Friday, September 19, 2008

Easy to please

One thing I love about dogs is that, unlike so many humans, they are generally easy to please.

One time I was over at a breeder's house, working with her to train some new show dogs. These dogs had never been on a lead before, and were learning to free-stack, which is basically standing four-square facing the handler so that the judge can see a side profile. Not too difficult, but if the dog has never been worked with before, it takes a lot of reinforcement with food to get them to understand what they're supposed to do.

Because you have to feed the dogs so frequently when they are first being trained, I usually give small pieces. I figure it's the gesture that counts. You do something good, you get a reward. The dogs are not going to stand there and measure each piece to see if it meets quota. Most of the time they gobble it down without even tasting it anyway. And if you give smaller pieces, you can train longer without enlisting your dog in Weight Watchers and trying to figure out how many points are in a serving of dog food.

At one point, the breeder noticed the size of the chunks of cheese I was feeding the dog, and exclaimed, "What is that?!"

Cheese. Duh.

"That's not a chunk," she said, taking the cheese out of my hand and breaking off a piece the size of about half of a baby carrot. "THAT is a chunk."

She then compared it with an exaggeratedly small piece of cheese that was supposed to represent my pieces. "Which would you rather work for?"

I didn't argue--they're her dogs and they'll be fed as much as she wants them to. But did the dog work any better for the bigger piece of cheese? No. (Though she'll claim that they did.)

Big or small chunk, that dog wanted cheese and was willing to work for it. Dogs aren't like humans--they rarely demand a higher salary. It's not the amount of the reward they've been given that matters as much as the principle behind it. I believe dogs like to do good work. They like knowing what to do and being able to do it well. Sure, the dog I was training wanted cheese, but I believe she also just wanted to know what to do.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Rock and roll lifestyle

Taking someone to a dog show for the first time is almost like taking someone to a rock concert for the first time, then taking them back stage to see that the guitarist and bassist hate each other, the drummer's going to shoot up in the bathroom, and the lead singer is screwing someone else's wife.

The dog show life may seem glamorous when all you see of a dog show is what's on TV. At those shows, they roll out the plush carpet, drape the exam table, and accent the ring with flower arrangements. The ribbons are long, the trophies are heavy, and everybody claps. But go to a real dog show with your eyes and ears open and you'll discover that dog show people really aren't as dignified as they may wish to appear.

A few weekends ago, I took my boyfriend to his first dog show. It was a specialty show, which means that only one breed was competing, and winning Best of Breed is the same as winning Best in Show. Many exhibitors travel great distances to compete in specialty shows, as there is greater breed competition at these shows than at regular all-breed shows. They usually occur less often, and the judges are better acquainted with the breed. Because they are special events, specialty shows are commonly held in hotel banquet rooms.

We walked in to the lobby and saw a professional dog portrait studio set up on the far wall, with dozens of sample portraits on display. Most people were dressed nicely, many in suits. We headed into the banquet room and took some ringside seats.

Instead of clapping, many of the classes ended in stunned silence from a disapproving crowd. We overheard some gossip from spectators and exhibitors standing behind us, including a comment on an exhibitor that will always be remembered as the woman who appeared to the show dressed in a full-length mink coat. When we weren't casually eavesdropping, I schooled my boyfriend on the basics of dog showing: the lingo, points and procedures of conformation.

We sat and looked at the dogs in the lineup. He leaned in and asked quietly, "Why are people picking at their mouths like that?"

It then occurred to me that there are very few occasions when respectable adults dressed in formal attire will dig into the pouch of their cheek to retrieve a tidbit of meat and feed it to their dog.

"That's called baiting," I explained. "Bait is food you feed to your dog to get their attention."

I had to chuckle. Only at a dog show...

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

False promises

After arriving home from putting Taffi to sleep, my family sat down together and my dad passed around pieces of dark chocolate. It seemed like the very type of occasion dark chocolate was made for. The chocolate was Dove, and inside each foil wrapper is a "Dove Promise" (an uplifting maxim or aphorism). My dad unwrapped his chocolate and began to simultaneously laugh and cry.

"What does it say?" I asked.

"Embrace life."

While we laughed at the irony, I looked down and read my own out loud, "Life may change us, but we start and end with family."

"Man, I got gypped!" said my sister. "Mine just says 'Dove Pure Silk Chocolate.'"

Monday, September 15, 2008

The end of an era

Saturday was the end of an era for my family. We put to rest our first and only family dog.

At nearly fifteen, Taffi's passing was hardly unexpected. We all watched her deteriorate with age, becoming uncomfortable and dysfunctional. With all of the close-calls and illnesses that Taffi had during her lifetime (mostly due to her delinquent nature), my mom was sure that some dramatic illness or trauma would be her undoing. She didn't think she would have to make the decision to put Taffi down. But, as I joke with my family, Taffi was too mean to die. She was a fighter, and she was stubbornly loyal to my mom.

And my mom was stubbornly loyal to her. Every malady Taffi suffered (and there were many) was quickly treated. Even, on one occasion, when that meant over $1,000 in vet bills for four days in intensive care after Taffi ate opossum poop in the yard. Especially near the end of her life, Mom got used to fighting for Taffi by searching for health solutions for her. She diligently took care of her, even getting up at 5:00 a.m. every morning to let her outside and feed her.

But a few weeks ago, my tearfully told me of her decision to put Taffi down. "I used to think that God was trying to teach me perseverance," she said, "but now I think He's trying to teach me about letting go."

In the car with just my mom, dad, sister, and Taffi on the way to the vet, I realized that it was the first time in a long while that we had all been together in that way. It was a snapshot of our family unit as it was years ago, before new human and animal family members were added to our lives. And it was the last time the four of us would be together with Taffi.

We had Taffi for nearly fifteen years. As we were saying goodbye to her, we were also acknowledging the ending of an era and ushering in a new one. Things are changing for all of us: my mom and dad both have new jobs, my sister is married and expecting a child, and I have many changes in my own life. Though we are a close family, our lives are taking us in new directions.

Through her own nature of determination and stubborn independence, Taffi taught us all about perseverance, but any lesson on perseverance needs to be accompanied by a lesson on letting go. In order to move into a new phase of life, you have to let go of the old one. Letting go of Taffi frees my family to fully acknowledge this new stage of our lives together.

So on Saturday, with a blend of laughter and tears, we said goodbye and learned that it's ok to let go.

Friday, September 12, 2008

Poodle for the President?

If Obama becomes President, he may move into the White House with a Poodle by his side.

Senator Barack Obama promised his daughters that their family would get a dog after the presidential race, win or lose. The American Kennel Club took advantage of this opportunity to run a poll asking America what breed should be selected by the Obama family.

The AKC pre-selected specific breeds they thought would fit the bill. They had to take into consideration that one of the Obama daughters has allergies, so whatever breed is chosen will need to have a hypo-allergenic coat. For each breed in the running, the AKC offered a brief profile.

The Poodle closely beat out the less-popular Soft Coated Wheaten Terrier to become America's choice for the Obama family.

But, if Obama is elected, is it a good move for him to own a Poodle?

Let's face it, Poodles kind of have a bad rap. Ask most people what comes to mind when they hear "Poodle," and they're likely to say "snooty."

Not exactly the image Obama has been cultivating.

But are Poodles really snooty dogs? Or is this reputation due to unfair breed stereotyping and prejudice?

Standard Poodles were orignally bred for hunting. Far from a sissy task. And that silly show haircut? It was originally done to cover their essential joints and organs, while taking away excess hair that would hinder movement in the water. These are hearty, intelligent sporting dogs. Not a bad choice for a first dog.

Aside from the Standard size, which stands at at least 15 inches tall, the Poodle also comes in Miniature and Toy varieties. Honestly, I don't think choosing one of the smaller sizes would be good for the Obama family's image. Toy Poodles were mainly bred and kept to be trained to entertain. Who could take Obama seriously with a little Toy Poodle pirouetting at his feet?

No word from Obama as to whether he plans on taking the AKC poll's advice and selecting a Poodle, but if he does, let's hope the dog is standing by his side, not held under his arm.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Little Cavalier

Little Cavalier
Originally uploaded by speakdoglish
One of the great things about trying to come up with a logo idea for a client is that I might just hit upon something I like for myself.

This is one of those things. This little Cavalier was so cute, I decided to keep it. In fact, I like it so much that I think I might make a series out of it. I think they would make cute greeting cards or stationery. I've toyed around with the idea of developing a line of designs for a while, but never done anything about it. I did some research on getting a business license and starting a small business, but never had the motivation or the time to take my design products or services to the next level.

Today I applied for a business license and got a PayPal account. Next thing to do is register a domain name and start building a site for myself. Hopefully, if I can get things rolling quickly enough, I'll be able to send out some cards in time for Christmas and maybe get some orders.

Most of my drawings end up being Cavaliers, so I'm hoping that the Cavalier community will like them. I'm thinking Cavalier designs have a good chance of selling, because most Cavalier owners collect Cavalier items, and there aren't many Cavalier specialty items around. Not like this, anyway. I like keeping it cartoony, because Cavaliers are such happy and fun-loving little dogs.

I'm a little nervous and a lot excited. Whatever becomes of this, at least I'm doing something!

Saturday, September 6, 2008

Trying to maintain his cool demeanor

After my run today, I grabbed Alfie and Butter to accompany me on my cool-down walk. I've been trying to walk them more lately, hoping to get them back to the weights they were at before they came to live with me and became subject to our couch's gravitational pull. I also want to take them for walks to get them socialized and give them more confidence. Like me, if they stick around the house too much, they can get a little shy.

In Alfie's show days, when he lived with a large number of Cavaliers, he was the leader of the pack, the King of the Yard. Whenever I took him back to visit, I could tell that he had the respect of the other dogs. The amazing thing was that I never saw him use aggression to gain respect. He simply had a presence. A cool air of confidence.

About half way through our walk, I began to see him get that presence back. He held his head higher and picked up his pace. I might as well have had him on a show lead and been gaiting him around the ring, the way he was moving.

We rounded a corner near a woman kneeling next to her flower beds. Normally the dogs might shy away slightly, taken aback by an unexpected stranger. But they did well, kept their pace. Once we were around the corner, we began to walk past the house's yard, which was surrounded by chain-link fence. The first half of the fence is lined by dense bushes, which end abruptly at a vehicle gate, exposing the yard. My dogs trotted alongside me until we passed the bushes, when a black-and-tan chihuahua, seeing us through the chain link, immediately shot across the yard toward Alfie.

Alfie, seeing in his peripheral vision what must have resembled a bat out of hell, startled and charged forward on the lead, all but yelping with surprise. Upon seeing that the charging object was nothing but a yappy little dog contained by chain link, he glanced over his left and right shoulder, clearly thinking, "Bloody hell, I hope no one saw that."

He then clipped along, escorting Butter and I home, intermittently looking over his shoulder.

Saturday, June 21, 2008

The makings of an animal trainer

Today I participated in a summer tradition: I went to the zoo with my mom.

Some of my earliest and dearest memories are of me and my mom at the zoo. When I was very young, my older sister participated in zoo camp, a program that allows kids to follow around zookeepers and go behind the scenes of the zoo before it opens. The three of us entered the quiet zoo in the gentle glow of summer mornings. After Amy was off with her zoo camp group, mom and I explored the zoo we had all to ourselves. Even though I didn't get to go behind the scenes or work with the animals like Amy, I was thrilled that I was able to see the animals before anyone else did.

Though we had free reign of the entire zoo, I usually led my mom to the most exciting exhibit, the beluga whales. They are my favorite exhibit to this day. I'm not sure I can pinpoint what exactly it is about them that I like. Perhaps it's the way their mouths curve up slightly at the corners, resembling a friendly smile. Maybe it's that they're white, like holy things. But I think it's that the beluga exhibit provides an intimacy that other exhibits don't. I think I've been closer to the belugas than any other zoo animal. (Well, besides the goats in the petting zoo, but that doesn't count.) They swim up to the underwater glass, their blubber gliding across my outstretched palm. How far apart are we? An inch? Two inches? Regardless, they are right there looking at me with their obsidian eyes as they gracefully sweep by.

We always stayed for the beluga "keeper talks," where the zookeepers come out and talk about the whales and how they train them. I paid careful attention to the hand signals the keepers used to tell the whales what behaviors to perform, so that when I had my chance to see the belugas through the underwater glass, I could communicate with the whales on my own. I stood waiting at the glass, signaling the whales to come to me. And when they did, I swore it was because they were responding to me. I thought I was talking to the whales. When the zoo was open and other children started lining up at the glass, they would all chatter to their parents while I stood quietly moving my hands, summoning my amiable aquatic friends.

I had no idea then that when I got older I would be using the same principles of positive reinforcement and operant conditioning the zookeepers use. I don't work at the zoo, and I don't train beluga whales, but I am able to form a rewarding relationship with dogs. When I'm working with them, I'm able to replicate that childhood thrill of communicating with an animal. It's so rewarding to watch them learn, and to be able to look them in the eye and connect.

I never actually went to zoo camp. I guess by the time I was old enough, they had stopped the program or something. Maybe if I had gone I would be a zookeeper today. Regardless, I am a dog person through and through, and I continue to enjoy relationships with animals through my two adorable and adoring (if not always obedient) Cavaliers.

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Dogs and the Depressed

As someone who has moderate atypical depression, I recently opted to stop taking medication and pursue mental health in more natural ways. It got me thinking--what effect do my dogs have on my depression?

They certainly give me reasons to smile throughout the day. Alfie's almost-human gentle eye contact always has a way of calming me and making me be in the moment. And Butter's ever-wagging tail and upside-down antics (in which she gets attention by going completely limp--except for her wagging tail--and flopping over on her back) remind me to smile and laugh.

But can they really be considered treatment?

I've heard a lot of positive messages like this one about how pets are beneficial to health, but I haven't found a lot of information on differences in effectiveness among specific types of depression.

For example, that article mentions the positive effects of pets on stressed stockbrokers, sad nursing home patients, or AIDS sufferers. What about people whose depression is not as easily attributed to specific environments or circumstances?

I did some quick searching through my university's databases of academic journals. While I didn't find any studies that directly answered my question, I did find some interesting study results.

  • A study published in Anthrozoos (the journal of the Delta Society) in December 2007 challenged the common assumption that owning a pet decreases loneliness. "There was no evidence that companion animal acquisition helped to reduce levels of loneliness, irrespective of whether participants already owned a companion animal at the time of seeking to acquire a new companion animal, or the type of companion animal that was acquired."
  • A study in the same journal in 1993 looked at the impact of dog ownership on depression, anxiety, and anger in working women and found that "Results did not support the hypotheses that among working women (1) pet owners would have lower levels of emotional distress than nonowners and (2) the greater the degree of attachment to the pet(s), the smaller the degree of emotional distress."
So, dogs may not be as effective a medicine or preventative measure as is generally thought.

However, I did find many studies relating to dogs and depression that had to do with the relationship between animals and the elderly or "empty nesters." Studies of those groups decisively found that animals had a positive mental effect.

It seems that while I may be able to rely on my dogs to lift my moods and lower my blood pressure, I can't count on them to cure my depression. Still, I count them as invaluable additions to my life, and I can certainly rely on them to try to brighten my day.

Thursday, April 3, 2008

Reconsidering "Fido"

An article in my local paper the other day revealed that there is only one licensed Fido in my city. The name has such a historically strong association with dogs, I guess it now seems too unoriginal to use. But the name most often used now? Buddy.

How original.

According to Wikipedia, the name "Fido" comes from the Latin word fidelis, which means "faithful." Faithfulness is a trait dogs are famous for, and even though "Fido" may now seem cliche, "Buddy"has become our modern equivalent.

I think it's time we reconsidered the name "Fido." Dignify it a little. Think about it: Buddy is the kind of dog you watch the game and have a couple beers with, but you could philosophize over a glass of wine with Fido.

But then again, why not get a little more creative?

I had a chance to puppysit these two uniquely named pups. The girl (left) is named Barbie, and her brother (right) is, you guessed it, Ken.

Unfortunately, I didn't get a chance to name either of my dogs. Because I got them as adults, they were both used to their names already. But I'm not complaining. In fact, I think their names are quite fitting.

My dog Alfie got his dignified, quintessentially English name because he was born in Britain, where naming a dog "Alfie" is not uncommon. I think it fits him, and when he is looking especially English, he even gets promoted to Sir Alfred. It suits him quite nicely.

My dog Butter, on the other hand, is a little less dignified. She has no English roots to trace her name back to. I like to think that her name is appropriate, since she melts into the arms or lap of whatever human is holding her, and she spreads out across her bed (or mine) when she sleeps. (Har-har.) But the true story (she is a little embarrassed to admit) is that she was named "Butter" simply because her littermate was named "Peanut."

How Peanut feels about her name, we can only guess, but at least it's a little more original than "Buddy."

Monday, March 31, 2008

Dog Years, A Short Film

How do you tell a dog’s story?

"Dog Years," a short film written by Richard Penfold and directed by Sam Hearn, features the monologue of a mutt named Ben played over shots of him and his owner on the beach. Captured on one roll of super 8mm film stock, the method in which the film was shot gives it the essence of a nostalgic home movie. The film has charmed audiences at multiple film festivals, and amassed plenty of praise from Internet viewers. Many dog owners recognize Ben's story as that of their own dog.

It's hard not to view dogs as having a voice, even if they can't speak. As a dog person, I'm not embarrassed to admit that I talk to my dogs. Often. Hey, at least they don't talk back, right? That would be a sure sign of crazy. Well... it took my mother speaking responses for them to make me realize that in some way, I do imagine what they might say to me.

Wait. It's not as crazy as it sounds. I promise.

Sometimes when I make small remarks to my dogs and my mother is around, she will slip in short doglish responses on their behalf. They usually fit so perfectly with what I imagine my dogs might actually say in response that I don't often stop and realize that I am imagining dogs talking. It takes a slip in her doglish, a slight catch in her dog reading abilities, for me to realize that I know my dogs' personalities so well, I feel as though I could put words in their mouths. So I correct my mother when she misspeaks.

"No, Alfie wouldn't say that. He's much too dignified."

"Butter wouldn't complain about that. Give her a bed and she's happy."

My dog-speak stems from my knowledge of my dogs' personalities, but anthropomorphizing dogs and letting them tell their story can also help strengthen the dog-human bond.

"Dog Years" shows how anthropomorphizing animals carefully, with fairness and benevolence, can help us have compassion and empathy for other species. One of the most poignant moments in the film is when Ben describes what life is like with his human.

The film shows him running through a shallow pool of water toward his owner as he begins, "Today we're spending some quality time together. This makes up for when he's been mysteriously disappearing from home, leaving me to do very little with myself. It's a pretty lonely existence, really. I get depressed and sleep a lot. When not sleeping, I roam about the house from one room to the next, getting my hopes up every time I hear the gate swing."

Try thinking about life from your dog's point of view. What would do you think he would have to say?

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

From Dolphins to Dogs: Kathy Sdao on clicker training

True or false: you can train your dog with the same methods used to train dolphins.

True. Of course, you wouldn’t ask your dog to do a backflip and toss him some fish, but there are striking similarities in how animals learn.

“All animals basically learn in the same way,” according to Kathy Sdao, a Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist who has been training animals for over twenty years. She started her career in animal training by teaching dolphins to execute open-ocean tasks for the U.S. Navy’s Department of Defense.

Sdao now trains dogs with what is commonly called clicker training, a training method based in what is scientifically known as operant conditioning. Trainers who use operant conditioning shape an animal’s behavior by creating clear consequences. The shrill of a whistle or crisp metallic click of a noisemarker are associated with rewards for desired behavior. This rewards-based training, also called positive reinforcement, is effective with more than just dolphins.

At the Point Defiance Zoo and Aquarium in Tacoma, Wash., Sdao successfully used operant conditioning to train walruses, beluga whales, porpoises, sea lions, polar bears, and otters. When lack of funding at the zoo prompted Sdao to look for another job, she turned to domestic animals.

She hadn’t yet trained a domestic dog when she and a fellow zookeeper left their jobs at the zoo and started a dog daycare facility, Puget Hound Daycare. “I was pretty cocky and thought that if I could train beluga whales and dolphins, dogs would be no problem.”

Sdao now offers her training services to pet owners through her own Bright Spot Dog Training and gives lectures and workshops on clicker training for dog trainers across the country. She says that despite dogs being more complex than she had anticipated, “Training a dolphin is not that different from training a dog. But the difference is that I’d never worked with humans before. I’m training humans now.”

“Most people come to me with preconceived ideas of what dog training is about,” Sdao says. To get past this, she says she uses the principles of positive reinforcement on her human students. “Instead of looking at what they’re doing and saying, ‘Oh my god, I can’t believe they’re popping the leash on the dog,’ I show them one step and reward them when they get it right. It’s really hard to change an adult’s habits. That’s why I love when I work with kids, because they’re really open to new ideas.” Sdao looks for this openness before she even begins working with a pet owner. “If people come to me and want to train their dog and they’re not willing to use food treats with their dog, I’m really hesitant to work with them.”

Positive reinforcement methods are fairly new to dog training. Traditional methods have focused on teaching dogs what not to do through punishment for undesirable behavior. Recently, this training strategy has been reinforced with the resurgence of wolf-pack mentality methods like those of charismatic TV personality Cesar Millan. Such methods focus on the pet owner’s ability to assert him or herself as dominant “alpha” over the dog, usually through some degree of physical force.

Because of her experience and understanding of animal behavior, Sdao believes positive reinforcement is more realistic. “The pack mentality is wrong. It sounds great, but it’s wrong. Dogs aren’t that similar to wolves. They’re physically similar, but they aren’t behaviorally similar. You have to quit pretending that you’re the alpha. I had a woman ask me ‘How do I get my two-year-old to be alpha over a Great Dane?’ You can’t. But you can get the dog to understand that responding to even the toddler’s commands gets them what they want.”

Sdao says she asks dog owners what they think their dogs would say to them if they could talk to them about training for thirty seconds. “I think what dogs would say over and over again is, ‘We’ve really been confused. We’re trying to understand you. We’re trying to get along with you. We really just don’t understand what you’re asking.”

Sdao believes that with the aid of a clicker, some treats, and a little behavioral psychology, owners and their dogs can begin to understand each other.

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Speaking Doglish

With a species as popular as dogs, you can bet the blogosphere is littered with blogs about them. How is this one different?

I'll start by stating what this blog is not.

It is not written by a dog.
I know you can't see me, but trust that I am not a dog. There are many dog blogs that are purportedly written by dogs. While I do not discourage dogs from exploring the power of written expression, my dogs realize that I have better ability to orally communicate with humans than they do, and therefore they have granted me the privilege of authoring this blog.

It is not strictly based on dog news.
Although I may want to cover dog-related news occasionally, I don't want this blog to be a reiteration of the dog news already on the Internet, and probably already covered by other blogs. I will probably only post dog news if it addresses a broader topic or concern in the dog community.

It is not a blog about celebrities and their dogs.
Don't get me wrong, what kinds of dogs celebrities have, how they treat them, where they take them, and how long they keep them all provide us with more fascinating minutiae that enable us to feel as though we know the people behind the famous faces in the magazines at the grocery checkout. It's about as difficult to ignore as reality TV, and just about as enlightening. Although it is possible to do a critical analysis of celebrity dog culture (and I am open to doing so in the future), most celebrity dog watching is done for its entertainment value, not its anthropological value.

It is not a collection of cute pictures of dogs.
Yes, I realize that I already have a Flickr account with pictures I've taken of dogs. And they are cute. But if you really want to be overloaded with cuteness, go to Seriously, if that's not enough cute for you, you should probably be a preschool teacher.

It is not a catalog.
Many dog blogs focus on dogcentric products. I'm not against the occasional inclusion of a product, as long as it is not a dog stroller or dress or similarly ridiculous item that dogs are likely to find annoying. In order for products to be featured, they should have some sort of significance and be something dogs could be proud of.

So what exactly is this blog about?

It's an exploration of dogs and life with them. How have dogs impacted human kind? How have humans impacted canine kind? What do dogs mean to us? How do we communicate with them? How do we relate to like-minded (and not-so like-minded) dog lovers?

But most of all, this blog is an expression of my passion for the domestic dog.

This is me, speaking doglish.