Training Tuesday: April​ 17, 2018

German Shepherd puppy wearing a graduation cap and looking at cameraThe theme for this week’s training plan is “When the ice melts.” Mother Nature dropped a few centimeters of slush on us last week, which is now frozen solid. Living on a curling rink has put a little hitch in Milo and my training giddy-up. But, this too shall pass. Here’s my weekly report:

Last week’s plan:
• Practice indicating articles in the house
• Do a few steps of focused heeling
• Do some counter conditioning for handling Milo’s paws to make nail grinding easier.

What we did:

I had to rejigger my plan on Thursday because the article indication and heeling went faster than I expected.

Article indication
After one day he responded to an article, in every room in the house, like this:

I think we’re ready for the track.

The focused heeling was fine. I added some more steps.

Paw handling was our biggest challenge.
• The trouble is that I started out using cheese as a reward. When Milo smells cheese, he goes into hyperactive, happy overdrive, which is not the frame of mind I want him to be in for nail trims. I want him happy, relaxed, and still. We switched from cheese to kibble on Thursday, and things went much better.

This coming week’s the plan is:
• Mix up 5, 10, 15, and 20 steps of focused heeling on low-distraction parts of our walks. We’ll move to a field when the ice melts.
• Tracking is on hold until the ice melts. When we start up again we’ll practice on a 100 step track with one right turn, one article on the track, and one article at the end of the track.
• Add touching the (turned off) grinder to each of his nails with lots of reinforcement.
• Keep doing a couple of Rally signs on our walks.

Stay tuned for next Tuesday’s training report!

Milo and my tips for a successful trip to the veterinarian

Patricia McConnell’s post encouraging us to thank the veterinarians in our lives coincided with Milo the AwesomeDog’s and Hoss the Cat‘s annual check-up.

I’ve taken McConnell’s advice on many things, and in the spirit of that tradition, I want to give Dr. Magyar and all the staff at Close Veterinary Clinic a big shout out.

The folks at the clinic included me as part of the team examining Milo, which made the visit so. much. better.

This was a challenging trip for Milo.

  • I brought him and Hoss in together, and Hoss cries when he’s in the car. This, understandably, upset Milo.
  • Milo met a feisty Frenchie in the parking lot. Milo didn’t react, but it got him jacked up.
  • And then, we hustled right into a tiny exam room, which removed “flight” from Milo’s fight or flight options.

He was controlling himself, but I could see that he was really stressed.

I told Dr. Magyar right away that Milo was nervous and even though the clinic was obviously busy, he took his time giving Milo treats and talking to me so that Milo had some time to calm down and get used to him being in the room. Even so, I was the one who pulled back Milo’s lips so Dr. Magyar could examine his teeth, and I suggested a muzzle for Milo’s tummy exam and blood work. (I’d already taught Milo to wear a muzzle and so that was no big deal.) During most of the visit, I stayed in charge of keeping Milo’s front end still, which meant that I could hold him and soothe him.

Our vet visit was safer and less stressful for everyone because Dr. Magyar and his staff integrated me into the team that examined Milo. I am very grateful for this. 

Black and tan german shepherd puppy lying on a cream colored sofa

Ever since he was a wee puppy, Milo has enjoyed excellent veterinary care.


Here are some things Milo taught me about how to have a good trip to the vet:

  1. Practice the different parts of a vet exam at home with lots of treats, so your dog is used to being handled.
  2. Teach your dog about muzzles, even if you think you will never need one. Milo has never bitten anyone, but better safe than sorry is a still a good moto.
  3. Watch out for things that stress your dog and avoid them if possible before or during a vet visit. Milo and Hoss will have separate trips to the vet next year.
  4. Learn to read your dog. When Milo gets wound up he gets a little wrinkle in his forehead, he lifts his right paw, his body gets stiff, and he starts to pant.
  5. Advocate for your dog and communicate with the vet and their staff.
  6. Get permission to visit your vet clinic just for fun and have little happy parties when you are there (for Milo these parties should include abundant cheese and praise).

And, don’t forget to thank your vet!

P.S. This is a dog blog and so Hoss the Cat often takes a backseat. In case you were wondering, both Hoss and Milo are healthy. And, Hoss was a charming and easy patient.

 

Training Tuesdays

On the Road with Milo documents my sometimes-literal journey to understand how people and dogs can live well together. I’m learning from philosophical and scientific research on human-canine relationships; expert dog trainers, breeders, and handlers; and my own relationship with Milo the AwesomeDog.

Milo and I are companions. We train and compete in obedience and some dog sports. And we spend as much of our summers as we can camping in Canada’s national and provincial parks. My posts on this blog range from critiques of scientific papers to reviews of campgrounds, but in one way or another, they’re all about the relationship that Milo and I share, and hence about the relationship between humans and dogs.

Training is all about relationship—attention, communication, friendship, and teamwork. This spring and summer, my goal is to train with Milo more systematically. To document our progress, hold myself accountable, and regularly remind myself that the point of the training is to develop my relationship with Milo, I’ll post weekly updates about what I’m planning and how we’re doing. These will be my “Training Tuesdays” posts.

On Training Tuesdays, I’ll report what we did during the previous week, plan what we’ll do the next week, and muse about things that went well or poorly.

German Shepherd puppy wearing a graduation cap and looking at cameraMilo’s puppy kindergarten graduation photo


 

This week’s plan

I’ve already decided that this summer we’ll work on Rally Obedience, and train for Schutzhund obedience and tracking titles. I’m adding a “Living well” category for things Milo and I can learn that will make our lives easier and more fun. This could include tricks, house manners, and things like handing for grooming and veterinary procedures.

Rally

  • Nothing formal yet
  • We’ll just practice a sign or two on our walks

Tracking

  • Article indication off the track (2 minutes a day)

Obedience

  • Between 2 and 15 steps of focused heeling with giant rewards (5 minutes a day)

Living well

  • Paw handling with very high reward rates (2 minutes a day)

Glossary

Article indication. Milo and I will be doing Schutzhund-style tracking. In these tests, he needs to tell me when he finds articles dropped along the track by laying down with his front paws on either side of an article. I’ll teach him this in the living room. When he’s got it, we’ll take it outdoors onto a track.

Paw handling. Milo does not like getting his nails trimmed. I can wrestle him through a manicure, but I would rather not. It stresses us both out and is detrimental to our relationship. So, we’ll do some counter-conditioning to teach him that it is a good thing when I grind down his nails. All I’m going to do this week is call him to his paw trimming spot and ask him to give me a paw (he already is happy to do these two things). Then, I’ll hold his paw in the same way I would when grinding down his nails and give him a treat. That’s all. Easy-peasy. The trick is yummy treats and tiny little baby steps.

Art and the science of canine consciousness

a painting consisting of a vertical stripe of blueThe frustration I feel when I see people look at abstract art and say, “I could do that,” is tinged with hypocrisy. Why? Because when I look at paintings like Blue Column, by Morris Louis, I say it too.

I say it even though I know that Blue Column is art and is important. Afterall, even though I could have produced that painting, I didn’t. And, I love color field paintings and can gaze at them for hours.

I have to remind myself that just because the bar might seem to be set very low when we call an abstract painting “art,” it doesn’t mean that the picture is unimportant or banal.

This attitude toward art helps me be more fairminded and respectful of science. Particularly of scientific research that seems to set the bar really low for canine emotion, consciousness, and cognition.

There is lots of scientific research that seems to do this. And my initial response to that research is generally pretty snarky.

For example, Juliane Bräuer et al just published a research study titled, “A ball is not a Kong: Odor representation and search behavior in domestic dogs (Canis familiaris) of different education” in the Journal of Comparative Psychology. The paper reported that when working and companion dogs followed a scent trail produced with one toy and encountered a different toy at the end of that trail, they hesitated.

My initial disrespectful response to the paper was, “No shit Sherlock, I could have told you that.”

But that response inhibits my curiosity about the research program that produced the paper and undermines my ability to think about why the researchers did that experiment and how they might have done it better.

This experiment was designed to explore whether dogs have a mental representation, a sort of olfactory picture in their minds, of objects in their world. The researchers are interested in canine consciousness, just like me.

The researchers found that pet dogs and working dogs, some of whom were trained in search and rescue, both hesitated the first time they encountered the wrong toy at the end of a scent trail, but didn’t hesitate in subsequent trials. They also found that the working dogs followed the trail faster than the pet dogs, but again, only in the early runs of the experiment.

This experiment brings some interesting things to mind:

I’m still bothered because the researchers set the bar so low for determining whether a dog has a mental representation of what she’s smelling. From my perspective, there was no need to do this experiment because the results are obvious:

  • If we think of this from an ecological or evolutionary perspective, it’s difficult to imagine a creature who uses scent to hunt for prey not hesitating when they find a surprising item at the end of a track.
  • I do tracking with my German Shepherd, Milo. When he comes to the end of a track, which is what happened in this experiment, he hesitates and sniffs around trying to find it again. That is what dogs do, and it is what the dogs in this study did. It seems that if the researchers had collaborated with an expert dog handler, they’d have seen that this was an unnecessary experiment.

But, I sometimes forget that my perspective isn’t the only one out there. What if the researchers weren’t trying to prove this point to someone like me?

Afterall, 25 working dogs took part in this study and presumably those dogs’ handlers knew what was going on and I bet the results weren’t surprising to many of those people either.

These researchers were speaking to a scientific community in which many members are skeptical that creatures other than humans and chimpanzees have rich inner lives. (I have one friend who describes rabbits as furry machines that turn carrots into poop.) When juxtaposed against background beliefs like these, this study’s results become surprising, interesting, and important.

Also, this study might be a necessary building block for more complicated investigations of canine consciousness and representation.

Finally, some people will give scientific knowledge more authority than the experience of expert dog handlers and trainers. For example, a scientific paper might convince policymakers who would not be moved by expert testimony that we need practices and laws that respect dogs as having rich inner lives.

I didn’t need this experiment to tell me that dogs have representations of what they are smelling. But that doesn’t make the research unimportant. This experiment is much more convincing than my blustering “I could have told you that” will ever be.

 

 

Summer training plans

I’ve decided that this summer Milo and I will train for an obedience title and a tracking title, and take another Rally obedience class.

BH (Begleithund Test)

line diagram tracing a heel work pattern

BH heelwork pattern

This is the first obedience title that one can get in the sport of Schutzhund. I’m interested in a BH because it seems difficult but doable. In addition to a temperament test and a traffic test, the BH involves a long heelwork pattern. Milo and I can already do all of the elements of this pattern. The trick will be to link them together and keep him focused for the duration of the exercise.

 

Tracking

Tracking is on the list because Milo is an olfactory genius (proud dog mamma talking here). He loves to sniff and it seems wrong to deny him the opportunity to develop this talent. It is also a lot of fun to work with him on a project that he finds so engaging.

black and tan german shepherd with his nose down in green grass

Rally class

Milo and I could get some more Rally titles. But Rally classes provide more important benefits than titles. They are great socialization opportunities. These classes provide a safe and controlled environment with lots of new dogs and new people who Milo can practice ignoring. Also, this instructor helps me work on being a more confident handler. I can always use this sort of help.

I called this post “Summer training plans.” This is not yet a plan, only a list of interests. More detailed plans are on the horizon.

My plan for this week is to make the plan. I’ll:

  • look into upcoming Rally classes and Rally trials,
  • set up a weekly tracking and training date with some like-minded friends, and
  • make a first pass at dividing the BH and tracking training into tiny little manageable bits for me and Milo work on.

 

Taking selfies with your dog: Spatial pressure and talking without words

It was a darn near perfect Saturday afternoon–Milo and I spent hours sauntering along the Grand River. The air was crisp and the sky sapphire blue. Male blackbird songs filled the air with advertisements of nest vacancies and promises of good parenting. I had that “my cup overfloweth” feeling and wanted to commemorate the day with a selfie.

leafless tree leaning away from blue river and across blue sky

I got Milo and me positioned so that we were in good light and had something interesting behind us. But for the love of love, I couldn’t get him to look at the phone.

german shepherd with it's back to the camera licking a short-haired woman's faceThis is not new. Taking selfies with Milo is always a trial. When I put the phone in front of us instead of giving the camera a cute head tilt, he’ll look up, look down, or turn right around. I have a disturbing number of accidental pictures of Milo’s butt.

 

I always thought it was weird that such a biddable dog worked so hard to do the opposite of what I wanted him to do.

woman with short hair and german shepherd dog looking out of the pictureAnd then it hit me. He wasn’t doing what I wanted him to do, but he was doing exactly what I was telling him to do. Sometimes I forget that we don’t have a psychic connection and that Milo’s English isn’t that good.

I said, “Milo, look at the phone,” but the act of shoving the phone in his face told him to get out of there, which he did by looking or moving away. And if I stopped him from retreating while telling him to retreat, he expressed his discomfort with the tension by licking my face.

We’ve repeated this so many times that I might have taught him that the phrase ‘look at the phone’ means back up!

It’s called spatial pressure (or social pressure or body pressure), and humans use it on each other all the time. We can get each other to move without speaking and without touching. If I move into your space you will likely move away. Patrick Swayze’s character in Dirty Dancing understood this:

 

Trainers often exploit dogs’ tendencies to move when we get into their dance space as a training technique. In general, dogs (like people) prefer to turn around rather than walk backward. One standard method for teaching a dog to backup uses spatial pressure:

 

While this method might work well for you and your beloved pet, there are lots of other, and in my opinion safer, ways to teach a dog to backup. Getting into an unknown dog’s space is unpleasant for the dog, and a dog (like a person) can interpret this action as threatening. It is not difficult to teach a dog to back up without using spatial pressure.

Back to selfies.

The best we can do is wait until our dog is in a good spot and then slip in beside them and snap a few quick pics. It might help to hold a slice of cheese in the same hand as your phone, although with Milo this usually results in a phone covered with dog spit. If our dog selfies don’t turn out the way we want them to, we have to give our dogs a break.

Remember, we are always communicating with our dogs, and we often don’t realize that we are doing it or what we are saying. I actually had the thought that Milo hated having his picture taken and was stubbornly thwarting my selfie goals, when he was just responding in an entirely reasonable way to my actions.

short haired woman looking into from between a german shepherd dog's ears

With dogs, actions always speak louder than words.

The art of shutting up: When not to give dog training advice

A perceptive and mean-spirited person might describe me as a cross between a pathological helper and a know-it-all. (A nicer person would call me “empathetic and well informed.”) If I see someone with a problem, it takes a lot of work for me to refrain from telling them how to fix it, or jumping in and fixing it myself.

One of the hardest life lessons I’ve learned is how NOT to do this. I call this lesson The Art of Shutting Up.

This weekend’s mild temperatures meant that the field at Masters N’ Hounds where Milo and I usually play was muddy. The first time he gleefully skidded out in the mud, I said, “Jiminy Cricket, aren’t you a mess.” (I didn’t use those exact words.)

But, it was a gorgeous day, and Milo needed a bath anyway, so I decided to let him enjoy the mud, and that we’d stop by the dog wash at PetValu on our way home. Problem solved.muddy german shepherd puppy

Years earlier, at a different park, Milo already found mud irresistable.


Skip ahead to PetValu where Milo, enjoying handfuls of treats and praise from the employees who were already his friends, gets started on a gentle shampoo.

All was well until another muddy dog, a lab, and its two people moved into the dog wash station beside us. It quickly became apparent that all three of them needed help.

  • The dog didn’t know how to walk on a leash.
  • It was afraid (ears back, tail between its legs, head down).
  • It wouldn’t get into the tub, so its people picked him up, and when he started to squirm, they dropped him.
  • When they finally got him into the tub and wet him down, they started to bicker about the right way to wash him.
  • He took advantage of their fight and jumped out of the tub, trotting over to say “Hi” to Milo and me.
  • When I asked them to remove their dog, they gave me death stares. (I didn’t even say “Jiminy Cricket,” just “please remove your dog.”)

The minute they walked in it was clear that the situation was not ideal so I put Milo’s bath into super-speedy mode. Poor Milo only got the most cursory blowout before I hustled him out of the store and into the truck.

As I was leaving, I thought to myself that I could teach those folks a lot about how to bathe a dog. I could tell them that they should have taught their dog to like baths before it was an emergency that it get one and that they should use lots of rewards and take baby steps.

Instead of explaining to these strangers what they should have done, or offering to help, I practiced the art of shutting up. For me, the art of shutting up involves recognizing when speaking is not going to do any good or isn’t going to make the world a better place.

Here are some situations where I try to practice the art of shutting up:

1) When the people I’m talking to aren’t in a position to hear me or when I’m not in a state of mind to be clear and kind
Those people struggling to bathe their dog were obviously stressed out, and so was I. I would have had a hard time being kind and they would have had a hard time learning anything.

2) When speaking up is contrary to other important goals and commitments 
At that dog wash, my primary responsibility was to take care of Milo. Stressed out dogs do weird things, and I didn’t want Milo around that poor stressed out pup and its people. Also, my goal that day was to spend some fun and relaxing time with Milo, not to teach strangers about dog husbandry.

3) When I lack knowledge of the context of the situation 
It is entirely possible that those people already knew everything that I could have told them, and that they were just having a terrible day. How was I to know?

The week before a squirrel was teasing Milo. It got Milo all jazzed up and he gave a mighty tug on his leash in a futile attempt to catch it. A bystander suggested that if Milo pulls like that all the time, I should use a head halter on him. I politely thanked her for the advice in a tone of voice that clearly suggested that she put a sock in it. She had no context for her comment. She didn’t know me or Milo, and she didn’t know that he rarely pulls like that. In fact, we do use a halter sometimes, but this was not one of those times. This lady could have made the situation better by saying nothing at all.

german shepherd sticking out tongue

Milo’s response to a stranger suggesting he wear a halter.


Sometimes the art of being well spoken is about knowing when not to speak.