitely better at taking the cut and holding groups apart. Levi, the flankless wonder. He needs regular maintenance to stay flexible and I’ve not had any real opportunity to train this summer. No big surprise that his flanks were just a sideways flare in a walkup. I could have spent a few moments tuning his flanks then worked with what I had. He’s quite good at reading my mind when separating stock and really helpful in creating and maintaining groups. Instead I lost my cool when I did not get the flanks I wanted. I verbally berated him. Was he doing what I asked? No. Was this a reason to go off on him? No. Once I’d adjusted my attitude I spent a few moments working on the flanks and stop and he improved noticeably. Then I got into the sorting and releasing sheep and my partner Levi was clueless. The dog that is so attentive to my meaning, so clever at helping me separate groups and hold them apart, was inept. He was clumsy, in the wrong place at the right time and the right place at the wrong time. I am so sure of him being where I need him that I can watch the stock completely, but then he was not there. I was frustrated and again complained about his inept work, slowly realizing that I had robbed him of the sureness of mind that allows him to think on his feet and be the complete partner that I have learned to depend on.
That was yesterday. Today I saw this article about a study on how rudeness among medical team affects their ability to work through problems and think clearly.  http://nymag.com/scienceofus/2015/10/rudeness-in-hospitals-could-kill-patients.html?mid=fb-share-scienceofus

Sunday, October 18, 2015

Sacco Cart

Some snow fell today, just bits of flakes being batted around by the wind on a cold and cloudy day.  No white on the ground, but winter’s calling card inspired me to get the dogs out with the Sacco cart in preparation for the sled.  The cart is a bit dicey with more than a couple dogs.  I’m often foolish but seldom outright stupid, so I elected to drive 40 minutes to the rail trail in Mason, NH.  It is fairly smooth and straight and has a slight incline most of the way out, just shy of five miles total. 

I brought my trusty tire to drag behind for some extra control.  Chord, the craziest of the team, is in season so I was justified in leaving her behind.  I had Ike and Poe as newbies.  Ike ran a couple times on short runs with the sled last year.  He did not cover himself with glory.  Poe has never been hitched other than pulling the tire in the backyard a couple times.  I hitched Jag and Levi in wheel position first, then Song and Marcus in lead.  As soon as the leaders were hitched Jag started screaming and Levi joined barking.  This had Marcus eager to hurl himself into the harness and start the run every time the wind rustled a leaf.  I still had to hitch the newbies Poe and Ike in the middle.  This involved me wrestling with Ike who turned himself into a 40 pound circus poodle leaping and twirling and flipping.  Then Poe pulled out of his collar, and when that was tightened he wrapped himself around Ike somehow getting between Ike and Ike’s snappy new harness.  If it were not for me bellowing LIE DOWN trying to keep the older dogs in place during the antics it would have looked like an act in Cirque Du Soliel.  I heard a voice and looked up to see a mountain biker concerned for the welfare of me and the dogs.  How embarrassing, but he was very practical and helpful.  He tried to hold Ike but that was like trying to hold the Tasmanian devil at this point.  So he ran back and stood on the cart, which had the back wheels locked with the brake.  Then the dogs dragged the cart with the wheels locked, the man on the cart for weight, and the tire tied behind, all while I yelled LIE DOWN.  Not one of our finest moments.  Finally I had all the dogs pointed in the same direction.  I leaped on the cart and off we went. 

Things improved dramatically once we were off.  Though about a mile into the run Ike spotted someone on a blue Sacco cart rattling along down the trail chasing us.  He spent another half mile or so getting pulled by his neckline with his hackles up and barking trying to look back at the alien cart.  Either getting dragged sideways became tedious after a while, or he realized it was me on the cart.  He settled. 

Monday, October 12, 2015


I took the dogs for an early walk this morning at Old Chatham.  The colors were just beginning to emerge from the grey of dawn, morning mist lifting in wisps like woodland fairies.  As we walked the leaf strewn trail along the river the dogs caught scent of some wild thing recently crossed our path.  Dare, almost 14 with bad knees and ailing kidneys, was first to catch the trail of the unknown creature.  In that muffled and magical wood he shed the weight of the years like shaking water from his coat.  His back lifted, head up, he sprang through the woods over saplings and logs, turning straight up an almost vertical slope up to a hayfield a good 50 feet above.  Turning mid slope he bounded back down, following the trail.  He was not an old dog having a good time despite his frailties.  He was 5 again, in his prime, vibrant, powerful and so very alive. I called his name and he flew to my feet.  He met my gaze with eyes full of unencumbered delight.  Perhaps he was chasing a faun or unicorn.  Whatever beast left those traces of itself for Dare to find gave us both a few minutes of immortal joy.

Friday, October 2, 2015

Going the Distance

Spot sweeps up behind the stock at the top of the hill, 200 yards away from you.  Spot lifts nicely, a good top, please let him settle and bring the sheep straight.  Damn, too fast, start blowing stop whistles, “Lie Down, Lie Down, LIE DOWN”.  Did he slow down?  I think so, but we’re already down at the fetch panels and about to miss them, give him a flank.  He sort of took that flank, made the panels anyway, now closer I can get him to stop.  Whew.  Wow did we get a wild draw.  These girls won’t settle.  Spot is listening now, but pretty wired since the sheep are so wild.  Could we have caused this?  Spot does not listen well at a distance.  He never has no matter how much I yell.  Naughty dog knows when I’m close enough to enforce my commands. 

First let’s discuss some key concepts. 

Consistency -  In order for corrections to work they must be consistent.  Not harsh, consistent.  Consistent enforcement teaches dogs the requirements.  Occasional harsh corrections will not teach the dog but they will make him tense.

Latency – Commands mean to perform an action now.  Not in five steps, five seconds, at whatever Zen moment the dog feels in balance.  Avoid the string of reasons why the dog was justified in delaying.  You are in charge and you have the plan.  You don’t need to micromanage the dog with an endless string of commands, but you do need to have the dog take commands when given.  This is about clarity.  “Lie Down” means stop, now.   Very clear and easy for both the dog and handler to understand.  If you just need your dog to steady up then don’t use a stop. 

Priority – When you are about to miss a panel on an otherwise good run at a big trial that moment may be more important than the future.  When you are trying to catch an injured lamb that moment may be more important than the future.  Most of the time a particular moment is not critical.  Pay attention to the dog’s work and if he does not take a command promptly then enforce it promptly.

Trust – you will be amazed at how much your working relationship with your dog improves when you can trust that he will take your commands.  When you can be sure of a stop or flank when and where you need one then you will be able to relax and do your job, allowing the dog to relax and do his job.   

Clearly there is no point working on getting your dog to listen at a distance if he is not listening up close.  Listening up close means that when you give a command in a controlled situation the dog complies immediately, one command.  Pay attention to your dog and to yourself.  Are you letting commands slide because you don’t want to interrupt the flow of the work?  If so, then you need to start enforcing those commands every time.  If the dog stops well then stop the dog and walk to a position where you can make sure the dog does as asked, for example a clean flank.  If the dog does not stop well then walk into its face while giving a gruff correction appropriate to the dog and situation.  Keep walking as you train so as to keep yourself in a position to enforce commands with your body as well as your mouth.   

The difference to the dog on listening at a distance is whether the handler continues to enforce the commands as the dog is further and further away.  Most dogs learn to listen well at a distance with minimal work if they’ve always been expected to listen and that rule is maintained as the distances increase.  If your dog’s early experiences with longer gathers demonstrate that you will be walking up and making sure he stops at the top then he’s not going to change his behavior from that nice stop you trained close.  If you fasten yourself to the ground and start yelling, well the old saying is “the louder the handler the deafer the dog.”  All that yelling just increases adrenaline.  The dog tenses, worries, but you’ve never walked up close enough to enforce the command so the actual meaning is lost. 

Once your dog is working crisply on command up close start increasing the distances.  It is important that you do not grow roots when you start sending the dog further.  When driving, walk alongside, maybe 10 yards away, maybe 100, but keep moving with the dog so you are in a position to enforce commands that are not taken.  When you are working on a gather be ready to start up the middle as soon as you send the dog.  No running, just stroll up the middle so you will be closer at the top.  If the dog is still not stopping keep walking, maybe jog, maybe think if it was too far, but keep heading into the dog until it stops.  The moment the dog stops, back off and get him back to work.  This is not the time for a handler tantrum.  The dog needs to see that stopping is the best way to keep the work going. 

Here is the most important thing….the big secret…you have to chew this article up and eat it after you read this. 

Do not give your dog another command until the dog has stopped, really stopped. 

When you first start training a pup, what do you do when it has stopped nicely?  You give him a flank, or a walkup, you give him his sheep.  Why?  Because you are rewarding him for that nice stop.  If he does not stop you block him and enforce the stop, then give him that next command.  You are training a dog for its entire life.  If you give your dog a flank, or steady, or walkup when it has just run through one or more stop whistles what are you teaching him?  You are teaching him that you want him to just keep coming when you make all that noise. 

Watch handlers blow stop whistles and holler stops at their dogs while the dogs continue on happily, maybe slow down, but never really comply.   Then the sheep start leaning to one side or the other and the handler gives a flank.  Your little apoplectic tirade is not all that compelling at 300 yards, particularly when you have carefully trained the dog to wait for the flank.  Spot is not blowing you off.  He is working to the rules you have trained.  You react to a dozen missed stops by whistling and yelling far away, and whistling and yelling far away becomes like the cars passing on the road, background noise.  Then, maybe, the handler will run up the field, driving Spot back up the field, berating him.  Now let’s look at that from Spot’s point of view.  For every time you go dashing up the field in a great display of dominance you allow 10-100 missed stops go by.  How is Spot to know exactly what has caused you to become so angry.  You always yell and fuss on the fetch, but that’s just the usual noise of work. 

So the “naughty dog” does not know when you are close enough to enforce your commands.  You are always close enough.  After a few trips up the field you won’t have to walk far.  Some handlers complain that they have trouble walking that far.  You don’t often need to make the trip if you establish the pattern of doing so.  Indeed I think the handlers that are reluctant to walk to their dog end up walking further as they are constantly trying to patch up the dog’s training.  It is easier to maintain a well trained dog than a dog who has been taught that your distant noises mean you want him to take over until the action is closer to you.

Thursday, September 17, 2015

Thou shalt NOT SPIT!

I had to move sheep tonight, including the new llama.  Buckley is a tall white creature who would be elegant if he did not react to any intrusion on his world by screaming and spitting.  Since our first few interactions have shown that he loathes the halter but does not mind the trailer I decided to just herd him into the trailer on the last load with a few sheep and the other llama.  It started out rather well.  He was willing to run down towards the trailer to join the last of his pasture mates.  Then he changed his mind.  I started moving to block his escapes and push him back down towards the trailer.  He started grunting and groaning.  I held my ground.  He started screaming.  Between screams you heard the telltale gurgling as he prepared  vile mouthfuls of rumen contents as ammunition.  He’d come towards me screaming and gurgling, whipping his tall white neck back like a dragon ready to blast me with flames.  He waited carefully to spit till he was within range.  I went right back at him, arms raised out to the sides with a buggy whip in one hand.  It was like a battle in some medieval fantasy “Maria Slays the Dragon”.  He got louder and faster and more aggressive.  I kept meeting him half way, arms out and up, moving fast into his space and using the whip every time he pushed into me or tried to spit.  In all this he noticed that when he backed off the pressure so did I.  He got quieter, the screaming stopped, the gurgling stopped, and I was able to slowly work him down and into the trailer.

Autumn Dreams

The trees around the pond are beginning to turn, green softening with just a few precocious leaves donning a full autumn red.  The sun is still hot, but at a much lower angle.  As I walk to the gate to take the dogs out swimming my thoughts are turning to the dog sled.  The group I’m swimming will be the dogs on my team this year.  They are crazy, completely nuts.  They bark and scream with frustration when they can’t power themselves through the water fast enough.  They slice and angle and compete with one another as we round the little island.  I sit comfortably in my kayak and watch this mayhem against the red leaves reflected in the water.  Sometimes I imagine the force of these dogs when I first pull the release on the sled.  I remember I’ll be standing on a conveyance powered by seven gloriously athletic and exuberant dogs, celebrating the stretch of their legs with no concept of my sometimes dicey ride behind them.  I remind myself that I have brakes, lots of them.  There’s a drag mat brake, a bar brake, a snow hook.  I think my first run will be on a familiar rail trail, a longish drive, but well tended and quite straight, lovely and safe. 

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

The Dog Who Flanked too Wide

A Parable

Once upon a time, in a land far away, there lived a novice sheepdog handler and her first Border Collie.  The Dog took care of the sheep at home, and managed well at trials, quickly progressing to Open.  The Dog was fleet and strong, hard-working and wise with his stock.  The Dog was a good partner, listening to commands and doing the job that was asked.  The Dog was happy.  The Handler was happy.  All was good. 

Yet all is never truly perfect in the world.  When given a flank command the Dog sometimes ran too wide in his arc.  The Handler asked online how to bring the Dog closer, sure that more experienced hands would share their wisdom.  Quickly a sage came forward with some training exercises to help the dog learn to stay closer to the stock when flanking.  Then a Troll joined the conversation.  The Troll explained how flanking too wide was a sign the dog was weak.  The Troll quoted a famous trainer as one of his justifications for his pronouncement that the dog was weak.  The Troll declared that the Handler should put the Dog aside and work with a dog of more power and quality.  And then Kind People took pity on the handler and berated the Troll while telling the Handler that she could still be successful with a weak dog, but to be sure not to breed the Dog and perpetuate his weakness.  And the Troll defended his position, with another troll or two as reinforcement.  And the Kind People continued to wring their hands and tell the trolls to be nice and assure the Handler that she could get by with this poor weak dog.  The Handler assured the electronic masses that she fully intended to keep the Dog and keep working it.  The Handler asked that the conversation return to ideas to help keep the Dog closer on his flanks rather than debating the overall quality of the Dog.  The request brought another training idea or two from people trying to be helpful.

Like all storms, the roaring wind of words eventually ceased, and all was forgotten.  The Handler took the idea first given and tried it.  It was very helpful not only in keeping the Dog closer, but in helping the Handler understand the dynamic between dog/sheep/person.  The Dog was happy.  The Handler was happy.  All was good.

The Dog went on to be very successful despite some clumsy handling.  The Dog went to the National Finals, getting to the semifinal round.  The Dog was successful at a variety of trials on a variety of stock, though never that good on very light sheep.  The Dog was bred and offspring were solid dogs.  The Dog took the handler from Novice Novice, to Open, to the National Finals, to the World Trial.  The Dog was happy.  The Handler was happy.  All was good.

Saturday, August 15, 2015

Summer Symphony

A storm came in while I checked the lambs.

The western sky filled with great gray clouds,

tall and dense.

A lone bee buzzed his industrious tune against the distant thunder,

One last load.

The ridge was still bright and hot as I walked down towards the lambs,

towards the storm.

Sun shone through the gaps, outlined the sculpture of the clouds.

No carved and painted ceiling comes close.


I sent my dog to gather, silent she vanished over the wall into the brush,

Nothing but the flies and thunder and heat.

I wait then hear the cadence of the flock coming, bleats from stragglers,

past the wall.

They are fine, vibrant, annoyed at the interruption.

We let them go.

My dog and I walk back up the ridge, storm behind and heat before us.

I hear the rain.

The drops advance behind me like a tiny running army,

thousands of footsteps swarming up the hill

I reach the top as the first drops find me,

cooling the air and my skin.

© Maria Amodei 2015

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

On Your Mark, GO!

I took the dogs swimming today.  I have not been swimming Chord while she was busy with motherhood.  Rather nice not having her along since she’s my wildest swimmer.  While Chord was off the swim team I added in young Ike, Poe and Etta.  The energy on the shore while I'm strapping on life vests then opening the gate is unbearable on a good day.  Today I added Chord back in, another voice against reason.  I was swatting various barking dogs with spare life vests.  Then came the worst part, turning my back to the water crazed horde to open the gate.  Of course the chain was stuck.  At this point some dogs were screaming like air raid sirens and some were simply barking like fools.  Unable to bear the din I ended up breaking a big leafy branch off a bush to use as a weapon.  It was complete with some sort of little fruits that went everywhere when it made contact.  I thwacked a couple more dogs and pummeled the ground by my kayak, filling the boat with little hard fruits.  I finally managed to get the gate unlatched while the dogs were kept to a low whimpering and yapping. 

They are still bad at the end 20 minutes later, with some dogs willing to come out to be disrobed, but then plunge back in practicing their dock dog leaps.  It takes constant reminding to get them back to shore again.  Last time Poe thought perhaps the recall was optional.  He was somewhat shocked to learn I will dive in that skanky pond to get a teenage pup who misunderstands the requirements of life.  He was even more shocked to learn that I can out swim him even wearing jeans and a T shirt.  All those years of swim team are coming in useful.

They are just as bad when hitching up to the dog sled.  At least when going swimming I'm not trusting them with my life.

People sometimes comment how well behaved my dogs are.  I don’t mention the canine riots that occur on a regular basis.

Sunday, June 21, 2015

The Bigotry Bell Curve

The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.  Edmund Burke

This past Thanksgiving I was thankful that I am white. The holiday that has always meant caring, gratitude and celebration of life was stained by bigotry. I sat at a Thanksgiving table and heard racist comments about the conflict in Ferguson. I was taken aback, as much by the fact that no other people at the table spoke up as by the comments themselves. I chose to politely discuss aspects of the events in Ferguson that conflicted with the statements still hanging over the table like acrid smoke. I was able to close the conversation, but not before my holiday celebration was poisoned. Perhaps I should have immediately called out the comments as what they were, racist. I’ve been fortunate that I’ve not had to consider how best to respond to comments like this before.
I came home from Thanksgiving dinner and opened Facebook. Almost immediately I saw a comment from an acquaintance about the shooting of the 12 year old black boy carrying a realistic toy gun in Cleveland. The comment was that any kid who was brandishing a lifelike toy gun with the police around was “too stupid to live”. As horrifying as the comment from the original poster was, I was more upset by the number of my friends who “liked” this comment. At this point the video was out showing the boy being shot within moments of the police arriving. The audio of the 911 call was out with the caller saying they thought it might be a toy gun. At best, this was a situation that the police did not handle well. If this had been a neighbor’s kid or any other white kid in a nice neighborhood who did something dumb one afternoon, I am sure people would have found some more sympathy for the family and questioned how the police handled the event.
These events brought home the degree to which bigotry is creeping into mainstream life, even in the communities I am part of, communities that have not allowed open racism before. The comments from people I know hit me harder than the actual social tragedies that they were discussing. I began to recognize the shift in what is acceptable social behavior. As bigotry becomes acceptable I feel its cold touch in my life. The bigotry bell curve is sliding in the wrong direction.
I mulled over this phenomenon, this recognizable bigotry not just in the news, but in people I speak to. I was meaning to write this piece this winter, but set it aside. Then a racist killed nine black people in Charleston. As if to rub salt in the gaping wound, multiple public figures refused to accept this as the hate crime it so clearly is. A white man with a history of supporting white supremacy walks into a black church and murders nine black people at a prayer meeting. These basic facts were available the next morning, yet the apologists continued to search for more politically acceptable alternatives. Refusing to recognize this tragedy as murder motivated by racism is to wrap acceptance of bigotry in colored paper and bows and hand it to racists.

History is replete with examples of horrific behavior from bull baiting to slavery to hurling Christians to the lions. In each case these “traditions” were validated with acceptance by the people of the time. Blessed with general acceptance individuals were spared the difficulty of evaluating their behavior against their conscience. By and large we go with the social norms that we grow up with. Few people stand against evil that has woven itself into general social practice, and often those few are ridiculed. We seldom think deeply about established social practices, quick to latch onto reasoning that supports our continued acceptance, whether passive or active.
The bigotry bell curve is sliding towards more racism, more hate, less tolerance. It is becoming more acceptable to make comments that imply an insult to people of other colors, faiths or sexual orientation. As these comments accumulate it becomes more acceptable to make obvious disrespectful statements. As these disrespectful statements accumulate it becomes easier to justify disrespectful behavior, laws and actions that discriminate against people who are not part of our comfortable social family. We control the social norm on bigotry in our daily lives. As the norm allows more and more subtle racism, the extreme end of the curve allows more and more violent racism.

We all define what behavior is socially acceptable. From the most depraved killer to those who dedicate their lives to helping others, we each have a hold of the social scales and help pull the norm towards our own behavior. Each and every one of us is responsible for racism. That means you. We each have a responsibility to recognize bigotry. You don’t need to use a blatant word like “nigger” to wield a racial slur. Indeed the deliberate use of the words “them” and “they” can be just as powerful. We each have a responsibility to recognize bigotry not only in strangers, but in ourselves, our family, and our friends. We need to set an example of tolerance and respect for people of all races, faiths, and sexual orientation. We must speak up when we see or hear behavior that is disrespectful. We must step out of our comfort zone and dare to be the few that will likely be ridiculed. We won’t solve this problem by being Facebook warriors, decrying the actions of the shooter from afar. We will solve this problem by each of us grasping the social scales and pulling them towards tolerance and mutual respect. We will solve this problem by our example, by our respect for others, by recognizing bigoted behavior and identifying it as such. Maybe we even lose a friend no matter how hard we try to make our position known in a reasonable way. Maybe we save someone’s dignity, someone’s life. When we choose to lead with our conscience regardless of social habits or niceties, when we deliberately take responsibility for the social norms around racism, we will pull away the fabric of acceptance that breeds and rationalizes bigotry and hate.

Thursday, April 30, 2015

The Bequest

We dress in the fabric of the people around us
Checkered prints of smiles and humor, caring
Gifts, not heavy, yet hard to hold
Then they are gone, the absence surreal

Denied our eyes, our ears,
We reach through memory
For a familiar laugh, smile, or touch
Like grasping for mist that cannot be held

The evening breeze, cool, shifting shape
Touches us as if someone is there
Yet a glance yields only gray quiet
We cannot touch, but still know

No estate to bequeath, just a smile,
Never mine, never yours,
Make a place for it, as if coaxing a bird to sit on your palm
That it will not dissipate like morning fog
Make a place for it, as they made a place
So it will stay

© Maria Amodei 2015

Wednesday, March 11, 2015


Scent is such a powerful sense, able to immerse our minds and emotions completely into the world around us. Whether it be the summer rose, wet autumn leaves, wood smoke telling of warmth on a cold winter day, or the olfactory crescendo of three months of cryogenically preserved urine and manure released as the true harbinger of spring.

Thursday, March 5, 2015

Not so Fast

Ike got to run in the team today.  He was pretty good, distraction level age appropriate for a 9 month old. "Ooh, what's that!" 

The conditions were very fast, snow well packed and a bit slick under the runners though the dogs clearly had good traction.  I did a short run, which should have been simple as well.  Should have been.  There's one sharp left from an uphill section, with the trail immediately dropping fast from the turn, perfect recipe for the sled to get pulled into the turn too soon, cutting the trail and hitting the tree.  All turns have trees on the inside of the corner.  You notice these things when driving a dog sled.  You begin to have a personal relationship with the trees, assigning them personalities, and malice.  They want you. 

As usual the corner was too tight so I stopped the dogs to pull the sled out wider.  I noticed Ike had his tug line under his hind legs so I took a moment to fix his line, and another moment to get Jag back on the left as he’d crossed the gang line avoiding the tree himself.  I walked back toward the sled and someone bolted, so they all bolted.  I bellowed a LIE DOWN that could be heard in two counties.  Now going down a steep hill the sled ran into the wheel dogs.  I quickly pulled the sled back, set the hook, and put Levi (wheel dog) back in his collar which he’d slipped evading the renegade sled.  We were perched at the top of a steep and winding downhill trail.  Usually a very fun section to run, but I had 6 dogs on fast trail and the delays were percolating their little brains like a pressure cooker.  Today was looking like my day to die.   

The next quarter mile was brutal.  I’m still hoarse.  Every time I subtly indicated they could resume travel they hurled themselves forward in a run for the roses.  The turns were one on top of the other, always with that patient tree on the inside, waiting for you like a spider with a baseball bat.  I could not just ride the brakes as the more tension on the gang line the more tightly the sled is drawn into the turn.  You have to let it slide a bit to get yourself forward past the vertex before the dogs pull you around.  We ended up stopping some 50 times, bolt stop bolt stop, sometimes I only let them go 5 feet.  My poor wheel dogs, closer to the emotional volcano, were trying hard to moderate themselves.  Finally both slipped their collars rather than be dragged forward while I was commanding them otherwise.  I’m pretty sure the major sources of my stuck throttle were Chord in lead, oblivious Ike in the next pair, and Marcus in lead, in that order.   

Finally the trail leveled and straightened a bit so I could let them run.  Free to go they settled nicely though we finished the short run at quite a good clip.  All in all it was a wonderful run, with a brief, jumbled and miserable section in the middle.  If I run that trail with 6 dogs again on fast conditions I’m going the other direction so we go uphill through those turns!