Oh no, I just erased (as spam) two lovely comments…. SO sorry! If your comment isn’t here, please send again. Running off to dinner with IFAAB group, will report on day’s talks soon…
Welcome to an ongoing inquiry about the behavior of people and dogs. I would like this to be a forum for people who are both intellectually and emotionally fascinated by the behavior of the animals at both ends of the leash. My hope is that it will become a place for an informed and thoughtful consideration of the amazing relationship between people and dogs—my two favorite species.
Oh no, I just erased (as spam) two lovely comments…. SO sorry! If your comment isn’t here, please send again. Running off to dinner with IFAAB group, will report on day’s talks soon…
I’m between speaking at Midwest Vet Med Conference in Ohio and speaking at the Interdisciplinary Forum on Applied Animal Behavior in Tucson. I only had time to fly in and out at the Vet Conference, wish I would have had more time to go to some of the other behavior talks. Happily, in Tucson I get two full days of listening to others, with only an hour to speak on my own. I can’t wait… I’ll fill you as I can. There are talks scheduled on genetics and behavior, the use of aversives in training, operant treatment of aggression, predicting separation anxiety in shelter dogs, screaming in parrots and urine marking n the domestic dog. And that’s not the full list. I am more than ready to get a break from the cold, looking forward to the intellectual stimulation, not to mention some great southwestern Mexican food and a marghuerita or two.
In Ohio I did enjoy connecting with Dr. Randall Lockwood of ASPCA and speaking with him about dog fighting. Randy, along Dr. with Stephen Zawistowski, headed up the evaluations on the Michael Vick dogs (and recommended that 47 of them NOT be euthanized and helped place them in suitable homes). I give Randy and Steve a lot of credit–they are 100% committed in their opposition to dog fighting, but are able to stay objective enough to work within the culture to gather information. I’ve heard Randy talk before about how the culture and perception of dog fighting has changed. Earlier in this country it was not only legal, it was socially acceptable, at least in some circles. Dr. Lockwood has a presentation (see it if you can, he’s a class act all around) on “dangerous dogs” and dog fighting that includes a photograph of a group of policemen, in full uniform, posing proudly for the camera with their fighting pits. (If I remember correctly, the dogs are markedly smaller than the fighting dogs of today.)
In the early days of dog fighting in this country, most fighting dogs were considered investments. They were carefully bred (primarily for stamina and gameness… apparently fights were more like boxing matches , with stamina and strategy playing important roles) and if they weren’t talented, were summarily shot. Not a pretty picture I know… but a far cry from today, when most people who engage in dog fighting know little about breeding, favor dogs who attack fast and early with full force, and kill the less talented dogs in a variety of horrific and painful ways that I’d rather not describe.
Randy described two new groups of dog fighters–the first being the urban street fighters who became more and more popular over the last twenty years, mostly who had one or two dogs, who knew little about breeding or even the old-time culture of fighting. Then there’s the newest group that has showed up in the last five years or so: millionaire rap stars and athletes who can afford 50 or more dogs, who know absolutely nothing about breeding, training and have basically no boundaries on their behavior around the dogs. One of my favorite quotes from Randy’s work on the Vick case was from an associate involved in the breeding program: “Well, she was a lousy fighter, but she always had lots of puppies, so we bred her as much as we could.” Oh my.
Hey, the good news is that their ignorance about breeding resulted in a lot of dogs who ended up being saved, given that “being a lousy fighter” is a plus for most of us.
Meanwhile, here’s what you never want your oral surgeon to say after the procedure is over. “Well, that’s about as bad as it gets.” But it IS over and I’m healing and it’s 40 degrees and sunny outside and here’s a few photos of the flock, happy to hang out with me when Willie is in the house!
I just received a book from veterinarian Nancy Kay, titled Speaking for Spot: Be the Advocate Your Dog Needs to Live a Happy, Healthy, Longer Life. I haven’t read it yet, but it looks very interesting. Anyone read it? I find the whole issue of medical advocacy fascinating and compelling and terrifying when I’m in the midst of oh, deciding, for example, whether to have Luke’s foreleg amputated or have him undergo radiation therapy for his cancerous tumor. It’s such a good thing that so many of us are informing ourselves about medicine in so many ways, but it’s a double edged sword. Some days I yearn for the old days, in which life was simpler (tell me what should I do, Doctor?). I don’t think it was better (neither for health care professionals or for patients) but lordy it was simpler.
So I welcome Dr. Kay’s book… my own experiences with medicine (for many species, including our own) include working with physicians etc. who pretty much walk on water in my opinion, and others who, at best, motivate me to rip my hair out by the roots, and at worst, cause horrific harm. Let me know if you’ve read Dr. Kay’s book: I will soon (but it’s too heavy to take on the plane!).
I’m leaving in an hour to speak at the Midwest Veterinary Conference in Columbus, Ohio. I pretty much have to swoosh in and out, which is too bad because I’d love more time to attend other lectures and speak with some of the interesting people who will be there. But I have one of those ‘to do’ lists that is amusingly full, undo-ably full (okay, that’s not a word, sorry), so this time of year it just can’t happen. (One of the things I’ll be working on soon is my column for Bark Magazine about sex differences in training and performance of males and females. Thanks so much for your comments; more are still appreciated! I have to send the column in by next Thursday, when I leave town again…
Meanwhile, back at the farm, it’s cold again, was 7 degrees when I got up. Supposed to snow quite a bit tonight and tomorrow, but I’ll be long gone, in balmy Columbus. Yesterday a bird got trapped in the garage, flying desperately against a window on the opposite side of the garage from the door. Sushi and I saw it at the same time, and I was just able to grab her before she got the bird. I put her in the house and surrounded the fluttering thing with my cupped hands. I am not a good enough writer to describe how intense the feeling of that bird was…. the tiniest, lightest, softest thing imaginable, and yet, with an incredible intensity of life force. I felt like I was holding something for the gods in my hand. In that briefest of moments, with that tiny epheremal life in my hands, I felt transformed somehow, and it affected the entire day. The bird, buy the way, a plainly feathered little Junco, flew away without any visible sign of damage.
I hope you have some transforming moments in your day today too. It seems I find them in the what could be thought of as the smallest things…
I am behind on answering your comments, apologies. I’ll try to catch up on the road, but internet connections can be spotty in airports. On Monday I have oral surgery (not a big deal, at least not to the dentist, just a molar pulled) so don’t count on much early in the week. (Or, take what I write with a grain of salt!)
Here’s Will with a little stick…
I just finished reading a review copy of Karen Pryor’s new book, Reaching the Animal Mind (Scribner). I don’t know when it’s coming out, I’ll let you know as soon as I hear (but you can pre-order it on Amazon now). It’s an inspiring book, especially for those that haven’t yet used clicker training on any of their animals. I don’t use clickers for everything I have to admit, I tend to use them most for tricks, or any behavior that is not in a dog’s normal repertoire.
One of the interesting parts of her book is a report of research by Lindsay Wood that found clicker training significantly faster than a verbal marker at training new behaviors. This makes a lot of sense, given what we know about sound and the way it is received. I did my dissertation work on sound, and learned that sounds like clicks (broad band spikes, basically) are perfectly constructed to get a lot of response from acoustic receptor neurons. They are also unique, and so get more attention than any words we could produce.
I also loved reading about her early years at the Sea Life Park, thrown into the “deep end” as it were, as a last minute trainer for the planned marine mammal show that was starting in just a few months. Karen’s ability to combine the science of learning with real live problems, and her intuitive understanding of the importance of figuring out why an animal is, or is not, doing what is asked, is truly inspiring.
Meanwhile, I brought Willie and 4 sheep to campus yesterday for a sheep herding demonstration for my University class. Willie had never worked inside in a enclosed arena before, much less in a setting with 150+ people watching. I thought he’d be a bit nervous, and he was, even more so than I thought. What interested me most was that the sheep had no trouble percieving and responding to it. They wouldn’t move away from Will unless he was just a few feet away from them. Normally their flight distance from Will is about 15-20 feet, (flight distance varies tremendously depending on the dog and the sheep and the context), but in the arena Will had to be right behind them to get them to move.
Poor Will tongue flicked his way around the entire hour, but he didn’t make any huge mistakes, never lost his head and so I am still proud of him. The fact is, Will is simply not the perfect herding dog. The pro’s would call him weak, in that he doesn’t have the confidence and the power to intimidate stock, especially bold individuals who are willing to threaten him. The ideal herding dog takes complete charge over a herd, but without frightening them.. a tricky balance indeed. However, Willie tries hard and I can’t help love him for it. He’s biddable and he’s game and he tries so very hard, it’s just impossible not to love him for it. He helped load the sheep up for the demo, and even though the ram challenged him (and ran him backward 10 feet), Will came back and reasserted himself, and the ram turned and trotted up the ramp into the truck.
As I think about it, I realize that I myself have never been particularly brave, but I’ve tried not to let that stop me in whatever I do. I have, after all, spent over 20 years working with aggressive dogs. Could it be that part of why I love Willie so much is that I identify with him?
Who knows, but here’s part of why I love my two-legged guy, Jim, so much: The photos below is of just one of two gorgeous flower arrangements he brought me for Valentine’s Day (did I mention he also brought his home made heart-shaped sugar cookies, made from his grand mother’s recipe? Oh yeah, and then there’s the chocolate he brought… am I lucky or what?)
And here’s why colorful flowers are so welcome this time of year, although I do love the fresh snow on last year’s flower stalks:
I mentioned earlier that I gave a talk at the University of Wisconsin last Saturday during their celebration of Darwin Day (it was his 200th birthday on 2/12, the same day as Lincoln’s 200th birthday). My talk centered on one of his less well-known books, The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals. This book came out only a few months after the publication of The Descent of Man, and was designed to provide further support to his contention that humans evolved from common ancestors as other animals. He knew how profoundly controversial this would be (he delayed writing his first book, The Origin of Species, for twenty years, because he was so concerned about its reception.)
As we know, his concerns were well founded. The contention that humans are related to other animals was a profoundly distressing thought to many then, as it is now. That is partly why he spent so much time documenting and supporting his argument. The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals was designed as yet more evidence that there is a continuum between people and other animals. In my talk I updated his arguments, bringing in recent developments in neurobiology and psychology that cement our close relationship with other mammals. (See Jaak Panskepp’s Affective Neuroscience. This is NOT beach reading, but if you like science and are truly interested in the brain and behavior, it is a phenomenal piece of work.)
The speaker before me, Sean Carroll, gave a fantastic talk about the adventures of three men, Darwin, Wallace and Bates. Each of these men lived in the 1800′s (they all became friends actually) and spent at least four years away from home (Bates over ten years) describing and collecting animals and plants from what, to them, were foreign lands. Keep in mind that at that time much of the world was completely alien to Englishmen like the three above, and their work was a revelation to many. They collected tens of thousands of specimens, discovering literally thousands of animals new to the biologists of Europe and Great Britain. They suffered through unimaginable hardships (Wallace spent four dangerous and exhausting years traveling up the Amazon, only to have the boat returning he and his collections burn up and sink all his work with it to the bottom of the ocean. Wallace himself barely survived.)
Each of these men were careful and fastidious recorders of the location of each specimen, and it was the combination of their extensive collections and their attention to detail that allowed them, Wallace and Darwin independently, to suggest that species of butterflies, for example, that lived on side by side islands and resembled each other closely were derived from a common ancestor. Bates’ most compelling evidence for evolution by natural selection was the existence of many harmless butterfly species that mimic the coloration of poisonous or distasteful ones. Now called Batesian mimicry, these copy cat butterflies avoid predation by looking like the ones that taste bad, and are only found in the same area as the model, nasty tasting ones. This system of self preservation could only work if the butterflies that best mimic the models are eaten less than the others, eventually selecting for closer and closer matches.
All this is described far better than I can here in Carroll’s new book, Remarkable Creatures: Epic Adventures in the Search for the Origin of Species. I’ve only read the first section on Darwin, Wallace and Bates, but I can tell you that it reads like a novel. I got late this morning because I couldn’t put it down…
Meanwhile, the weather has settled into typical February highs and lows, day times in the low thirties, night times in the teens. Although there’s no charm in dirty patches of snow and frozen mud, at least one can get around without struggling through knee deep snow or sinking into cold mud. I’m hoping to get in some long walks with the dogs this weekend, especially since I’m working the next two (seminar in Columbus, Ohio, speaking at IFAAB in Tucson). It’ll be good for Lassie, the deep snow was too much for her to manage on our last long walk, so I had to turn around and take her back to the car.
Willie’s shoulder surgery is scheduled for March 26th, when I have no travel plans for the next several months. I am working hard to look at silver linings: not having to sound like a control freak when I train house sitters (“You can throw the frisbee for him five times, but not six. You can only throw it so he lands up hill, never down hill….”), all the tricks I”ll teach him when he can’t do anything but walk for 6 + weeks. (He probably has a damaged tendon, the one that connects his bicep to his shoulder blade.)
Here are some photos of the dogs: Lassie in her new bed, Willie before the snow melted. Any thoughts about \how much we can surmise about their internal states from their expressions?
Got late today, need to get to campus to lecture (on ethology of agricultural animals, love this topic; showing segments from an amazing video by Ginger Kathrens, Cloud: Wild Stallion of the Rockies–four years of phenomenal cinematography of a pale, white stallion born in the American Rockies through his maturity into a herd stallion). So much I want to write, will write soon about Darwin Day at UW last Saturday and a great new book on the adventures of Darwin, Wallace and Bates… will do tomorrow or Saturday.
Meanwhile, life is pretty, uh, biological at the farm. The twin lambs have sore mouth, a yucky disease that causes cold sore like lesions on their mouths. Once you get it in the flock it’s hard to get rid of, can’t vaccinate to prevent it, is catching and serious in humans. Willie’s shoulder, which has caused him problems all his life, needs surgery, my finger still is sore and painful (but much better!) and the farm is a mass of mud and ice and dirty snow (and did I mention dog poop?).
All this sounds like whiny complaining, but really I’m just trying to convey the reality of living on a farm with animals. It looks so pretty when the grass is green and healthy lambs gambol.. and then there’s the mud and the poop…. All the animal lovers out there understand, no matter where you live, I know! Here’s some photos though of good things:
Here’s the sun on the trees in the orchard pasture behind the farmhouse. Today I saw the main flock grazing up there out the kitchen window, first time since last fall.
White Dude and Sandy. The size difference increases every day, even though White Dude is only one week older. Sandy’s mouth is mostly healed, but now his mum has the sores on her udder.. that can be very serious because then the ewes will move away when the lambs nurse, resulting in starving lambs and possibly mastitis in the ewe. So I check her every day, and am thinking about getting more goat milk for Sandy. His sister is thriving, but he isn’t doing as well.
This bush nestles up against the living room window, and is feeding the deer right now. This is why so many people get upset when deer get overpopulated in suburban areas. I don’t care so much, but do care about deer causing ecological damage to other species. But, then, I’m getting so familiar with the mother and young who come every day…..
I just finished reading a lovely novel, The Hearts of Horses, by Molly Gloss. It’s about a young woman who strikes out to make her living “gentling” horses in 1917, when many of the men were off to war. She’s more comfortable around animals than she is around people (a current topic of postings on my Feb. 4th ’09 blog) and uses methods atypical of the time. Rather than “breaking” horses, Molly uses what people often now call “horse whisperer” techniques to teach horses to work with, rather than against, the people who ride them.
In spite of my lack of fondness for the title “horse whisperer,” I will never forget watching horse trainer Pat Parelli work an “uncatchable” horse in an arena in Madison, Wisconsin. The horse was so difficult to catch that the club who brought Parelli to Madison began to despair that they wouldn’t be able to get him out of the field and into a trailer to bring him to the seminar. When the horse was let out of the trailer into the arena, he pounded around the dirt oval, eyes white and nostrils flaring, always speeding up whenever Parelli got anywhere near him. And in 15 or 20 minutes he was following Parelli around like a puppy, his big equine head heavy on Pat’s shoulder, his eyes liquid and his face relaxed.
The reason I bring it up here is that one of Parelli’s (and of many others by the way) techniques was so similar to what I do with dogs that I was jumping up and down in my seat. Besides rewarding the horse for even just stopping and looking at him (by stopping himself), Parelli began later in the seminar to talk about what I call “space management.” Although his techniques have changed a bit since I saw him years ago, he illustrated the importance of gently and kindly “owning the space” (my words, not his) around your horse. He encouraged people to be mindful of not letting horses run over them and, once they had an established relationship with the horse, to move backward to get the horse to approach, and to move forward to ask the horse to back up. What I like best in general about this kind of work is that is focuses on understanding how an animal sees the world, and trying to translate what we want into signals that they can understand.
That’s how I see what I call “body blocks,” in which I teach a dog to ‘stay’ by at first reinforcing the shortest pause in their behavior with food, but also by using my body like a crossing guard to stop them if they start to get up before released. I describe it in much more detail in Family Friendly Dog Training, but the idea is simple: ask for the briefest of stays at first and reinforce them as they are staying by underhanding food all the way to their mouths. Gradually, oh so gradually ask for longer and longer pauses (start with 1/2 a second, then one second, then two….honest: start with ‘stays’ that short). If at any time the dog starts to get up, just lean forward to “take the space” and lean backward instantly when the dog responds. It’ll take some practice (practice on a person first, no kidding!) but once they get it people are amazed at how easy it can be to teach stay with a combination of reinforcement and a simple, ethologically relevant consequence.
I’ve talked about body blocks for many years now in many seminars, and one of the most gratifying moments in my career was when I started hearing people talk about ‘body blocks’ without mentioning my name. That meant they’ve become part of the lexicon, and boy does that feel good. The best times have been when seminar participants have come up, before I started the relevant demonstration, and told me that I should try using something they learned called “body blocks!” How sweet it is…
But I digress: all this is only because I was so struck this weekend reading The Hearts of Horses, about the difference between “breaking horses” (what a horrific phrase when you think about it) and “training” horses. I was reminded of growing up in the 50′s and 60′s in Arizona, riding as a young girl with crusty old cowboys who talked about ‘”gentling” horses, about trying to see the world from their perspective, and being their friend instead of their oppressors. Of course, they were the exception; more common was the attitude that you must “show them who is boss” and get them trained up in a matter of a few days no matter what it took.
The novel I just read isn’t going to teach you how to train a horse using these methods, but it is a lovely examination of a young woman’s coming of age at a very different time in our country’s history, and of the topic of the last post–being more comfortable around animals than people.
Meanwhile, it was over 40 degrees this weekend! Amazing, totally amazing. Willie and I worked the flock without lambs (he’s learning his right hand flank whistle) although the snow in the hill pasture was still over a foot deep; Jim and I wormed the sheep and I cooked like a maniac. I took braised spinach and carmelized tomatoes out of the freezer and scrambled them with eggs and English cheddar for breakfast. I cooked up broccoli, spinach and parsley for the dog’s greens, mixed them with pumpkin and steel cut oats and egg for Lassie and sardines for Willie. I put 8 servings of what Jenna calls Comfort Soup in the freezer: chicken and carrots and leeks and mushrooms, cooked w/ lots of red wine, balanced with dumplings sparked with rosemary and scallions. Yummm. Later on Sunday I marinated some lamb chops in the rest of the wine and ate them with fresh greens and wheat berries. So good. It seems that I am obsessed with food lately (the scales confirm this). Is it the weather? Do I have any excuse whatsoever? Doubtful.
Here’s a photo of my cat Sushi, who deserves a bit of attention herself for heaven’s sake, on one of her favorite perches: the top of the truck. (And yes, I worry a lot about her being hurt or driven away unintentionally by a visitor–she’ll walk into your car in a heart beat if I don’t watch her, so I attend obsessively to her whereabouts whenever anyone is driving up or driving away.) You’ll note that Sushi has concerns about looking straight into the eye of a lens!
There’s an interesting discussion going on, on-line, in my university course right now. One of the students asked why some people like non-human animals more than they do members of their own species. There are some extremely interesting comments posted to that question, especially about animals being ‘innocents’ rather than moral agents who can choose to be cruel.
The question, and other potential answers, reminded me of an essay I wrote in Dog is My Co-Pilot, titled “Love is Never Having to Say Anything at All.” In it I argue that one of the reasons we love dogs so much is that, well, because they can’t talk. As I write in the essay: “Words may be wonderful things, but they carry weight with them, and there’s a great lightness of being when they are discarded.” Of course, this appliesall to animals, not just dogs.
Surely there are many other reasons that so many of us are especially comfortable around animals, whether it is dogs or members of another species: so much research attests to the lack of social anxiety that is normal in human-human interactions being absent in the presence of another species (heart rate decreases in the presence of non-human animal, even fish; cortisol decreases while petting a dog (but may increase in the dog!) etc etc. But I’m curious–how many of you feel especially comfortable around animals compared to people? How many feel more comfortable around animals than around people, even friendly, familiar ones? And if so, why do YOU think that might be true?
Meanwhile, back at the farm, it was 9 below this morning, and windy. You’d think we’d all be used to the cold by now, but it felt especially difficult to me last night when I fed the lactating ewes for the last time around 9:30 pm. The cold requires a lot of energy from the sheep, even though they are masters at keeping themselves warm. Snickers and Truffles, the ewes with lambs, are starting to lose weight, no doubt in part because it takes so much energy for them to stay warm. But most ewes lose weight while they lactate: their lambs begin to put an incredible amount of nutritional pressure on them, so I’m giving the ewes ridiculous quantities of alfalfa hay along with supplemental corn, oats and a protein pellet. I wish they could be eating grass, but that’s a long way off. However, it’s supposed to go into the 40′s by Friday. I can’t imagine. Here’s what it looks like now:
And just for contrast, here’s another absurdly colorful and ridiculously structured orchid from the orchid show last weekend–I think I’ll look at this photo every day after reading bad news, yet again, about our economy. You have to admit, isn’t this just the most joyfully amazing thing?
On Tuesday I gave a lecture in my UW class about tool use and the cultural transmission of information in non-human animals. It’s one of my favorite lectures; it does my heart good to ponder so many interesting examples of our connections with other animals. The list of discoveries of animals using tools is ever growing; ever since Jane Goodall discovered chimps using modified twigs to catch termites, researchers have observed crows in Australia manufacturing hooked tools to pry insects out of bark, dolphins carefully placing sponges over their rostrums to protect their tissues while foraging, chimpanzees using two tools (hammer and anvil) to crack nuts… the list goes on and on. Here’s a truly great video of New Caledonian Crows figuring out how to combine a penchant for nuts and civilization (this is definitely worth the time!)
So… all this talk about animals using tools got me to thinking. Does anyone know of any credible examples of a dog or cat using tools? (Define tools as “objects external to the self that are used to accomplish a goal.”) I can think of a video I saw of a dog pulling a dog house several feet so that s/he could reach some food, but not much else. Any one else? Any examples of dogs or cats using tools?
Meanwhile, it was a wonderful weekend. Temps in the 30′s and sunny besides. Saturday we went to an orchid show and soaked in the displays of almost obscenely colorful flowers, as thirsty for color as a desert floor for water.
The lambs got to gamble in the sun too; here’s white dude posing for me:
And here’s a close up of my lovely Lassie girl, so soft (and wondering what the heck I am doing w/ that rude, black ‘eye’ so close to her face!