TheOtherEndoftheLeash Patricia McConnell, Ph.D., a Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist, has made a lifelong commitment to improving the relationship between people and animals. Fri, 27 Feb 2015 20:07:06 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Winter Through the Lens Mon, 23 Feb 2015 20:21:20 +0000 Just a few photos today. I’ve recently returned from San Antonio, celebrating my amazing sister Dr. Wendy Barker, at the Festschrift put on in her honor by her colleagues at the University of Texas, San Antonio. She is the real writer in the family, and I wish that each of you could have been there to listen to her read some of her poems. I don’t think anyone moved the entire time that she was reading her poems; the entire room was enthralled. Engrossed. Captivated. It was a highlight of my life to listen to her colleagues and students acknowledge her contributions to creative writing. Her book, Nothing Between Us: The Berkley Years, is beyond brilliant. Yes, I know, she’s my sister, but seriously, she’s really, really good. And how fun is this: My other sister, Liza, is writing her own memoir right now. My new book (also a memoir) is with my agent, and going out for review to some other readers before we put it out to the publishing world. (Please cross all paws for me.) I wish our father, who loved books and writing, could see his three daughters now.

Here’s from a walk that Willie, Maggie and Nellie and I just took. We are just thawing out; it’s all of 8 degrees right now–a far sight warmer than the 15 degrees below zero of this morning.

N W run down hill full 2-15

N W run down hill 2-15

nellie snow 2

nellie back leg snow

Stay warm!

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How Do Dogs Interpret Human Facial Expressions? Mon, 16 Feb 2015 21:04:31 +0000 What ever is a dog to make of a human smile? Or a frown for that matter? On the one hand, it seems to me to be trivial for a dog to distinguish between obviously different expressions on the face of a human. Dogs, after all, are highly visual and the preponderence of their social communication is based on visual signals. But here’s the question I’ve always wondered about: What signals from our faces are salient to dogs?

T W Smile smallMy experience has suggested that dogs are exceptionally good at noticing (and interpreting) the following, whether done by a person or another dog: a still body versus a relaxed one, a hard, direct stare versus a soft or indirect gaze, and a loose, relaxed, open-mouth face versus one that has a tightly closed mouth. These are, obviously, signals that appear to be highly salient in canine communication, and my impression is that they transfer from one species to another. However, what of the signals that we humans consciously focus on, like smiles and frowns? Do dogs pay as much attention to them as we do? If so, what aspects of those expressions are salient? Members of both species may be aware of the difference between a look of mild irritation versus extreme anger, but we might be cuing on different things. Could we be focusing on the position of one’s eyebrows while dogs are primarily focused on the stiffness of the head and neck?

We know that people all over the world both express emotions on their faces in similar ways and also interpret them in the same way, no matter what their culture, native country or language group. (See the work of Paul Ekman, who has done over 30 years of research on the universality of human facial expressions, and helped me with my book For the Love of the Dog when I was writing about that issue.)

But we don’t know that much yet about how dogs interpret them. I’ve thought about this issue for years, (see my blog of 2010 on a related study) and so was especially interested in a study making the rounds late last week in Current Biology. Titled “Dogs Can Discriminate Emotional Expressions of Human Faces,” the study by Müller et. al. asked not just if the dogs could discriminate between “happy” faces and “angry” faces, but also if they could generalize what they’d seen from one part of the face to the other.

 Here’s a summary of their study, taken from the study’s abstract:

“After learning to discriminate between happy and angry human faces in 15 picture pairs, whereby for one group only the upper halves of the faces were shown and for the other group only the lower halves of the faces were shown, dogs were tested with four types of probe trials: (1) the same half of the faces as in the training but of novel faces, (2) the other half of the faces used in training, (3) the other half of novel faces, and (4) the left half of the faces used in training. We found that dogs for which the happy faces were rewarded learned the discrimination more quickly than dogs for which the angry faces were rewarded. This would be predicted if the dogs recognized an angry face as an aversive stimulus. Furthermore, the dogs performed significantly above chance level in all four probe conditions and thus transferred the training contingency to novel stimuli that shared with the training set only the emotional expression as a distinguishing feature. We conclude that the dogs used their memories of real emotional human faces to accomplish the discrimination task.”

There’s lots of interesting information here, which makes the study far more interesting than one that just shows dogs can tell the difference between an angry face and a happy face.  Note that the dogs were initially only shown the lower or upper half of the face (from photos on a computer screen) and could 1) generalize its visual features to the face of another person and 2) could generalize from the upper half of the face to the lower half. This is especially important, because it implies that dogs were learning more than a simple visual cue, and matching the emotion expressed by the bottom half of the face (with a big smile for example) to the upper half of the face, with open eyes and relaxed eyebrows. Especially interesting was the result that dogs learned the discrimination more quickly if they were rewarded for cuing on the “happy” face. We have to be careful about interpreting that result, but the author’s suggestion that the dogs recognized the angry faces as aversive is reasonable.

The author’s conclude by asking whether the dog’s abilities shown in the study were based on the dog’s experience as individuals, on selection pressures over time to select for dogs able to better interpret the expressions of humans, whether this ability is simply hard wired into many species of mammals and dogs happen to be one of them. (I would add that all three could potentially  be occurring simultaneously.) I’m happy to say that the last few years have seen a flurry of studies related to visual communication between people and dogs. The research ranges from a study in Argentina by Jakovcevic et. al. that looked at whether breed affected how long dogs would look at their owner’s face without reinforcement (Retrievers did longer than Poodles or German shepherds), to one by Turcsán and colleagues at the Miklosi lab in Hungary, which found that if an owner had a happy expression while handling an object their dog was more likely to retrieve it.

Food for thought, yes? I anticipate that some will read this about this study and think “Well, what a waste of money! Of course we know that!” But actually, we don’t. I’d argue that this is exactly the kind of study we need to do, examining what we think might be true with what really is true. So kudos to Müller et. al. for doing this well-designed study. Can you see me smiling?

MEANWHILE, back on the farm: Brrrrrr. It’s really, really cold out here. (May I mention, however, that I’m grateful we haven’t had 6 feet of snow in a few weeks like New England? I’d love to hear from any of you slammed by snow. How are you doing?!) Saturday’s high here in Wisconsin was about 6 Farenheit at the farm, but the problem was the wind. It was strong enough that you just couldn’t stay warm, no matter how bundled up you were. At least, I couldn’t, so much of the day was spent inside. All the dogs are learning new tricks, including “Find and nose-touch a white square any where in the room” (Willie), “Roll over” (Maggie), “Spin on a verbal cue only” (Tootsie). Nothing especially creative, but still fun. I’d say after a few sessions that the only thing warm on the farm was the clicker, which always sees a lot of use from me when it’s crazy cold outside.

No wind today, so even though it’s cold you just need the right clothes to be comfortable outside. (You know that saying? There’s no bad weather, just bad clothes? I’m in agreement, except when it’s windy.) The BCs and I took a nice long walk in the woods just now, me armed with my camera and the lesson from my Contemplative  Photography class to see the world in a new way. Here’s what I came up with:

bark 2-2015

Oak leaves 2-2015

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A Valentine to Our Dogs Mon, 09 Feb 2015 17:12:24 +0000 I know, it’s mushy, but I don’t care. Here is a Valentine to each of my dogs, followed, I hope, by lots and lots from you to your own dogs. Every morning, I will read them while drinking my tea. Tootsie and Maggie will be cuddled with me on the couch and Willie will warm my feet. I will read your Valentines and smile and laugh and get soggy eyes more often than I want to admit.

(I write more about love and dogs in The Other End of the Leash and For the Love of A Dog, but here are my Valentines to the dogs I have now:)


willnose09 Willie, with thanks to Elizabeth Barret Browning:

How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.
I love thee to the depth and breadth and height
My soul can reach, except when you slam into me on your way to the barn. I love thee to the level of everyday’s Most quiet need, except when you won’t stop dropping a toy in my lap when I’m tired in the evening. But ah, Willie, my joyful, fearful Willie, my Silly Billy Willie Boy, I do not know how I could love you more.


To Tootsie, with thanks to George (Lord) Byron: Tootsie hot 10-8

She walks in Beauty, like the night…; And all that’s best of the food in the refrigerator elicits sweet moans of desire from her. Her thoughts are never serenely expressed, but pure, how dear their dwelling-place. And on that cheek, so soft, so calm, yet eloquent, I stroke her soft fur as she lies on my chest every evening. You, who soothe the souls of distressed children and exhausted parents with every visit to the children’s hospital. My Tootie-Toot, a heart whose love is innocent, that is my Tootsie, my tiny, whiny, sleepy, docile, car-ride-loving Tootsie roll. I am so lucky that you are in my life.



Maggie on lap To Maggie, with thanks to William Shakespeare:

Haply I think on thee—and then my state,
Like to the lark at break of day arising
From sullen earth, sings hymns at heaven’s gate;
For thy sweet love rememb’red such wealth brings
That then I scorn to remember how you ate the chocolate frosting off the New Year’s Day cake I made, and how you are still learning to stay off of the counters and that Tootsie doesn’t want to play no matter how many times she cowers when you paw at her and that you are not as comfortable meeting dogs  as I wish you were. But ah then, you leap beside me onto the couch and swivel your hips and bend your back so that you melt against me, belly soft and open, forelegs cocked and turn your head to look at me with soft, glowing eyes, and I remember again how good you are with Willie and at working the sheep and I go all gooey inside and thank the world that you, my Maggie, my Maglet, my Maglite, are my dog, and my heart sings because of it.


MEANWHILE, back on the farm: Yesterday friend Kim came over with her young Tibetan Terrier, Finch, who played beautifully with Willie and Maggie and is perhaps the most photogenic dog I’ve seen in ages. Thanks Kim and Finch, what fun!

Finch Forward 1 2015


On Sunday, Jim did his magic in the kitchen and made his famous “Christmas Cookies” for Valentine’s Day. Here are some for you, with love from us both. May your week be full of love. And cookies.

Valentine Cookies 2015




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Placebos and Dogs: Really? (Yes!) Mon, 02 Feb 2015 20:22:01 +0000 I’ve always been fascinated by placebos and I never understood why the phrase “the placebo effect” was often spoken with such disdain. Here is a standard definition (from Wikipedia): “A placebo is a simulated or otherwise medically ineffectual treatment for a disease or other medical condition intended to deceive the recipient.” Except, it’s not necessarily ineffectual, right? That’s the point, if you think about it: We know that you can be helped just by the belief that something can help you, and that factor must be eliminating when testing new medications or treatments. Yes, the placebo effect can be a confounding factor when trying to discern if a particular treatment or medication is worthwhile, but isn’t it even more remarkable that belief itself can be therapeutic?

Study after study has shown that the mind-body connection is alive and well, illustrated by this experiment which found that a placebo was more effective at alleviating symptoms of Parkinson’s when patients were told they were being given a “more expensive” drug than the previous one they had been taking.

We are starting to understand more about the mechanisms of placebos: That they can create measurable changes in brain function and physiology based either on classical conditioning and/or what’s called the “expectancy effect,” both of which might be “in your head,” but only because your brain has changed its physiology and function in real and quantifiable ways. There’s tons of information out there on the placebo effect, but here’s a review article I thought was balanced and interesting. There are also a multitude of books written about the placebo effect; I’d love to hear if any readers have read them.)

But placebos and dogs? Ha! Surely no dog leaves the vet’s office in the belief that the hard, lump thing slid down her throat is going to make her better. But a recent study from Hungary (see abstract here) found that dogs do respond to what is sometimes called “contextual healing” and the type of placebo effect based on classical conditioning (more on that soon). In summary, dogs were briefly left alone in an unfamiliar room, and at one point, a stranger entered and spent a few minutes with the dog. The dog’s behavior, especially distress-related behavior at the doorways after the owner left, was first recorded to establish a baseline. Then some dogs were given a sedative 30 minutes before entering the room, while the control group were given a vitamin. Once the sedative took effect, the same order of “owner leaves, stranger enters” occurred. This procedure was repeated a third time, but in this trial, no dogs were given a sedative, and all dogs were given the vitamin. As expected, the dogs receiving a sedative were less distressed when their owners left (at least, their distress-related behavior decreased: We should all note that those aren’t necessarily the same things, right?).

The interesting result of the study is that the dogs who were sedated with a sedative were equally quiet when given the vitamin pill the next go round. That effect doesn’t appear to be one of habituation, because the control group, the dogs given only vitamins both times, showed more distressed behavior the third time around, not less. In other words, once the dog’s brain and body had learned to associate feeling (or behaving?) more relaxed after being given a pill that calmed them, the dogs had the same response to any pill given in the same context, even though it was a simple vitamin, not a sedative. This result could be taken as evidence of classical conditioning (UCS = a sedative, CS = being given a pill) and contextual healing (“any pill works in this room in this context”).

I’ve skimmed over some of the details of the study for the sake of brevity, but here it is if you have access to it: “Conditioned placebo effect in dogs decreases separation related behaviours.” Sümegi, Gácsi, Topál, Applied Animal Behaviour Science 159 (2014), 90-98.

Of course, the question is, what does this mean for our dogs? I’m not sure that anyone has a definitive answer to this question, any more than we do in human medicine. But at least, it means that details matter. Here is a direct quote from the article itself about possible applications:

“Severe cases of separation anxiety often require the use of medications in addition to a behaviour modification programme. Once the desired effect is achieved, the dose of the medicine may be gradually reduced and finally merely the procedure can maintain the effect. However, so far the administration method of the medicine has not been considered as important. Our results suggest that applying a specific regimen, that is, administrating the medicine always with the same environmental cues, for example with the same specific food type and with a set ritual, the real medicine can later be effectively replaced by placebo. As the anxiety relieving effect of placebo conditioning in dogs is of great applied importance, more research is needed to get a better perspective on the most efficient aspects of the treatment and the situational context that contributes to the manifestation of the placebo effect.”

Interesting stuff, yes? And of course, what effect might our beliefs about a medication have on our dogs? I find it hard to imagine that, at least sometimes, in some contexts, our own expectations have an effect on our dogs too. What do you think?

MEANWHILE, back on the farm: It was ten below this morning when we woke up, after 24 hours of snow and wind. There are many downsides to our recent blast of winter weather: The snow is now too deep to work the dogs on sheep (darn!) and ten below is just too cold for me to enjoy being outside. But there is a part of me that smiles when I look out the window at the white all around me. In spite of all the problems it brings, snow is just fun. Most dogs seem to think so too: Check out the blog that Julie Hecht wrote asking why dogs seem to love new snow so much.

Here are some photos I just took in celebration of snow. These red and blue “stakes” are the legs of an upside table. Who’d know under all the snow?

table legs barn 2-2015


These rounds are from some Poplar trees we had taken down because they were leaning over the barn. Better to take them down on purpose than to wait for them to crash onto the barn or fence. They are nowhere near as large as they look in this photo! I rather liked Spot, Freckles and Cupcake observing in the background.

logs sheep 1-2015


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New Directions in Canine Behavior: Open Access til Feb 6, 2015 Mon, 26 Jan 2015 18:37:14 +0000 One of the challenges for those interested in dog behavior is keeping up with current research. Access to journal articles can require prohibitively expensive subscriptions or membership in a research institution with an extensive library system. That’s why open access journals, like Plos One are so valuable, and why I’m grateful to Monique Udell, the editor of a special issue of Behavioural Processes, New Directions in Canine Behavior, (Vol 110, Pages 1-132.) for providing open access to the issue until February 6th, 2015.

By clicking on the link above, you can read articles as varied J. Hecht’s and E. Spice Rice’s discussion on the benefits and challenges of citizen science as it relates to canine behavior, to what personality dimensions “puppy tests” actually measure, to whether rolling over in play is “defensive” or “offensive.”

This is a treasure trove of information, with free access to all seventeen articles in the entire issue until February 6th of this year. If you are like me, and don’t have time to read them all on line between now and February 6th, you can print out the pdf and read it when you can get around to it. One article that I have read already is Hecht and Spice Rice’s article on citizen science, which is an important contribution to the field, given the popularity of some popular products labeled as citizen science. It is true that citizen science presents great opportunities, but it is also rife with potential pit falls, and the authors do an excellent job distinguishing between the two.

The article by Norman et. al. about rolling over in play is also worth your attention. They argue that rolling over allows a dog to either avoid a bite to the neck, or puts it in a position to play bite the other dog’s neck. On some occasions a roll over was used as a play solicitation gesture, but never did they see any evidence that rolling onto the back was a sign of “submission,” as is often claimed. There is so much more: an article by Berns about an fMRI study of “canine brain responses to unfamiliar human and dog,self regulatory depletion behavior in dogs and what can turn it around by Miller et. al. and lots more great stuff to read and ponder.

I hope you get a chance to look at the articles. I’d love to hear which ones are of most interest to you. I’ll never get to all of them before Feb 6th, but my printer will be very busy between now and then.

MEANWHILE, back on the farm: A wonderful weekend of fun with dogs and food. I went on a cooking jag and spent hours happily chopping, braising and baking in the kitchen: I made Cock-a-Leekie Chicken Pie on Thursday night (chicken, leeks and prunes in a savory pie crust), Chicken Bone Broth on Saturday morning, the filling for Boef Bourguignon Pie Saturday night, Gaucamole Dip Saturday morning and the final version of the Boef Bourguignon Pie for Sunday dinner, and Madeleines for dessert Sunday night. (Thanks to good friends Peter and Deb for helping us eat it up.) The dogs and cats thought it was great too; many of the meals resulted in virtual pounds of meat scraps for them.

Apologies to readers: I took no photos, but refer you to the magazine Bon Appetit, which I’m holding responsible for the five pounds that I really, really need to get rid of. I know, I know… but who can diet in the middle of winter when your body is yelling at you to put on fat to protect from the cold, and your subscription to Bon Appetit seduces you with all these great recipes? I am clearly but a helpless victim here.

Thank heavens for the dogs, who got us out of the farmhouse on two long, lovely walks in the woods, and to the American Family Children’s Hospital in Madison with Tootsie as a member of the Pet Pals therapy dogs group. Usually there are three dogs of varying sizes, but Saturday was “lap dog” day, with Shanti, Honey and Tootsie providing lots of oxytocin to patients, family and friends during what otherwise is a stressful time. No photos are allowed with the patients, but Visit Captain Lori kindly agreed to hold onto all the dogs before we went up so that we owners could take photos. You’ll note that every dog is looking at its owner intently. Potential translation: “Why are you over there, when I’m over here?”

Pet Pals Dogs 1-2015


I put this photo of tulips on my home computer to counter the boring brown and grey colors of January, and thought it would be nice to share with you all the happiness that flowers can bring. It’s hard to imagine that there will be color like this is the backyard in just a few months, but Jim and I planted over 200 new bulbs, so in four months or so (argh, that long?!) we will be able to take photos like this again.

tulips 5-13


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Making the Medicine Go Down: Giving a Dog a Pill Mon, 19 Jan 2015 20:19:46 +0000 Can you give your dog a pill? More to the point, can you give your dog a pill three times a day without any stress on you or your pooch? A recent online discussion reminded me how difficult it can be to get some dogs to take their medicine, and I thought it might be helpful to go through some strategies that make medicating your dog relatively easy and stress-free. I’ll list techniques in order of easiest to most involved:

1. Mix it in with the food. This is a no-brainer, and it works great for some dogs and some pills. It helps to add some soft and gooey food like canned or cooked meat if you usually just feed kibble. Caution: If you use this method and have more than one dog, you have to ensure that Dog A gets the medicine while Dog B does not.

However, lots of dogs are picky about what they eat, and some medications seem to taste terrible to dogs. (The pain reliever Tramadol is famous for being rejected by dogs because of its bad taste. I’ve always wondered if sometime it related to the fact that it also causes nausea in some dogs. My Great Pyrenees Tulip appeared to be terribly ill because she stopped eating; it turned out that the Tramadol she was taking put her off her food and as soon as I stopped giving it to her she began eating voraciously.)

Here are some ideas for dogs who won’t take a pill mixed into their dinners:

2. The One Two Three Game: First, encase the pill in some highly palatable food, perhaps a piece of chicken or some peanut butter. Put it aside and give the dog a treat with no pill. Then give the dog a second treat. Next, pick up the treat-encased pill and put it right next to your dog’s nose, but don’t let him eat it! Pull it away, as if to tease him. Move it within an inch of your dog’s nose/mouth again and snatch it away a second time. Move it a third time toward your dog’s mouth and let him eat it. Follow it up with a fourth treat, this time with no pill. Unless the pill is truly noxious, this works really well and makes the entire exercise great fun.

3. The Competition Game: Along with #2 or on its own, alternate giving your dog a pill-less treat and giving the treat to either another dog (best), or another living entity in the room, two or four-legged. You are basically trying to set your dog up to see that another food lover is getting the food, and if he doesn’t take his share he’ll miss out. You can do lots of jazz-riffs on this (# of treats, # of times the “other” gets the food) based on your household and your dog’s personality. Obviously, avoid this technique with other dogs if there is any food-related resource guarding in the house. If you’re not married this is a great test of a good potential partner for dog lovers. If the person you are dating won’t help out by being the “competitor,” you might want to look around. I’m just saying.

4. Empty Gel Caps: I’d never thought of this as a solution to nasty tasting medicine until it was mentioned on a sheepdog list serve. It is relatively easy for me to give a dog a pill so I’ve never used it, but what a great idea: You can buy empty gel caps at any drug store and put a nasty-tasting pill inside so that your dog won’t reject it. Smart solution, right?

5. Physically giving your dog a pill. Sometimes you don’t have time to go through the suggestions above, or perhaps you’ve tried them all and they haven’t worked. (Rare, but possible.) In addition, I like knowing how to get a pill down a dog without much stress; it seems like a good skill for any dog owner to have. The trick here is to understand that the muscles of a dog’s jaw are designed to press down, but not to pull the mouth open. That makes it easy to open a dog’s mouth if you know where to put your hands. I’ll summarize here, but refer you to a great photo series on Dr. Sophia Yin’s website that shows you exactly how to do it. You can make it relatively stress-free by conditioning the dog to expect a great treat when you grasp its upper jaw in one hand. Like the One Two Three Game, you hold the dog’s upper jaw with one hand, pull down the lower jaw with the other and pop a treat into the dog’s mouth. Let her eat it, repeat and then eventually do the same with the pill. Follow up with a real treat. Physically it is easier to do than describe in text, so check out the photos above to see where to place your hands and how to hold the treat/pill to get it into the dog’s mouth.

The most common mistakes are to pull the dog’s head up too high (it should be horizontal to the ground) and/or to try to open the dog’s mouth too wide, which makes her begin to fight you because it is so uncomfortable.

This is one of those issues that seems trivial… until you have to do it yourself and it’s not going well and your dog is really sick and is beginning to run away from you when you pick up the pill bottle. How about you? What’s your experience giving your dogs pills? Any good ideas I’ve neglected?

Another medical question for you: Is your Hydrogen Peroxide fresh? Facebook readers know that Maggie ate a lot of dark chocolate frosting a few weeks back, and I couldn’t get her to throw it up after giving her Hydrogen Peroxide. It turns out that the bottle of Hydrogen Peroxide that I had in my medicine cabinet was too old and was no longer was effective. It only keeps its bubbles (that’s what irritates the stomach and causes vomiting) for six months or so. For a week I walked around asking myself:  “How could I have not known that you need to buy new Hydrogen Peroxide every six months or so?” But now I know. Based on the Facebook responses, lots of other folks didn’t know it either, so I mention it here in case it helps a blog reader out someday. The good news is that Maggie is fine, although it took a two and a half hour visit at a veterinary emergency room on New Year’s Day to get it sorted out. Sigh.

MEANWHILE, back on the farm. The weather is wonderful! Mid twenties, partly sunny and little wind, my favorite winter weather. It even went up into the thirties for awhile this weekend, and most of the little snow that we had melted away. We took Maggie and Willie to friend Donna’s to work sheep and for a long walk in the woods afterward. Both dogs did well and had a great time. I thought they’d be bushed while we sat down and watched the Green Bay Packer football game, but no, Willie couldn’t stop bringing us toys to throw even after running hard for such a long time earlier in the day. Good thing he was there to distract us from the end of the game. Ouch.

Maggie also spent time this weekend at our favorite local pet store–I’m on a big push to get her more comfortable around non-Border Collie dogs that she hasn’t met yet. She did really well, and luckily a big black lab owned by a friend came in and I was able to say “Hi Caroline! So good to see you but please stay where you are so that I can reinforce Maggie below her threshold!” It feels so good when conditioning exercises go well, doesn’t it! (I was using the method described in Feisty Fido, with the additional reinforcement of backing up (and thus increasing the distance between her and the other dog) when she looked at the other dog and stayed calm. (Or, at least, behaved in a calm manner; I can’t tell you what her internal state was.)

Tootsie got to do a Pet Pals shift at the children’s hospital last week, and all I can say is that her Oxytocin producing potential is impressive. She lies on her back on a child’s lap and they rub her belly while I say “Do you think you can rub her belly so that she starts to go to sleep?” The children benefit most from the healing powers of oxytocin when they rub Tootsie’s soft, silky belly slowly, and when do, Tootsie’s eyes sometimes begin to droop, which everyone in the room thinks is adorable. It’s a win/win for Tootsie and the patients and everyone else who watches. Last week was especially sweet because the hour was crammed full of children and their families in crisis, who had a brief respite from anxiety and medical treatments by the visits of Tootsie and the other wonderful Pet Pals dogs. Priceless.

I came home from the office to take some photos, and found myself a tad bored with what felt like “same old, same old,” so I took a page from the Contemplative Photography class I took and looked at my dogs from another perspective.

Here’s Willie’s chest and front leg fur:

W belly fur 2015

Maggie’s colorful back legs:

M legs close 2015


Tootsie’s nose:

Tootsie nose close 2015

Have you taken any close ups of your dogs lately? It IS really fun to try to get a completely different perspective. And hey, up north in winter we have to look for things to catch our eye!



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The Animals of Belize Mon, 12 Jan 2015 16:54:27 +0000 Who said a honeymoon had to be taken immediately after the wedding? Jim and I just took ours, two and a half years after the fact, and it could not have been sweeter. We stayed at the Hamanasi Resort in Belize and loved it. Yes, it’s expensive and not all that easy to get to (three planes, the last so small I thought it might be easier to carry it to our destination), but hey: It was our honeymoon, so it was worth it. Hamanasi is committed to eco-tourism and sustainable practices, and that was clear from, for example, the extensive composting (which brought in great birds, including tons of warblers), careful snorkeling guidelines (“Please do not touch the coral or feed the fish.”) and wooden, multiple-use containers for shampoo and conditioner. The staff is sincerely friendly and accomodating, the country is a fascinating amalgam of cultures and races, and the food rocked.

But for me, nothing was as wonderful as the animals. (Of course, Jim is my all-time favorite animal, but you all already knew that…). Hamanasi settles between the extensive rain forests of the Maya Mountains and the Southern Barrier Reef, which is perhaps the healthiest reef in the western hemisphere. Because of the range of habitats, there were fascinating and beautiful animals everywhere. Here is the male Iguana who sat just a few feet from our dining table every day, courting a smaller female in the branches below. He was one big lizard, perhaps three feet long. We loved having him eat breakfast with us every morning.

Iguana Male Belize

This Disneyesque bird is the Keel-billed toucan, who looks to be straight out of a movie or some wonderful, bizarre dream you had after eating too much coconut-marinated roast chicken with rice and beans. But no, it’s the national bird of Belize and we got to see it twice; first a large group of them flashing their beaks in the sun, and then this single, perched right over the highway as we drove back from a hike in the Cockscomb Basin Wildlife Sanctuary & Jaguar Preserve. I wish he’d (she?) had been in the sun, but hey, what a ridiculously beautiful animal!

Keel Billed Toucan Trisha 1


 This sweetheart is an Olive-throated Parakeet, nibbling in a tree on the grounds of Hamanasi, right outside of our room.

Olive Throated Parakeet Belize


 After an amazing hike in the rainforest and a swim in a tropical pool (complete with romantic waterfall), we sat at picnic tables in the Cockscomb Basin Wildlife Sanctuary and ate yummy roast chicken, rice and beans. This Red-throated Ant Tanager appeared to be fascinated by us, and spent a good ten minutes investigating us from the surrounding bushes.

Red Throated Ant Tanager Belize


 We snorkeled twice on the Southern Reef, and although it was a bit choppy and usually cloudy, the reef is gorgeous–full of a huge range of corals, sponges and marine life. This Spotted Eagle Ray swam right underneath me. It’s not a great photo, but still… it’s a great animal, so I couldn’t leave it out.

Spotted Eagle Ray


Jim took the best of our underwater photos, of this Queen Angel fish. Amazing.

Queen Angle Fish- Jim


Another one of my favorites: A Queen Tiggerfish.

Triggerfish 2


Last but not least, my favorite signs of the trip (many of you know I like to collect strange signs). Jim and I biked two (very bumpy) miles to this bar, situated on the Sittee River. Great bar, great view of the river.

Curve Bar Belize

The bar has my favorite restroom signs ever, no language necessary:

Men's room Belize

Women's room Belize







MEANWHILE, back at the farm: It was ten below our first morning back, but who cared? Maggie is all better! Whew! I was so relieved. No idea what was wrong–did she feel punky cuz she was in heat? Did the antibiotics we put her on in case she had lepto have an effect? Or the acupuncture and Chinese herbs? (Thank you Dr. Carrie!) I’ll never know, but I am SO happy that she is back to her playful, exuberant and flirty self. Willie and Tootsie are good too, and the sheep seemed to have weathered the brutally cold weather. It’s supposed to warm up some this week, and there’s not much snow so we can go back to working sheep. Oh boy.









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2015 New Year’s Resolutions? Mon, 29 Dec 2014 18:10:17 +0000 Ah yes, it’s that time of year. Out with the old, in with the new–with all the dreams and hopes and resolutions that come along with the annual ritual of taking down the old wall calendar and putting up a new one.

I learned long ago that casually made New Year’s resolutions are quickly broken, and, more often than not, lead to feeling badly about yet another thing that we haven’t accomplished. You can read more about this in the New Year’s blog that I wrote in 2010, explaining that effective resolutions should be thought of as commitments that are best kept if 1) they are focused and specific, 2) they are attainable (just like dog training, right?: set yourself up for success) and 3) they are made public.

I do love going back and reading what I’ve written in year’s past. For example, in 2010, one of my commitments was to get Willie working sheep at a greater distance and in front of people more often. Little did I know that he would sustain a severe shoulder injury in February that would keep him from working sheep for the next 15 months. But, last summer we attended three sheepdog clinics and competed in 4 trials. Patience is a virtue Trisha, keep repeating that…

And so, with full awareness that life happens and no one knows what adventures and challenges 2015 will bring, here are my commitments for 2015:

1. DANCE… ( …like no one is watching; thank you Mark Twain, or William Purkey, or whoever said it first.) I’ve been re-reading The Gifts of Imperfection by one of my favorite non-fiction writers, Brené Brown, and am struck by her research that happy people living “wholehearted” lives consider dance, music and laughter to be important items on one’s To Do list. The To Do list that I write each morning has never included such “frivolities” as “dance by yourself in the living room.” Heaven knows I am good at writing lists: I have been known to write a list of the lists that I need to write, but they focus on accomplishments like “Go to the Bank. Take Tootsie to vet. Write blog.” We all have lists like that, right? But what about feeding our spirits and our souls? I would argue that is partly what our dog are for–who has to write “rub your dog’s belly” or “take dogs on a walk” on a To Do list?

However, for 2015, I am intentionally adding: “Dance in the living room to 60’s music three times a week.” I’ve done it before, and Willie thinks it is a hoot. You know where I’m going next:

2. SING… ( …like no one is listening.) I can’t emphasize the importance of the “no one is listening” part here. I can not carry a tune. For that matter, I can’t pick up a tune, nor even find it even if it is lying on the ground in front of me. You do not want to be within 50 yards of me if I am singing. But singing is good for us, as is joining our voices to others as a way of helping us to feel connected to the rest of humanity, so, along with 1. Dancing in the Living Room, I am adding 2. Sing in the car three times a week. This is not the time for you to ask me for a ride. I’m just saying.

3. LAUGH… especially with others. Jim and I now watch my two favorite TV shows together–Big Bang Theory and Whose Line Is It Anyway? I don’t have to write this on my To Do list, it seems to happen all by itself. But I have rarely been to live stand up comedy shows, and I’m putting that on my New Year’s Not-Resolutions-but-Commitments list.

4. MAGGIE/WILLIE/TOOTSIE There are some more traditional commitments for my dogs: Maggie needs to meet more non-Border Collies and get used to them coming into the house, along with more time out and about in varied environments. (Be specific Trisha: Welcome a visiting dog or get Maggie off the farm at least once a week over winter.) Tootsie needs some mental exercise. (Teach her a new trick every month this winter.) Willie needs more time just he and I, and a little less time with Maggie mugging him for attention. (Add evening trick time with Willie into the evening’s activities. He loves tricks and I suspect he misses the time that he and I used to play in the living room together. Three times a week?)

And you? Let me ask first: What are you going to do for YOU this year? I hear so many dog lovers talk about all the things they do for their dogs, including the most common line: “My dogs eat better than I do.” What if this year, you treated yourself with the care and compassion that you give to your dogs? You can think of it as something that actually is for your dogs if you need to–what does your dog want more than you, after all?

Any other specific, attainable and now oh-so-public commitments that you want to make? I, and all the other readers, would love to hear them. (Or stories about resolutions from years past that resulted in something wonderful?  Or abject failure?  All stories are welcome!)

One more thing: I’m going off the grid next week and not turning on anything that has to be charged up every night. Thus, there’ll be no blog until I return to life as we know it on Monday January 12th. I’m taking the week to recharge myself instead of my electronic equipment. I do hope you have a wonderful New Year’s–I’d love to hear about it either this week before I unplug on Friday night, or when I return. Until then, Happy New Year to you all! I wish I could give each and every one of you a big hug.

 MEANWHILE, back on the farm: Someone turned the lights on and the sun FINALLY came out after three weeks of clouds and rain. No snow, but at least the deep, squishy mud is gone now that the temperature has gone back to normal.

I made progress on Commitment 4A yesterday, when dear friends brought Tundra over, their Great Pyrenees with a soupcon of Golden Retriever added into the mix. Tundra was busy sniffing and patrolling the perimeter at first (just like Tulip used to do). Isn’t Tundra gorgeous? Thank you Beth and Gary for bringing her over!

Tundra scents


She didn’t want to play with the BCs at first, so Jim got her started playing with him!

tundra & Jim 2


It took a while, but eventually Tundra decided that playing with Maggie & Willie might be fun, and they had some joyful (albeit brief) moments together. I suspect that they will be great playmates once they are better acquainted. Did I mention how wonderful it was for me to have a big, white fluffy dog back at the farm? Hopefully we’ll get to see Tundra more often, we all had such a good time!

tundra & maggie play


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Free Ranging Cats, Wildlife & New Studies About Management Mon, 22 Dec 2014 20:32:19 +0000 I miss the birds. For most of my adult life I have fed wild birds, and watching them has added immeasurably to my life. In some places, like here at the farm, there have been 8 or 10 feeders up, overflowing with creamy, white suet and shiny, black sunflower seeds. They attracted a multitude of species, adding color and life to the grey and brown blahs of winter. In other places, all I could manage was one tubular seed feeder hanging isolated and alone outside of an apartment window. But still, it brought me scarlet red Cardinals and Military Blue Blue Jays.  So beautiful!

But Jim and I have taken down the feeders at the farm, because farm cats Nellie and Polly were killing the birds they attracted. It seemed profoundly unethical and environmentally wrong to create a situation in which we were luring birds to their death so that we could enjoy watching them. But we need the cats. Without them, we have rats in the barn. Once they got so bad they came into the house. Believe me, this is not an animal you want in your house.

With the cats we have no rats; without them we have lots. All other forms of prevention are not effective or safe for the dogs.  I’m talking communities of Brown (“Norway”) Rats, large, shiny-eyed imports from Europe who stare at you accusingly when you have the audacity to enter their barn. Before Nellie and Polly came (and after Sushi left), for all I know they were preparing to log onto the internet and advertise “Tunnels to Rent!” on Craig’s list.

But free ranging cats, whether feral or owned, can do a lot of damage to wildlife, even more than previously believed. Nellie and Polly kill enough rodents that I sometimes apologize to the Red-Tailed Hawks soaring overhead and say “I’m sorry!” It is not a perfect system, I hereby admit. But there are one or two cats living on a farm as there are here, and there are large colonies of feral cats living all over the country that add problematically to the population and to the damage to wildlife. But how should these large groups be managed? It is a tough question, and the reason why new research from the ASPCA on how to manage colonies of free-ranging cats is so important. You can read a summary of it here or go to the full article and get all the details.

The study compares different ways of attempting to decrease colonies of free-ranging cats, especially TNR (Trap, Neuter and Release, usually back to where the cat was captured) versus Trap and Don’t Return (which ranges from adopting out to the more draconian euthanasia). It simulated the results of different management techniques, and found that, although TNR can be successful in some environments, it will take much longer than other methods to reach zero population growth. One practical implication of the work is that it is most effective to spay/neuter as many animals as possible in a colony at once, instead of a “catch them as you can” approach.

Of course, the question remains: If you don’t return the cats to where they came from, what happens to them? Some wildlife advocates say they should be killed, because they cause so much damage to native species. Others, including myself, are strong advocates for finding the cats homes if possible, sending them to sanctuaries, or returning them spayed or neutered if that is the only alternative.

These are issues that are often difficult to discuss. Getting wildlife ecologists and cat lovers and rescue groups to sit down together and strategize is not easy. This issue pushes a lot of buttons and makes objective discussions challenging. One of my colleagues at the University of Wisconsin received death threats for suggesting that cats kill large numbers of birds, a fact which is now undeniable. I brought this issue up on my radio show once, and was barraged with people enraged that 1) anyone would let a cat outside when it is safer inside, 2) anyone would force a cat to live inside when it has evolved to live outside, 3) anyone would accuse cats of killing wildlife, 4) anyone would let their cats outside and kill wildlife… you get the idea.

 You can see examples of this in the comments to the ASPCA blog–some of then are on the snarky side. But I credit the ASPCA for attempting to add to our knowledge of how to handle this difficult issue. To many of us, cats are companion animals and members of our family. To others, cats are non-native invasive animals that threaten species already beleaguered with pollution and habitat destruction. To me, they are both, and the least we can all do is acknowledge that it is an important issue and do what we can to ameliorate conflicts between our pets and wildlife. I’d argue that most importantly, we 1) Need more research, 2) Need to acknowledge that TNR can work in many environments, but not in all, 3) Agree that all stake holders need to work together and be respectful of one another, and 4) Need to go pet a cat, because we all need a dose of oxytoxin after being brave enough to objectively consider this issue.

This morning the Black-capped Chickadees called from the pine behind the house, and even though I didn’t get to see them up close, I loved hearing them and knowing that they were at far less risk from Nellie and Polly. I am happy that Jim and I have made the choice that we have… it is not perfect, but it is our best compromise. We simply are doing the best we can, and that’s all anyone can ask of others, to at least understand that there is a conflict between our beloved cats and wildlife, and that we need to be in a conversation with all “sides” about how to deal with it.

I’d love to hear your (constructive and respectfully worded) thoughts. Do you have cats? Indoor or outdoor? Ever had a rat in your kitchen?

MEANWHILE, back on the farm: Things are a bit quieter here, now that the ram lamb Little Big Man has gone to his other home to breed the eleven ewes there. He was not happy to be wrangled into the truck, but forgot it all soon enough upon encountering a group of receptive ewes, three of whom immediately accepted his favors.

Jim and I enjoyed taking bags of Christmas goodies around to friends this weekend (carrot/applesauce bread, herb rolls, Jim’s famous Christmas cookies and Greenies for dogs and cats). Such a wonderful way to connect with dear friends, I love that part of the holidays. We also celebrated Solstice on Friday night with some wonderful friends who go way back (both were clients of mine a million years ago!) Willie and Maggie got a long, off leash walk at a local, county park Sunday morning. We haven’t taken those kinds of walks as often as we used to; I was reminded how good it is to get our dogs out and about to different places where there are new scents to investigate. I have held off a bit until I was 105% sure that Maggie had an instant Stop and Recall. I tested it out early on the walk and both dogs stopped in their tracks and turned to look at us. GOOD DOGS! we said, ran back a few steps and gave them a liberal dose of yummy treats. I gave Maggie treats a few more times after that (the walk lasted about 40 minutes) any time that she happened to come close, to remind her how fun it is to stay connected. We also took off running the time Maggie took a trail to the left and we went right. Jim and I dashed down the trail as fast as we could so that Maggie would look up and go “Argh! Where did they go?” It works beautifully for dogs who deeply care where their humans are, and not a bit for others. You are forewarned. Play the “Disappear game” on a German Shorthair and you’ll be searching for your dog for hours.

Tootsie didn’t go on the walk, it was much too far for her. She kept the couch warm for us. She did, however, fall out of bed last night and hit the ground with a resounding thump. I think I was almost as shocked and scared as she was–I felt her start to go but couldn’t stop it from happening. I’m happy to say she seems none the worse for wear. Poor babe.

And the kitties? Staying close to home, curled up in their feline igloo more often than not. We have a heating pad underneath it, and they do love to cuddle up in it together. Nellie sometimes goes with us when we take a walk up the hill, even if there is deep snow on the ground; so fun to go on a walk with a cat! But no snow now… it’s cold and colorless with rain expected. Yuck. Not the best of weather for sure, sort of awful really. Mud mud mud when it is not supposed to be mud season. Maybe a little snow before Christmas? That would be nice. How about you? Snow? Or is it summer there…

Here is Polly in a very, very different season. Was it really ever so green here?

Polly on Swing


Nellie loves the low window that looks into the barn. She likes to sit in it basking in the sun in warmer weather.

Nellie barn window



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Your Dogs and the Holidays Mon, 15 Dec 2014 20:49:15 +0000 Yup, this is the time of year when the rubber hits the road, and the leaping, crotch-sniffing, poop-eating dog that you just rescued from a puppy mill is about to meet Aunt Polly, the only member of the family who is terrified of dogs. Or maybe it’s the dog you’ve had for years, and the leaping and crotch sniffing are in the past, but then… there’s that poop eating thing. A friend called me for advice about this very problem (visitors, not poop eating), and I recalled that I had written a post several years ago about how to handle the chaos that is the holiday season, not to mention the reality of owning animals that don’t understand why the routine flies out the window during the shortest days of the year. Here is the post again, (with some minor editing,) because dog behavior and holiday-related challenges are timeless:

From December 12, 2009:

Trainers and behaviorists can all tell stories about the calls they get around the holidays. Those of you who are trainers can no doubt tell some of your own. (I’d love to hear them!) Not uncommonly, we hear “Aunt Polly is coming tomorrow and she hates dogs and I have seven of them and they’ve never been alone in a room or in a crate and I can’t board them and I was wondering if you could tell me what to do.” (Answer: Pack dogs into car, drive elsewhere, leave note on front door for Aunt Polly that you’ve been abducted by aliens?)

From the other side of the equation, I’ve heard lots of dog lovers struggle over what to do when company comes and their dog doesn’t do well with visitors. One holiday season, years ago, I had five “do I have to kill my dog cases?,” all serious bites to visitors, on December 23rd and 24th. So sad.

Here’s my generic advice about holidays and dogs and visitors. I’d love to hear what solutions you’ve come up with for yourself or advised for others.

1. Do you REALLY want to take your dog to the big family gathering? How fun is it going to be when you discover that your nephew is allergic to dogs, or your sister-in-law brought a dog-hating cat, or your uncle brought his three Rat Terriers, all of whom are X!X!X! (insert interesting behavioral issue here.) For everyone’s sake, seriously consider leaving your dog at home, either in a great kennel or with a great dog sitter. This could be a blessing to your dog, to you, or to the rest of your family. (I still blush about bringing my St. Bernard to someone’s house when I was young and stupid. It was so hot where we slept that I finally opened a window to cool it off–Cosby’s panting and drooling got to be a bit too much. We woke up in the morning to find that our host’s prized house plants had been killed by the cold air. Our dog-disliking hostess literally began to shriek, eyes squinched shut, hands clenched, jumping up and down in fury like a five-year old. I still feel badly. Whoever and wherever you are–I’m SO sorry I killed your fern!)

Bottom line? “Dog Sitters. Don’t leave home without them.” Of course, in some cases bringing your dog just adds to the fun, and if that’s the case, then Eeeee Hah, bring ‘em on. But if you’re not sure, then discretion is the better part of valor.

2. If visitors are coming to you, do what most professionals do, and thank the heavens for dog crates and X-pens. It seems to be the pro’s who are most likely to put their dogs away to prevent problems, rather than crossing their fingers and saying “I think it’ll be okay…”. Anytime I hear myself asking that question, I know to change my tune and do whatever I need to do to know that it’ll be okay.

I never hesitate to err on the side of caution if there is even the slightest chance of trouble between a dog and a visitor. Most trainers and behaviorists don’t either; nothing like years of hearing about serious bites and traumas related to dogs. ARe kids coming over and you’re not 110% sure about how they’ll behave around your dog? Not sure either how the kids will behave? Then start with your dog safely contained, meet the kids and then decide how they’ll interact. Is Uncle Johnny, all 6 foot 7 of him, driving in from down south to meet your dog who is uncomfortable around unfamiliar men? Aren’t you glad you crate-trained your dog?

In general, when first getting everyone together:

Start cautiously: Dog in crate when visitors enter?

Observe carefully: Watch interactions like a hawk at first.

Manage obsessively: Know your dog’s signs of discomfort and minimize the potential of any problems.

3. Give everyone a break. Crate Fido up after an hour with the guests, why wait until after he’s tired and beginning to get grumpy? Many of the cases I’ve seen in the past have occured after the dog has been with the company all day long, is tired and finally snaps/bites at the end of the day. Being an introvert (truly), I can sympathize. I love company and being with people, but I get tired after hours of it and need to go to my crate so that I don’t get cranky and bite someone. (Please keep that in mind if I come to visit.)

This all might sound a bit excessive, why not just let dogs be dogs and let things play out? Here’s why: A dear friend just had his beloved dog bite a guest (equally beloved) during Thanksgiving dinner. “Why didn’t I put her in her crate?” he asked, after the bite and the trauma. “Because you’re an optimist and not a professional trainer,” I said, but in the future, management is going to have to be Job #1 in his treatment plan. This kind of management becomes second nature to trainers, doesn’t it? But we had to learn it, and anything we can do to let people know that it’s OKAY to separate dogs and guests sometimes, the better.

What about you? Tell us your pet and holiday stories… from funny to illuminating to oxytocin inducing. I can’t wait to read them.

MEANWHILE, holiday preparation is in full swing at the farm. I spent much of Saturday baking loaves of carrot bread, cheese breed and herb rolls for our holiday packages for friends and neighbors. Jim made his great grandmother’s famous Christmas cookies, 150 of them, and we spent half a day decorating them together. Now I just have to keep from eating them before they get distributed to friends. Wish me luck.

Here’s one small batch of them now:

holiday cookies 2014


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