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.