This is, in part, a repost of one of the very first blogs I wrote, from August of 2008. (Almost 11 years ago? Wow.) I am posting it again for several reasons–we have a lot of new readers; it’s always fun for me to see if I still agree with what I wrote in years past; and most timely, I’ll be speaking on a similar topic on Vashon Island, WA, Saturday June 8th, about “Lost in Translation — What Your Dog is Trying to Tell You”.
This trip is going to be super fun in so many ways. After spending much of the day at the Vashon Island Sheepdog Classic on Saturday June 8th, I’ll lead off my talk at the Vashon Center for the Arts with videos illustrating that sheep are brilliant at reading subtle visual cues from dogs, and vice versa. Dogs and sheep make it clear that you don’t need language to say lot, and you don’t need big movements to convey a lot of information if the signals are salient.
Example: Here’s an old photo from the very first sheepdog event I ever attended. This is Jack Knox’s Craig dealing with Suffolk ewes who have never seen a dog before and had not read the chapter that describes them as “prey animals”. It’s pretty obvious who is intimidated here, and it sure isn’t the sheep!
I’ll also be at the trial on Sunday, and will do a lunch-time interview with the awesome Julie Forbes, formerly of The Dog Show (but now about to launch a new project called Discovering Dogs). I hope you can come to the talk and the trial both. If you get to the trial, I’d suggest bringing binoculars, because some of the communication between the sheep and the dogs at the top of the field is fascinating. (And be forewarned, I hear the ferry gets super busy on Saturday and Sunday–10,000 people came to the trial last year!)
Here then, is from August 2008, after a seminar in Ann Arbor, Michigan for the Ann Arbor Dog Training Club:
One of my favorite parts of this seminar (Both Ends of the Leash) is its focus on signals, or cues. The question we looked at in depth was: what sound or movement is actually the one that is salient to your dog? You may say “Sit,” and think your dog is responding to it, but so often it’s the tightening of the leash or the nod of the head to which your dog is responding.
We had a great example of that in Ann Arbor. A lovely Golden (perhaps the most perfect example of “Life is good if you’re a Golden” I’ve seen in a while…. I mean, this dog was HAPPY HAPPY HAPPY!) was being asked to sit and stay. The dog was young, and was just in the beginning stages of understanding stay. We were working on practicing body blocks as a response to a break. Two women, great observers, noticed that the dog broke, every time, when the otherwise almost motionless owner let the leash unravel just the tiniest little bit. After saying stay, she backed up one foot and didn’t move, keeping eye contact with the dog. But without knowing it, she let the coils of the leash in her hands unravel an inch or two, and every time she did the dog broke.
That was an especially interesting observation, because I had just suggested to the owner that the only change I would make in her training was let her body loosen and move a bit while the dog was on stay, because otherwise the stillness would become the cue to stay, and any motion would cause the dog to break. Sure enough….
What a perfect example of a wonderful dog and a super trainer communicating on slightly different planes. It’s just amazing how tiny a movement can be, and still get an effect out of a dog sometimes.. . Sometimes I wonder how we ever manage to communicate correctly at all!
Well, I haven’t changed my mind one bit about the impact of tiny but salient visual signals. I’m working on my own related challenge now. Maggie and I are learning how to shed, and just the tiniest shift in my direction or gaze can influence the sheep and mess up our ability to separate the flock into two parts. ( In a “shed”, the handler holds the sheep on one side, the dog on the other. The handler moves in such a way to create a gap between the sheep, sometimes just inches, and calls the dog in between, to turn on one group and move them away from the other.) There’s a lot to attend to, and I’m very much in the beginning stages of getting it all sorted out. Not surprisingly, Maggie is already progressing faster than I am, being far better than me at reading subtle visual cues from sheep. Sigh.) Sheds are fascinating to watch at sheepdog trials by the way, I hope you can see one soon. (Save the date for the Wisconsin Midwest Championship Sheepdog Trial in Hudson, WI over Labor Day. It is a phenomenal trial!
MEANWHILE, back on the farm: On Saturday Jim and I were honored to walk with the good people and dogs of Pet Pals to lead off the “Inspire Hope” walk of Czar’s Promise, which raised over $80,000 to fund research at UW-Madison on cancer prevention and treatment, as well as support for people whose dogs are fighting it. You can imagine how special it felt. Here are some photographs from the day:
Top row: adorable dog portraits, middle left are the wonderful people from SAVE (Sheltering Animals of Abuse Victims), middle right the awe-inspiring Beth Viney who organized Czar’s Promise after losing the noble Czar to bone cancer, bottom left my kick ass graphic artist and website designer Julie Mueller (Jam Graphics) and partner Joan, and me and Courtney Arnoldy having a moment–she is the one who rehabilitated Willie after his massive shoulder surgery and has done wonders with Maggie after her leg injury last summer. Willie and Courtney had a special bond, and well, we couldn’t make it through the day without a hug.
Thank you to everyone who generously contributed to the cause. The day was a great success and hopefully will lead to people and dogs leading longer lives.
On another note, today Maggie and I moved the sheep from one pasture to another. We are doing “controlled grazing,” in which the sheep get moved every few days to fresh grass, while the ‘old’ areas are left alone to grow back up. This forces the sheep to eat all that’s edible, rather than just their favorite species, which creates healthier pastures in the long run. It’s one of the many benefits of having a great sheepdog.
That’s it for today. Hope to see you in Vashon island if you can make it. If you do, please be sure to come up and say hello.
Sally wisniewski says
Dear Patricia, I have only one dog left of the puppies my catahoula leopard dog had crossed with a German Shepherd. She will be 12 on June 1st. I was cornered into putting her brother down on Feb 26 because of the sudden (three day) onset of paralyzation from a tumor on his spine. I was so devestated by that and other events that I went into a deep depression and got into bed. I barely ate until recently when my Dr put my on an appetite stimulant. I am coming out of it now but I have two questions: what do you consider “normal” vs “abnormal” grieving over a lost dog and now I’m having problems with my young dog littlera . he’s become very protective of me. Could this be because I did not hide my grief from him? Lightning Bug, cortez s sister accepted her brothers death just fine. But Littlera is just five, a plott Hound from the shelter. Is it possible he doesn’t feel strong enough to be the alpha d9g? Will I ever get over my regrets concerning how cortez died? I do not believe in euthanasia. Only his hind legs were paralyzed. I was rushed and basically threatened by the vet who appeared to be in a hurry and lied to me about certain important aspects.
Yes subtle signals. I am convinced our dogs can spot the thought “Time to feed the dogs” forming in my mind. But they probably respond to the raised eyebrow between spouse and me at the appropriate time of day, or the glance towards the Cupboard Of Joy.
Red Dog is quite enthusiastic about “touch” (touch hand with nose, get a reward). We had been working on variations – between the legs, up in the air, etc. I learned that saying “touch” and putting my palm straight up (“stay”) confuses the dog. I need to hold my palm sideways for “leap high in the air and nose-bonk my palm.”
You’re so right about noting subtle moves between handler, sheep and dog. Almost like learning a new language. I get so focused on the obvious moves of the sheep I fail to notice what my dog is doing causing movement, cocking an ear, leaning in or out, focusing on one particular sheep etc. And its all in an instant! By the time I react, its too late and Im reacting, not acting. Sigh. So much to learn.
Thanks for the repost. I just discovered your work and am gobbling up books (Feisty Fido) and articles on training a reactive dog. I’ve had mine three weeks today and just yesterday got my first auto watch! I get chills thinking of it right now. We have a long way to go but he is learning so fast and I know it’s up to me to try to stay ahead of us both!
Yayayayayayayay! We’re all cheering you on!
Oh Sally, I am so sorry. I hope you will be as gentle and forgiving with yourself as your dog would have been. And “normal grieving”? I couldn’t begin to answer that question, but I would suggest that it’s not a question that serves any of us. Perhaps you could replace it with another question, like “What would he (the dog who passed away) want me to do right now?” or, “What do I need right now to be there for myself and my other dogs?” I can’t tell you why Littlera has become protective, but it makes sense that he might be feeling more vulnerable and like “life is more dangerous” now that his friend is gone. It’s impossible for me to tell you exactly what to do about it, without knowing him, but I would certainly do all you can to create new routines, give yourself permission to heal from your own grief and reinforce him for being friendly to others. Good luck, so sorry.
What a lovely post. Then i cried for Sally… and wanted to send comfort and love. Don’t be hard on yourself, you made the best decision you could at the time considering the circumstances. And imprint Patricia’s reply in your heart.
Grief is grief and whatever you are feeling is normal for you. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise or judge: we can’t know anyone else’s experiences/emotions/feelings/connections etc.
And again, be gentle with yourself.
Hope you are managing OK. Xx
Am I correct that dogs see things “slower’ than we do? I read they can and that’s why they can catch frisbees so well. If so, it’s no wonder they can read those subtle signals better than we can!
Carolyn H. says
I identify with the owner of the golden doing a sit/stay. When my dog was a wriggly puppy we worked on stays. We did short stays and longer stays but she would break each one a millisecond before I intended to click her behavior. I thought she was reading my mind until a keen-eyed observer told me my face softened into a tiny smile just before I clicked. She knew I was happy with her and that’s when she broke. So I smiled with joy whenever we worked together – and she waited for the click.