Training Tuesdays: Tracking around corners and heeling in the front yard

German Shepherd puppy wearing a graduation cap and looking at camera

Last week I strengthened my resolve to treat Milo like the smart and accomplished fellow that he is, which is a challenge because he will always be my fuzzy-pants, darling baby.

But, I managed to set the bar high and he leaped right over it (mostly).

Tracking. I worked him on tracks that were about 200-paces long with two corners and two articles. Milo the AwesomeDog earned his name on the corners–he corners like he’s on rails! I was so proud of him.

We stumbled a little bit over rewards on the track though. I drop kibble on the track every 5 to 10 steps. On the 10-step intervals, Milo tended to swerve off the track and sniff around. I suspect he was concerned that he missed a piece of kibble–his combination of intelligence and gluttony led to an occasional screwball performance.

When he did this I stood still and let him work. He always got back on track. I contemplated correcting him because we have a ‘no personal sniffing’ rule, which he might have been breaking. But I held off to give him a chance to figure this out on his own.  Milo takes joy in sniffing. I want to be the person who helps him flourish as a sniffer, not the person who scolds him for sniffing poorly.

german shepherd dog on a brown lawn walking around a corner with his nose on the ground

My friend Jess caught this pic of Milo on a corner.
I’m at the other end of that yellow leash.


Focused heeling. Why should Milo’s middle name be Heisenberg? Because by observing him in heel position I knock him out of heel position. Hahahahahaha.

Ok, so the joke isn’t funny. And gets the quantum mechanics wrong. Everyone’s a critic. Whatever.

Here’s the deal. In the house, Milo sits in perfect heel position. Anywhere else he sits about six inches too far away and at a weird angle, and he tends to glance away at butterflies and buzzing bees. In those distracting situations, I have to pay close attention and reward him like crazy when he gets it exactly right.

But, for me to know if he is getting it exactly right I have to look at him. And when I twist my body so that I can see him, I push him out of position. By observing him, I move him out of the position I want to observe him in. (You’re welcome. Jokes are always so much funnier when you explain them.)

Luckily I’m resourceful enough to work around the AwesomeDog Uncertainty Principle (eat your heart out quantum mechanics). I bought a few big cheap mirrors that I can use to observe Milo without compromising my own position. By leaning a mirror against my house, another against a tree, and a third against my car, I can observe Milo and reward him when he’s got it exactly right. Yes, it looks bizarre, but Milo is doing really well and that’s what matters.

Just a quick update on our two other goals. We’ve been attending Rally class, which is fine, and working on Milo’s attitude toward nail trims, which is still going slowly. I’ll have more to say about these projects in later posts.

Our goals for this week are simple: more of the same.

Cheers!

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.

Training Tuesdays: April 24, 2018, Milo needs a challenge

Hi fans! This is a short post because it’s grading season, and I’m up to my eyebrows with student work from my Philosophy 271: Animals in our Lives and Philosophy 458/673: Feminism, Bodies and Biology classes. I had the pleasure of working with two groups of fabulous students and so the grading is not that bad. But, holy smokes, is there ever a lot of it.

I had an epiphany this week—I’ve been treating Milo like a baby and he’s bored. I was so focused on splitting his training tasks into tiny pieces that I was slowing him down and frustrating him.

I had this epiphany because my friend Liz said, “Carla, you need to give him more difficult things to do.” Does it count as an epiphany if someone straight out tells you something? Probably not technically, but this week had an ‘epiphany-feel’ about it.

After that fateful conversation with Liz, I gave Milo long tracks with multiple articles—he did a great job. No more waiting for him to find an exact heel position. I simply demanded it and he stepped right up and met my higher expectations. And in Rally class, which we just started, I demanded serious attention, which he gave me.

Note to self: “Do what Liz says more often.”

So, this week the plan is to do more of those things: long tracks, precision in heeling, and focused attention even in a distracting Rally class. I am feeling hopeful.

You might remember that I’ve also been working on getting Milo to tolerate a manicure. In the last couple of weeks I’ve come to see that Milo deeply despises have his nails trimmed. So, I’m keeping us on a baby steps schedule for this counter-conditioning procedure–tiny steps and lots of hotdogs.

Next week I’ll fill you in on our progress. Cheers!

Black and tan German Shepherd sniffing brown grass

Milo has what you call a “deep nose” when he tracks and that is a good thing.


 

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.