Training Tuesday: Keeping a digital tracking log

German Shepherd puppy wearing a graduation cap and looking at cameraI love tracking with Milo. Why? Because he loves tracking. When he’s on a trail his nose, brain, and temperament (as well as his gluttony—there are lots of treats during tracking) unite, giving him laser focus.

Folks tend to call tracking work, but it’s not like an unpleasant day job. It’s more like a vocation. He’s built for it. Called to it. Giving Milo a track is sort of like giving a budding artist a box of crayons. Tracking offers Milo an opportunity to develop and engage a talent that he loves to practice. How marvelous is it that I can do that with him?

I haven’t really been keeping records of our tracking sessions. I know I should, and so I started. Here are my notes on what we did today:

tracking notes
It was hot and breezing today, and I laid a track through dry grass and clumps of alfalfa. These are not great tracking conditions. Milo did well. He was methodical–pretty much keeping his nose in each footstep. The first corner was a bit tricky for him. He blew past it, but quickly realized his mistake, figured things out, and got back to it without prompting. He took the second corner like a pro. Good boy!

In case you’re wondering, the image above is a screenshot from a program called OneNote that I run on my laptop and iPad. This program collects files like they are pages in a notebook. I can keep notes of all our tracking sessions together and flip through them to keep track of how we’re doing, develop goals, and make training plans. This might be the beginning of a slick system.

Question: What kinds of things should I be recording in our tracking notes?

Things to pack for your dog for an RV camping trip

Milo the AwesomeDog and I spend lots of time RV camping. When we started traveling together I packed waaaaay too much stuff for him, which made getting ready to go camping a big ordeal. I’ve since streamlined the packing process. Now, I only bring what he needs and it just takes a couple of minutes to throw his stuff in the camper.

Here’s my RV camping packing list for Milo:

Obvious things

  • Food
  • Poop bags
  • Food and water bowls

Comfortable housing

I keep him with me almost all the time. When I’m sitting at a picnic table or relaxing in front of a campfire Milo rests in an exercise pen. I can attach a tarp to one side of the pen in case I need to shield him from unruly kids or dogs, and I have a fabulous reflective sunshade that keeps him cool on hot days. I’ve recently started bringing an electric fan that I set just outside his pen. It does a great job of keeping the mosquitos away.

Hiking, swimming, and kayaking stuff

I take him kayaking with me, and so he needs a lifejacket. And he carries his own snacks and water on long hikes, so he needs his backpack too. Sometimes I run his short leash through my belt and sometimes I hold it, but I find that all we need is one 6-foot leash.

Safety

I always keep a copy of his papers in my vehicle, and when we’re camping I write my cell phone number on his collar with a Sharpie in case he loses his tags. I also bring a flyer with his picture and my phone number on it (just in case). Finally, I keep a canine first aid kit in the trailer, which I supplement with Benadryl, because Milo occasionally eats bees, and a tick remover.

Fun

In addition to his toys, I bring cans of wet dog food and a couple of Kong chew toys. I have a freezer in my trailer, and I make him frozen Kongs so he has something to do on rainy days.

  • Tug toy
  • Water retrieve toy
  • Land retrieve toy
  • Kongs
  • Cans of wet dog food for easy frozen Kong filling

De-skunking potion ingredients

I always keep the ingredients for a de-skunking wash in my trailer. I’ve never had to use them, but I have a friend who had to make a long drive home with a very skunky dog, and I never want to be in that position.

  • hydrogen peroxide
  • baking soda
  • dish soap
  • disposable tarp

I bring fewer things for Milo than I used to, and we still have a great time.

black and tan german shepherd laying in green grass against a backdrop of green forest. There is a fence between the dog and the forest.

Here’s Milo at campsite 220 at Grundy Lake Provincial Park. He’s in his 48-inch Precision X-pen. This pen is a bit pricey, but it’s worth it. It’s a safer and more comfortable option than a tie-out. The black wire blends into the background and the pen has a walk-through door that is easy for people and not just dogs to use. It is simple to set up and is sturdy. 

Continue reading

Training Tuesday: Stoopid hoomins tracking with smart dogs

Milo used to be great on corners. In competitive tracking, the dog has to follow a trail around several sharp turns. This can be tricky, especially with a fast dog, because they can shoot past a corner and lose the scent. Usually, Milo takes corners like his nose is glued to the track.

That is until the last time we went tracking when every single corner flummoxed him. He never stopped working. However, instead of smoothly walking around a corner he started zigzagging all over the place searching for the trail. Not like him at all.

My friend Liz was observing us work, and at the end of that track, she kindly asked me what on earth I was doing. Wait a minute. What was I doing? I wasn’t zigzagging. Milo was zigzagging.

Let me back up a bit. Tracking is difficult for me, even though I’m not the one doing the sniffing. It is difficult because I have to lay down the track and then remember, exactly, where it goes. This maps on to zero of my strengths. My capacity to get lost is only beat by my ability to forget landmarks.

So, I thought to myself, “Self, you need to figure a way out of this.” Hmmm.

“I know,” I thought, “I can throw a small flag a meter or so off the track at the corners. Milo keeps his head down so he won’t see it, but it is easy to see from my height.”

I marked the corners for myself. Problem solved.

Or not.

When I explained this reasoning to Liz, she looked at me out of the corner of her eye: “Your scent is all over those flags.“

D'oh

Picture this. Milo is tracking along like a pro, and he encounters a T-intersection in the scent trail: the track turns right, but I threw a flag a meter to the left.

While I’m wondering why on earth he isn’t turning right, he’s wondering what the hell is going on with the track. From his perspective the person he’s tracking suddenly split in two like some gigantic amoeba.

Instead of berating me for being confusing, Milo kept his nose to the ground, sniffing here and sniffing there, trying to figure out the conundrum I created. Have I mentioned lately that he is a good boy?

I forgot that, even though Milo and I live in the same house and spend most of our time together, we live in different worlds—scientists call these worlds umwelten, which is German for “life-world.” My umwelt is primarily full of things I can see. Milo’s is primarily full of things he can smell. This is one of the things I love about tracking: Milo’s doing something that I can hardly even imagine. He has a sniffing superpower. When we’re tracking together, we are a team, and we expand each other’s senses. Cool!

However, even though I think about the differences between human and canine senses more than a person might strictly consider reasonable, I still fell back into my human bias in favor of sight.

Note to self: When Milo is tracking think of everything with the target scent on it like it’s a flashing neon light.

Also, how lucky am I to have a friend who points out my silly mistakes and a dog who works hard even when I’m goofy? ❤ (Hint: very lucky.)

German Shepherd smelling grass

Training Tuesday: When trimming your dog’s nails, good can be better than perfect

German Shepherd puppy wearing a graduation cap and looking at cameraOne of my spring training goals was to condition Milo to like, or at least more stoically endure nail trims. He always let me take care of his nails, but he hated it, and a mani-pedi left both of us severely stressed.

I put us on a pretty standard counter-conditioning plan, which we’ve been following fairly closely.  It worked. To a point. Things got better. Now, he will hop happily up on the nail trim spot, give me a paw, and sit still while I give each nail a quick grind with the Dremel.

But, we hit a roadblock. Milo calmly, even nonchalantly, accepts me grinding all the nails on one paw. Paw number two though? No way. As soon as I ask for a second paw, he starts panting. We’ve been stuck at this stage for a while, and I’ve been wracking my brain, trying to figure out why we can’t move forward.

The other day I had a thought that changed everything: why be a perfectionist about this?

Where we are now is actually good enough. There is no reason why I need to trim all his nails in one session. His nail trim spot is always set up, and it is dead easy for me to do one paw a day. It only takes about two minutes.

There are two ways that I can think about where we are now:

  1. I’ve failed to foster the perfect attitude in Milo because he gets stressed out before I’ve trimmed all his nails.
    or
  2. Milo and I have succeeded at getting to a place where it is easy on both of us to keep his nails healthy.

Option one leaves me feeling frustrated at the nail trim process and at myself for not being a good enough trainer.

Option two lets me give up that frustration and celebrate a practical success.

I have a suspicion that the combination of letting this frustration go and continuing with positive reinforcement might be just what Milo needs to continue to make progress.

But, even if he doesn’t get to a stage where he is happy to have all his nails trimmed, it is OK. We are fine where we are right now.

milo's nails.jpg

We’re taking it one paw at a time. I’d like his nails to be shorter and neater, but I don’t need to trim them all at once to get to that point. I would love it if Milo learned that a pedicure is a treat, not a torment.

Kayaking with your dog: Getting started

Milo the AwesomeDog and I both love the water, so we should both love kayaking. Right? Well, there’s only one way to find out.

Baby steps are usually the best way to introduce Milo to something new. Here’s our step-by-step approach to kayaking.

Step one: Get boat and safety equipment

my boat and I

Buying something rarely makes me so happy!

Step two: Go boating without the puppy

 

Boating with humans is fun too. Although more than half of these humans have German Shepherd Dogs in their lives.

Step three: Let Milo get used to the boat

I let him hang out with the boat until it became less interesting to him than his toys.

Step four: Use pool noodles to make an extended dog deck and add a non-slip mat

Milo has an easier time relaxing when he isn’t sitting on something slippery. I definitely want him to chill out when he’s in the boat. 

Step five: Let Milo get used to his life jacket

add dog's pfd

This didn’t take long. Milo never seems to mind his various vests and harnesses.

Step six: Put it all together on dry land

the whole package in the yard

 

Step seven: Find some quiet, clean, shallow water and give this a try.

I won’t have any pictures of this last step because we are going to get wet. It looks like there might be thunderstorms tomorrow so we might have to wait two entire days before we try this out for real. That seems like a very long time.

Wish us luck!

You’re never (really) finished training your dog

German Shepherd puppy wearing a graduation cap and looking at camera

My neighbours, bless their hearts, take a keen interest in Milo and my wellbeing. They see me load him into my vehicle every Sunday afternoon on our way to some sort of dog class and often ask when we’ll be finished with the training.

What they don’t know is that asking me when I’ll be finished training Milo is sort of like asking an athlete when they’ll stop needing a coach.

Milo and I will always to go school because:

  1. He and I can always improve our performance. We can get faster and more precise.
  2. I can use all the coaching I can get. In class, the instructor sees things I don’t see. Sometimes I get in a rut with my instructions and Milo starts to anticipate our next move. Sometimes I reward him a bit late or a bit early. Sometimes I don’t keep my shoulders square and that pushes him out of heel position. A good instructor catches things I miss.
  3. Obedience classes give Milo practice being around new people and new dogs in a safe, structured environment. Some people have this weird idea that a well-socialized dog runs off to play with every creature they encounter. This is wrong and dangerous. Not all people and not all dogs want strange dogs to charge forward for a meet and greet. A well-socialized dog can stay calm, happy, and attentive in a wide range of situations. This is particularly important for dogs like German Shepherds who tend to be territorial and to bond with only one or a few people. For dogs like these, socialization is not like riding a bike, it is more like playing the piano–they have to practice.

Milo and I both enjoy learning new things. I’d rather take Milo to a training class than go to a movie and Milo loves using that big brain of his.

black and tan smiling german shepherd in front of a grey sky and a grey lake.

Curious puppies want to learn all the things.

Training Tuesday: Vacations and the Hidden Curriculum​

German Shepherd puppy wearing a graduation cap and looking at cameraAs a philosophy professor (my day job) I spend a lot of time thinking about the hidden curriculum. The hidden curriculum includes things that get taught and learned, without anyone intending to teach or learn them.

For example, if I asked you to name a bunch of philosophers, you might mention Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Descartes, or Locke. It just so happens that all of these philosophers are white guys.

Sadly, it is not hard to find philosophy classes that only cover things that white guys wrote. In these classes, the explicit curriculum, which the professor intends to teach, concerns the ideas of great philosophers like Aristotle and the other guys on the list.

But we need to be careful about what the hidden curriculum is saying. It would be a shame if the students ended up learning that philosophers are white guys (which might be happening since white guys comprise the vast majority of philosophy majors).  No one intends to teach this, but most teaching and learning is not intentional.

Why am I talking about the hidden curriculum on a “Training Tuesday” post while Milo and I are on vacation?

Because there is lots of overlap between teaching people and training dogs. I kid you not, working with Milo has made me a much better professor. In this case, though, it is the other way around, thinking about teaching humans and the hidden curriculum is making me a better dog guardian.

Dogs and people are learning all the time. Just because a student doesn’t sit down to learn that philosophers are white guys in the same way that they sit down to learn that Aristotle lived between 384-322 BCE, doesn’t mean that they don’t pick up both messages. They don’t stop encoding memories at the end of each lecture.

Imagine using punitive methods to train a dog to sit. The explicit curriculum is about teaching the dog to sit when it’s told to do so. The hidden curriculum teaches the dog that mistakes are dangerous, that the handler is not a friend, and that the world is scary and capricious.

On the other hand, training the same behavior using positive methods, exemplifies a very different hidden curriculum. Dogs trained in this way learn that it is good to try new things and that working with their handler is not only safe but is more like play than like work.

Just because Milo and I are on vacation (and I forgot a bunch of our training equipment at home), it doesn’t mean that he isn’t going to learn anything on this trip. In other words, there is a hidden curriculum embedded in our relationship and Milo is learning that curriculum even when we are not formally training.

There are some things I do not want him to learn on this trip. For example, I don’t want him to learn to ignore my recall when we are on the shore of a beautiful big lake, and I don’t want him to learn to grab a hotdog when I am toasting it over the fire (you know how this one got on the list…).

There are also lots of things I do want him to learn, even though they are not in any training plan. I want him to learn that he and I can have delightful adventures together, that there are lots of happy, friendly people in the world, and that no matter what we’re doing or where we are, I’ve got his back.

Milo doesn’t stop learning just because I stop training.

black and tan German shepherd standing in clear water and holding a large stick

Milo has already learned that Lake Huron has an abundance of excellent sticks.