2019 Canine Science Symposium

grey fabric with a cartoon image of the golden gate bridge over blue water and yellow sand with a black outline of a dog in the middle of the frame. the words 'Canine Science Symposium 2019' are printed across the bottom of the image.I’m sitting in the San Francisco airport on my way home after a great weekend at the Canine Science Symposium.

This event drew a crowd of people who had as much dog hair on their clothes as I did and who were happy to talk about dogs for as long as I was. The 200 participants, hailing from across the US and Canada, all have great compassion for the dogs in our lives—this is a powerful common denominator uniting a group of people.

Here are a few of the things I learned:

Clive Wynne delivered an alternative analysis of the research papers claiming that canine behavioral tests are not predictive or useful. Wynne’s lesson is that we must pay attention to the statistical analyses in research papers and double check that they are asking the questions that we think they are asking. My take away is that we should keep an open mind about these tests and while they are not perfect, they can still be useful.

Kelsea Brown’s and Monique Udell’s lectures emphasized that when it comes to assessing canine behavior and temperament, context matters. This context includes things like the relationship between the dog and its handler and the position of the handler. While I bet every dog trainer in the room already knew this, there are two significant reasons for providing scientific confirmation for things that many people already know.

  • First, some people have a serious bias in favor of scientific over practical knowledge, and if those people include lawmakers and policymakers, it is useful to be able to give them the sort of confirmation that will work for them.
  • Second, this research can have an impact on how shelter workers assess dogs. Shelter workers are the unsung heroes of the dog world. I would never ask them to do an additional job unless I was confident that it was necessary. So, further confirmation from researchers about context lets shelter staff and volunteers know that it worth their while to assess dogs in a variety of ways.

I also learned a ton of practical information about nose work training from Nathan Hall. There is too much detail to share here, but lordy, the combination of chemistry, dog noses, and physical techniques was cool!

Aaaand, I got to have a drink with Denise Fenzi, where I learned that I could keep my cool even when I have serious fangirl feelings.

fehr, fenzi and wynne

From left to right Clive Wynne, me, and Denise Fenzi. I think I look a bit drunk in this picture, but I assure you I’m not. It’s just that I am really happy!

Love

Dog so loved the world…

The fourth Sunday of Advent invites us to meditate on love, which I could not bring myself to do. Why is it so hard to write a post about Love Sunday?

Because love is so important, and big, and complicated that it’s a little bit scary. Add on the fear of looking like a silly sap, and it is difficult to write a single word.

Love is important. It is one of the things that makes life good. Lots of people focus their energies on projects like fighting for freedom, justice, and equality. But, the goal of these projects is to fix things that are broken, to remove barriers to living well. They are in the service of living well. So, we better think about what living well means. For me, a life lived well includes, focuses on, love. No pressure, when it comes to getting this right…

Love is big. How do we even start thinking about it? What should be the first word we put down on the page when we write about it? The Gospel reading for the fourth Sunday of Advent usually comes from the Book of John—”For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son…” That’s a big deal. Thinking about something that big can be paralyzing.

Love is complicated. Even if a person (say, for example, me) gathers her courage to write about this big and important thing, she still has to pick something to latch onto. What kind of thing is love? An emotion? An attitude? A relationship? A union? A responsibility? It is hard to know what kind of thing it is, let alone what it is. It seems both personal and universal. It appears to include amorphic warm fuzzies, and fierce protectivity, and deep respect. Even this incomplete list includes very different kinds of things.

A first step toward understanding this important, big, and complicated thing is to look for something close at hand, something concrete, and something that I know with certainty.

Here is a 100 percent clear and certain thing that I know about love: I love this dog, and he loves me.

black and tan German Shepherd with happy expression on his face

Joy

Joy is an accomplishment.

It seems like a mean joke that the Third Sunday of Advent, Joy Sunday, comes at the darkest time of the year. It should be Despair Sunday, Desolation Sunday, Despondency Sunday. Joy? On the longest night of the year, I am generally short on joy.

Unless, Joy Sunday symbolizes not what comes easiest, but what we need most. Highlighting a need, though, can be cruel without also providing some guidance about how to fulfill it. How do I get me some Joy?

Milo meets this need of mine both directly and metaphorically.

Joy is more than an 11 on the happiness meter. It is a way of being in the world. Milo is joyful. He inhabits his world in a way that invites and radiates happiness. He expects and offers unconditional love. His universe is comprised of toys and snacks, frolicking friends, learning new things, cuddles, and comfy spots to nap. Things happen between breakfast and playtime, but it is breakfast and playtime that get most of his attention. Milo has his demons, but he is quick to respond to good things around him. His cup overfloweth.

In a sense, he is built for Joy. His temperament includes really high drives for food and prey and those drives have very low thresholds. That means that he loves to eat, and loves to chase and will do either at the drop of a hat. Put that together with his abundant energy, and you have a dog that interacts exuberantly with his world.

But, his temperament also means that he is easily frustrated and could have made him a big, mean, cranky dog. It didn’t because he learned that his environment is safe and predictable, which gives him a degree of agency and control of the world around him.

I meet his needs for food and exercise, for companionship and affection, for mental stimulation and learning. He is set up for joy both by his disposition and his environment.

So, how do I get Joy? First, I spend time with this big goofy guy. ❤

snow puppy

Then, I eat well and exercise, develop relationships with my fellow creatures, and indulge my curiosity and exercise my creativity. Those things do more than make me happy, they open me to happiness.

Peace

Life with Milo has not always been peaceful. For a long time, he divided up the world into prey and not-prey. If something moved, it was prey and needed to be ‘neutralized.’  Our walks followed complicated routes that avoided bikes, dogs, and big men. It was exhausting.

I learned that peace requires work.

I had to learn about German Shepherds, develop a relationship of mutual respect with Milo, and give him a job to do and some fair, consistent rules to follow. All of that, plus some time to grow up, made for a much better life.

The second sunday of Advent is all about peace: “The wolf will live with the lamb; the leopard will lie down with the young goat. The calf and the lion will graze together, and a little child will lead them.”  But just one verse earlier there is a whole lot of talk about truth, justice, and integrity. They go hand-in-hand with peace. Peace is something you have to work for.

orange and white tabby cat and black and tan German shepherd dog sleeping side by side on a quilt


OK, so here we have the wolf and the leopard snoozing together. It’s not quite biblical, but there is a whole lot of peace going on.

Hope

Milo exemplifies the message of the first Sunday of Advent. He’s the most hopeful creature I’ve ever had the luck to meet.

I often wake up from a nap, face-to-face with his big nose and bright eyes, to find a ball, a tug, and a stuffy toy lined up beside me.

The message is clear, “I’ve got it all set up in case you want to play. Whatever toy you like, I have them all ready for you.”

German shepherd dog with intense and happy facial expression.

He’ll often give guests a ball and step back expectantly. If they have even a tiny smidgen of desire to play, he’s ready.

I love December—Christmas and Yule and the solstice. It is a cozy month to take stock and get ready to start again, get ready for the light.

For me, the First Sunday of Advent is about being ready for and open to good things in the coming year. It is about maintaining hope in the face of despair, which is a challenge when democracy is crumbling, and the planet’s on fire.

So, this season, in particular, I’m grateful that Milo expects, anticipates good things. He is always ready. He reminds me how to hope.

Obedience titles, trust, and the good life for dogs and their people

One of the fabulous side effects of passing an obedience test that includes stringent temperament and traffic elements is that I feel much calmer and more confident taking Milo out and about in the world. st jacobs

Milo and my market booth would sell advice on how to be Very Good.

The mantra among many of my dog friends (that is the people who train and handle dogs) is “trust your dog.” This rule applies most concretely during tracking and scent work because we are counting on our dogs to smell things that we can’t smell. There is little choice but to trust your dog. However, the rule also applies more generally to how we interact with our working canine companions.

At first, the “trust your dog” rule seemed to conflict with my own rule of thumb for dogs and humans, and even tools and institutions: “Trust is earned.”

But, these two rules go hand in hand. The rule is not “trust someone else’s dog.” It’s “trust your dog.”  A dog who is your partner. A corollary of  “trust your dog” is “trust the training you and your dog did together.” When you’re prepared for a dog trial, you focus on doing your part of the exercises and count on your dog to do what he’s practiced in training.

When Milo earned his BH this month, I learned about another aspect of this rule. The judge put Milo through a traffic test that I thought was pretty strenuous.  At one point we had to walk through a crowd that was denser than Times Square on New Year’s Eve. In the midst of this crowd the judge reached over Milo and gave me a push, and then, in that situation, I put Milo through a set of obedience exercises. That is some serious pressure. Milo did great. I was elated and, tellingly, surprised.

Milo exceeded my expectations, and this test taught me that I can trust him, and expect him, to keep an even keel in a wide range of situations. This has improved the quality of life that we share.

This weekend we went with friends to the St. Jacobs Farmers’ Market. It’s a huge market—lots of people, vendors yelling above the crowd, food stalls and the attendant smells all over the place. Not only did Milo handle it like a pro—happily curious and pleased with all the people telling him that he was handsome—I had a good time too. Life is better when you know you can trust your dog.

Milo earned his BH :)

His email signature line now looks like this:

Milo Fehr BH, RN, CGN, SPOT

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I’m grinning here because the judge just encouraged Milo and me to continue in the sport.

He has titles from the German Shepherd Schutzhund Club of Canada, the Canadian Kennel Club, and the United Kennel Club.

I’m grateful to all the people and dogs who helped Milo and me along the way. Milo and I extend huge thanks to Cheryl Bishop, Heidi Grasswick, Jess Parent, and Liz Parent all of whom generously shared their skill, time, support, and expertise with Milo and me.

Thanks also to the London Schutzhund Club for running a well-organized trial, and for providing a kind, supportive, and sportsman-like environment.

Finally, it was an honor for Milo to earn this title under Judge Raino Fluegge, who was compassionate enough to remind me to breathe.

I was most proud of Milo’s performance in the Down out of Motion with Recall and the Test in Traffic.

In the Down out of Motion with Recall, he and I both performed at a level that reflected our best practice sessions. By this time in the routine I had worked through some of my nerves, and so Milo settled into his normal self. His heeling was attentive, and his recall was fast and sure.

It might seem weird to be proud of the Test in Traffic. But, three years ago I would never have dreamt of even trying such a thing, and yesterday Milo pulled it off with style. He kept his cool and attended to me while walking past a car, bike, jogger, other dogs, and a crowd of whistling, waving, clapping people. He performed basic obedience in a dense, jostling crowd, even after someone pushed me. Finally, he maintained a sharp, alert sit when I tied him out and left him alone while other people walked their dogs past him.

Milo and I have lots of work on but for now, I’m focusing on what went well. That, and the fact that he earned the title.

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This trial left me enthused about the sport and fiercely proud of Milo.