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

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.

The gift of attention, love, and trimming Milo the AwesomeDog’s nails

black and tan German Shepherd with happy expression on his faceThe gift of your undivided attention is one of the simplest, although not one of the easiest, ways to show that someone you care about them. We’ve all had those conversations, sometimes serious, sometimes playful, during which we’re 100% engaged with another person. These conversations build relationships. Two people become one. Time stops. Or flies. Attention can be an expression of respect and an expression of love.

Marilyn Frye is one of my favorite philosophers. In her book, The Politics of Reality, she cautions us to take responsibility for what we pay attention to and what we ignore. She reminds us that “attend,” and its opposite, “ignore,” are verbs. They’re action words. We are responsible for our actions.

I’m grateful to Frye for reminding me that I need to be responsible for what I pay attention to because it is easy to switch over to automatic pilot, let myself get distracted, and only attend to things that get right up in my face.

Milo the AwesomeDog does not like manicures. I used to deal with this by grabbing his paw, telling him not to be a baby, and trimming his nails as quickly as I could. This is less than ideal, and so I’m working on a counter-conditioning regime where I break the nail trim process down into baby steps and use rewards to help Milo build a positive association with each step.

He has to be OK with one step before I move onto the next, and this forced me to pay attention to him in a new way. Instead of zeroing in on his paw, I had to back up and look at all of his body language to gauge how he was feeling.

I learned something that made my heart swell. I thought I had maximal love for him, and it turned out I was wrong. You see, Milo doesn’t dislike manicures. He hates them. He presents a classic picture of a stressed dog—probably the same level of stress that I feel looking forward to and enduring a long and painful dental procedure. But even so, he submitted to those nail trims because I asked him to. It was something very difficult that he did for me, every week. And it never even occurred to me to be grateful.

I would not have noticed this if I didn’t back up and give his whole self my undivided attention.

Milo is the epitome of a fine hound.

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.

 

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.

 

 

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.