It’s Raining Bones!

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It’s too quiet around the kennel lately.  All the dogs went home last week as I prepared for a surgery that I had been putting off for some time.  Nothing dramatic, just one of those things that were easy to ignore for a long time, but eventually my life long practice of “Wellness through Denial” led to the inescapable admission that I was aging and there are certain things that need to be addressed rather than ignored.  Enough about that already!

Anyhow… the point is I’ve had lots of time on my hands lately and I’m not really allowed to lift anything heavier than a book.  I took advantage of the situation and lifted some books!  The experience I want to share with you is a book by Suzanne Clothier with the cumbersome title, “If a Dog’s Prayers Were Answered, Bones Would Rain From the Sky”.  If that title isn’t long enough, there is also the sub heading: “Deepening Our Relationships with Dogs”.

The title is obviously too long and awkward in an age that is dominated by acronyms and messages limited to 140 characters.  Nevertheless, the overly wordy title sets the stage for a writing style that does not balk at detail, is not afraid of conditional clauses, and takes every opportunity to communicate the vast riches of canine-human relationships regardless of the ever present danger of the run-on sentence.  Whew!  Still with me?

The preceding paragraph contains what is probably the only valid criticism I can muster against this book.  Let me confess right here that I was deeply moved by my first reading, I found new reasons to be delighted in my second reading and I continue to be head over heels in love with this book on my 3rd reading.  The translation for you short-sentence-twitter people:  I heart it! 

Bones Would Rain from the Sky is easily the most important dog related book I have ever read.  You can’t really grasp the import of that statement unless you have seen my bookshelves.  I am a voracious reader on many subjects.  I have read literally hundreds of dog related books.  Many of these books are more like owner’s manuals or recipe books: How to Train Your Retriever, Canine Calming Signals, Essential Animal Behavior, etc.

I’ve learned a great deal about the nuts and bolts of dog training and animal behavior through reading.  Many of these books have collected dust for a long time, but they remain on my shelves because I found something in them I thought was important.  Several of these books are old, time tested favorites.  I have used methods or ideas from these books and found the ideas to be sound.  There are a couple of these books that I revisit at least once a year because the messages they carry are especially relevant to me and my work.

Bone Would Rain From the Sky is going to be one of those books I return to often, yet this book is in a class by itself.  Let me try to explain why:

If we took all the animal related books from my shelves, we could probably rough-sort them into 2 piles.  One pile would be books that are human centered.  In other words, they espouse an approach that defines the place of humans in the animal / human relationship and they go on to speak about how we can move the animals closer to the humans.  The next pile, predictably, contains the books that center on the animals place in the relationship and they offer concepts and methods that help humans to approach the animals in their space.

Bones Would Rain from the Sky makes a courageous attempt to look at the empty, white space between humans and dogs and shows us ways to prepare that space so that we can both move closer to each other on mutual territory.

Let’s take a look at what that means from a practical standpoint.  One of the common issues we deal with in behavior modification is the so called Alpha dog.  There has been much talk of the alpha and there is much contention about whether or not it is helpful to view an animal as an “alpha”.  In the human centered approach we might see suggestions that the human needs to dominate the dog or take back his alpha-human status.  In the animal centered approach we hear of ways to limit the dog’s access to alpha consistent behaviors and methods to reinforce the acceptance of human authority.

Clothiers approach is different.  It stresses the context of the behavior.  Example:  the dog that growls when we tell him to get off the sofa.  In this instance Clothier suggests that we have allowed the dog to make the rules about who gets the sofa.  When we allow the dog to make the rules, the rules will be enforced with dog behaviors, i.e. growling, snapping, biting.  Rather than inserting ourselves directly into the situation, we need to prepare the space between us for a more successful relationship.  Forcing the dog off the sofa in this instance may earn you a growl or a bite.  I say “earn” because if you force yourself into a situation where the dog is enforcing the rules, you DESERVE to be bitten!  Instead of forcing your rules where you have no authority, try to prepare a space where you have authority.  Use food or other motivators to reestablish yourself as a rule maker.

I don’t think I’ve really done justice to this concept in my very brief treatment here.   That is why you need to go buy this book.  Right Now!  You’ll be glad you did!

 

Slack Leads!

Good Luck Diesel!

At approximately 2:00 PM on Saturday, Diesel left Muck Creek Kennels to go to his Forever Home.  His new guardians are a nice, local couple who have loads of time to spend with our rambunctious boy.  I’m very happy for Diesel because now he will have a home inside their house and inside their hearts.  He’ll have a full-time human all to himself and he won’t have to share his new humans with any other animals.  His new humans have experience with the German Shepherd breed and they understand that Diesel needs lots of exercise and mental stimulation in order to thrive in his new surroundings.

To be totally honest, I was a little sad to see him go.  My eyes got a bit hot as I watched him looking at me from the back of their SUV as it went down the driveway and out the gate.  Diesel and I had grown very fond of each other over the last 2-1/2 months that he has lived here at MCK.

Later the same evening, Lyn and I were talking about his departure and she wondered out loud if I was the right kind of guy to be doing rescue work because I seem to get so attached to some of the animals.  I thought about it for a minute and it occurred to me that if I wasn’t the kind of person who got attached, I wouldn’t be the right kind of person to help either.

Back when I was building houses for a living, the raw materials showed up on a truck.  The driver pulled the straps off the load and dumped it on the ground and drove away.  Then we cut the pieces to length and nailed them together until we had something that looked like a house.  Now my “raw materials” arrive in animal crates.  They look at me, and then quickly turn their heads in a typical, canine calming-gesture.  Sometimes they are shaking with fear.  Sometimes their distrust is so profound that I am unable to touch them.  The sound of my voice makes them loose control of their bladder.

And the tools are different too.  In cases of extreme fear we are limited to love, patience, and consistency.  Gradually we build trust.  Then we begin to communicate and cooperate.  Every day, you hand this animal a little hunk of your heart and they give you back the thing that makes you human.

Awwww… fer Pete’s sake!! I’m getting all mushy again!!  DANG IT!

Farewell Diesel!  I wish you the best of luck in your new home!  You taught me a lot, my friend, maybe more than I taught you!

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Slack Leads!

Jon Borcherding  A.B.I. Certified Dog Trainer  253 442 9625

Parachutes and Poop

If you grew up back when the TV only had 4 channels, a phone was something that hung on the wall and any boy under the age of 13 had a collection of green, plastic, army men; then perhaps you recall a cheap toy that consisted of a 3 inch tall plastic paratrooper connected by strings to an 18 inch plastic parachute. 

You could buy these things at just about any dime store or dept. store.  Once you had managed to entangle the mass of string and plastic in a tree, you could remove the shredded plastic and replace it with a thin piece of cloth like a handkerchief.  There weren’t any plastic grocery bags yet, so plastic foil was not the ubiquitous item it is today. 

Once you had found a source for handkerchiefs or some other thin cloth, the making of these parachutes could be sourced entirely with stuff you found around the house.  Mom’s sewing stuff was a good source for thread or string and Dad’s haphazard collection of nuts and bolts always contained a few items that were just right for weights.

Inventive kids would soon discover that a slingshot could propel the ‘chutes high into the air, over strategic locations like the roof over your friend’s house or over a fence into some grumpy, old guy’s yard.

We were about halfway through our walk this morning when I glanced skyward and saw that a piece of my childhood had parachuted in from the sixties!  It was one of those situations where you see something and it takes a second to register in your brain because your brain is busy thinking about bills, a needed oil change, an upcoming Dr. appointment and a new recipe for pumpkin pie.  I saw it, but I kept walking.  Then I had to turn around to see if that was what I had really seen.  It took me few minutes to get my eyes on it again.  Yep… there it was, a homemade parachute toy, stuck in a tree.

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I haven’t seen one of these in years!  I’m sure it’s a lost art among children today.  With all their facebook and tumblr and instagram, smartphones, x-box and all the other stuff an old guy like me doesn’t even know about; how on earth could we expect a kid to know how to make one of these ancient parachute toys? 

How did it get here?  What strange atmospheric conditions could explain the sudden appearance of such an anomaly? The only explanation I can come up with is that some weird current of air has held this thing aloft for 45 years until it finally came to rest in this tree. 

So, there I stood, attention riveted to a moldy hunk of cloth hanging in a bare tree in the middle of January, but my mind was drawn back to a warm spring morning when everything smelled like moist dirt.  My dog circled the tree below me and barked merrily as I climbed up to rescue the paratrooper from the clutches of that evil tree.  Funny… that you have to be in your fifties to truly appreciate the glorious abilities of a nimble nine year old, isn’t it?

I was finally jolted from my reverie by Kaia who was growing impatient with my fixation on this stupid tree which was obviously devoid of bird life so what the heck was the point anyway?  In a move utterly characteristic of an attention seeking retriever she placed her nose between my palm and leg and tried to get me to pet her.  My brain was still in 1968 as my hand glided over her head and down the side of her neck.  It was at that precise moment that my brain was yanked unceremoniously back to 2014.  The cause of my sudden awareness was the fragrant and gelatinous ooze that coursed through my fingers as my hand passed over the right side of my dog’s neck.

You see, Kaia is a conneseiur of all things stinky and gelatinous.  On this particular morning she had taken advantage of my inattention and used it as an opportunity to apply a liberal dose of otter poop which is like Chanel #5 to Kaia.  Otter poop is a somewhat rare but extremely schtanky substance that can often be found near any body of water that contains otters and crayfish.  The presence of crayfish remains is a fairly reliable identifier when one is attempting to determine the source of said poo.  Further meditation on the essence of otter poop can lead one to imagine that these crayfish are at least partly responsible for the extremely fragrant nature of this particular brand of poop.

While Kaia finds the scent of otter poop to be a delight; I consider it to be only slightly less offensive than patchouli oil.  It is perhaps needless to say that I was able to avoid my mind wandering on our trip home.  The pungent otter poo scent kept my thoughts firmly anchored in the present with only some brief forays into the future where I imagined driving my truck into a giant lake of Dawn dishwashing liquid.

I’m so glad we own a groom shop!  I think it’s time for a bath!

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Fred STOLEN!!! (just kidding… don’t freak out!)

We had the pleasure of having Fredman join us on our morning walk today!  Fred doesn’t get to come with us very often because my wife, Lyn, is afraid we might steal him and make him into a bird dog.  Hmmmm… maybe!

We parked the truck in one of our usual haunts; we all jumped out and were on our way.  It was a bit foggy at first.  After a few minutes of walking, I felt the sun warming the back of my neck and I saw a long shadow leaping out in front of me.  I knew it was going to be a good day!

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We could hear a bunch of trucks and heavy equipment working in the distance.  It looks like there’s a some road maintenance going on.  Large dump trucks full of crushed rock were rumbling down the road every 15 minutes or so.  At one point we were close to the road when I heard the truck approaching.  Just to be on the safe side, I blew one sharp blast on the whistle which I constantly carry on a lanyard around my neck.  I was glad to see that Fred still remembered his training.  His butt hit the ground just a fraction of a second after the labs.

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The dogs remained seated while the truck thundered past and I reached for my camera and shot this photo.  I think this will be a good visual aid to use when I’m teaching my obedience class.  I can show this picture while I’m explaining how the SIT command can keep a dog out of trouble.

The only thing better than a good, reliable SIT response is a good, reliable, remote-SIT response!  It’s easy enough to teach, especially with pups and young dogs because you can make it into a game.  Just move your SIT command over to a whistle by using both during drills, gradually shifting from “sit-toot” to “toot-sit” and eventually just TOOT.  Then you can begin throwing in a few toots while playing to see if the command/cue is sticking to the behavior.  If this goes well, you can carefully begin to extend the distance between you and your dog as you give the sharp TOOT for SIT.  Like other behaviors, keep your distances short and aim for 95 – 100% success before you extend the distance.  Most importantly, have FUN!  You have serious reasons for teaching this command, but it’s much easier to teach with a fun-and-games attitude.  Teach well and it will be there when you need it!

 

Slack Leads!

Beach Mutts!

Every year, about this time, Lyn and I take a trip out to the ocean.  Sometimes we take the camper and spend a few days beach-combing or fishing in the coastal rivers.  This year it was just a day-trip, but what  glorious trip it was!  We brought all four of our dogs with us which looks like this:

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It’s hard to see in the photo, but the back seat has been removed and I built a flat, stable platform for the dogs.  It’s a bit crowded with four of them, but they get along really well, so it works.

It takes about 2 hours to get to our favorite beach.  The dogs are very excited when we get there!

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This is Ginger’s first trip to the ocean.  She can barely contain her excitement!

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The trail meanders along the Copalis River.  What a great spot for a swim!

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Peck is determined to catch a seagull.

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He made at least a hundred attempts, but was never successful in bagging one.  That didn’t stop his enthusiasm though!  We walked along the beach for a little over 2 hours before we headed back to the truck.  The dogs never seemed to run out of energy, but they all slept soundly, in a big pile, all the way home.  Here’s a few more shots from the beach and the river trail.

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We were very fortunate to get a break from the rain.  We also had the entire beach to ourselves!  That’s one of the advantages to visiting the ocean at this time of year.  We did run into a couple people on the walk back to the truck.  Fortunately they were dog lovers and they didn’t mind being greeted by 4 overly friendly beach-mutts!

Except for the cost of a few gallons of fuel, this is FREE ENTERTAINMENT!  Go get some!

Stubborn Dang Dog!!!

I’m sure you’ve heard it before, “I love my dog, but she’s so stubborn, I can’t get her to do anything!”  Or maybe this variation:  “I’ve tried over and over to get him to stop digging, but he’s such a stubborn mutt!”

People love to imbue their dogs with human characteristics and stubbornness is one of them.  It seems completely harmless on the surface.  We have trouble teaching our dog a certain behavior so we just assume they are stubborn because we can’t get their compliance or cooperation.  Most of the time when I hear folks say this, I know they’re just being silly, applying a liberal dose of whimsy to a difficult situation.

The problems crop up when we say that our dog is stubborn and we begin to actually believe our own silliness.  Branding a dog as “stubborn” is tempting at times because it relieves us from the responsibility to modify behavior, “I wish I could get him to stop barking, but he’s just so dang stubborn!”  See how that works?  There’s a problem with a behavior, nuisance barking.  We try to fix it, we are unsuccessful, so it’s the dog’s fault because he’s “stubborn”.

I don’t like to make big, unequivocal, blanket statements, but let me go out on a limb here:

There is no such thing as a stubborn dog.

There.  I said it, knowing full well that I have opened myself up for a bombardment of allegedly stubborn behaviors, many of which I may have insufficient talent to fix.  Be that as it may, I will stand by my statement, “there is no such thing as a stubborn dog”.

Often, when a client or customer describes their dog as stubborn, I tell them, “There are no stubborn dogs, only unmotivated dogs.”  Then we look at the behavior we’re trying to achieve and we start searching for an effective motivation.

What I’ve found is a dog who knows you or accepts you as a handler will do anything you ask as long as the following 3 criteria are met:

1.       He must understand what you are asking.

2.       He must be physically and mentally capable of the behavior.

3.       He must be properly motivated to perform the behavior.

Number one is where things most often break down if we fail to gently teach the dog what we want.

Number two breaks down when we have unrealistic expectations about our dog’s mental or physical abilities.

Number three is the easiest one to miss.  I’ve seen traditional trainers use excessive amounts of force trying to motivate and I’ve seen positive trainers using inappropriate rewards in their attempts to motivate their trainees.  The possibilities for screw-ups are almost endless!

Let me tell you about my screw-up yesterday to illustrate my point.  I was running a T-drill with a retriever yesterday morning.  He had run the same drill in a different place the day before and he had been running this same drill with varying levels of challenges for quite some time.

The T drill is a common retriever training tool in which we place piles of bumpers at the top of a T and at the ends of the arms of the T.  Imagine the T as a big letter, written on the ground.   It can be just 10 or 20 yards tall for beginning dogs or over 100 yards tall for advanced dogs.  We stand at the foot of the T and send our dog in a straight line toward the top.  We have the option of stopping him anywhere along the line and sending him, via hand signals, to any one of the 3 piles of bumpers where he is to pick up one bumper and return to us by the shortest route.  More often than not, we just send him to the top pile where he picks up a bumper and returns directly to the handler.  That way he gets the idea that his main job is to run far and fast unless we say otherwise.

Peck was running the drill yesterday and for some reason he was running the route to the back-pile in a big curve.  I don’t mind a little variation from a straight line, but I don’t want to see big curves that slow down the return or put the dog in territory that is clearly off the line.  One of the main points of this drill is to teach straight lines so we can send a dog on a retrieve without worrying about him wandering into the next county or getting himself into trouble while he’s making a retrieve.

So… here’s Peck running out to the pile and making a big curve to the right, then making a big curve at the same spot on his return with the bumper.  This happened on two retrieves in a row, so I began to put some pressure on him to run straight.  I applied this pressure by yelling the command, “BACK” just as he neared the spot where the curve began.  Nope… didn’t work.  He still ran a curve, out and back!

DANG STUBBORN DOG!!

At this point I was getting frustrated because Peck is capable of running this drill perfectly.  I was tempted to up the ante and nick him with the e-collar to add more pressure to my BACK command.  Fortunately, I recalled my own little sermon about stubbornness.  I decided to take a walk and find out what was going on.  I sent myself on the same retrieve and took the curvy route that Peck had taken.  I paid extra attention to the wind direction to see if there was some scent that was pulling him off the line.  Sure enough, there it was, a partially eviscerated rabbit had been abandoned by a predator and the scent was pulling Peck off the straight line.

If we think about this scenario in terms of motivation we can see that it was actually amazing that Peck didn’t totally abandon his retrieving and go check out the tasty morsels that were lying there like a bountiful buffet line!

Peck had to decide if he was gonna make a perfect retrieve or if he was going to go have rabbit for breakfast.  I shudder to think that I was about to zap my dog for nothing more than obeying his nature.  This kind of stuff is going on all around us every second of every day in dog world.  There are constant motivators at work.  Some of this stuff is really difficult for us humans to even see.

So what did I do?  Well… I want my dog to be able to work in the face of challenges like this, so I shortened up the lines of the T and continued running the drill.  By shortening the lines I was able to increase my influence without resorting to force.  We cut the drill down from being about 125 yards to about 50 yards and it made all the difference.  Peck didn’t forget about the rabbit, but with me in close proximity he was more motivated to work with precision and less motivated to take a bunny-break.

The lesson I’ve taken from this is to look for the hidden motivators behind any behavior I am trying to modify.  Every behavior has a consequence and every behavior has a motivator.  There is no such thing as a stubborn dog.

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Happy? Excited?

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I’ve been watching dogs for a long time now.  I think observation is crucial for anyone who wants to work with canine behavioral issues.  Some dogs I’ve watched only briefly while others I have watched since they were born.  My yellow lab, Peck, was born into my waiting hands and I’ve been watching him ever since that moment.

One of the things that still intrigues me is the line between happiness and excitement.  Sometimes they look like the same emotion.  Other times there are well marked boundaries between them.

 An example of excitement for Peck would be when he sees me getting our stuff together for a walk.  His excitement is obvious, but there’s also a good measure of happiness thrown in too.

Another example that shows more happiness and less excitement would be when Peck approaches me for some petting.  Like most labs, he enjoys a good butt-scratch.  At these times his happiness is obvious but there isn’t the same wild excitement about him as there is when he’s anticipating a walk or a hunt or a training session.

Immediately after feeding is another time when my dogs show a good measure of happiness, wagging their tails, rubbing against my legs, licking my hands and face if I let them.  We could just call this submissive, food-seeking behavior, but I think it’s more a show of happiness in the form of gratitude.  Some of you may dismiss this notion as a gross anthropomorphism.  Maybe.

The reason I’m going on about the difference between happiness and excitement is because I see so many people who don’t seem to recognize any difference between these 2 emotions.  I’m sure you’ve seen it too.  One of the most common cases I see is when a person pets a dog roughly in a clear attempt to elicit an excited response from the dog.  Kids are great at this, especially young boys.  I often see young boys roughhousing with a dog and it’s easy to see they are both excited, but are they both really enjoying it?  Is this happiness?

Excitement and the hormones it releases also bear with them a measure of stress.  Hormone-fueled stress can have detrimental effects on humans and dogs alike.  It simply isn’t possible to avoid stress entirely, nor is it desirable.  On the other hand (paw), it can serve to make us better guardians and deepen our relationship with our dogs if we approach the dichotomy of excitement / happiness with a sharpened awareness rather than allowing things to “just happen”.

I’ve learned a lot just by trying to see the difference between happiness and excitement in my dogs.  Some of the stuff I’ve learned has made me a better handler and guardian.  Honestly, I’m not absolutely certain there is a clearly defined difference between happiness and excitement.  Maybe it’s kind of like comparing apples to apples.  But I know that looking for a difference increases my awareness and that has to be a good thing.

Try it!