Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Building Focus

I don't know about you, but I think that being able to focus is a skill that is built over time. Paying attention is certainly not a skill that I was born with. I've been thinking about this for a few weeks now. Nearly every time I go out walking with Jason I come across another dog--or even a child--that reminds both of us that paying attention is a skill that has to be practiced and practiced (and yes, then practiced some more).

For example, consider my interest in Canadian geese. It's in my nature to chase after them each and every time I see them. I'm a herding dog by breeding, so when I see geese I want to gather the gaggle and move them back and forth across the field. It doesn't matter if Jason tells me to sit, or stay. It doesn't matter if he yells at me to sit and stay. Sooner or later I'm going to move and do what I'm supposed to do (herd those pesky geese).

Thankfully Jason doesn't yell at me. He usually remembers that I'm just a little puppy, I need lots of reminders, and over time I can grow into having more focus and attention.

Today in class we had some great opportunities to build focus and expand attention. After a play period out in the fenced in yard at school, we all gathered inside and took a few minutes with our owners to get calm and centered.

Being a puppy, this was a hard task for me! I wasn't done playing. It took me awhile but I did settle down. How did I do it? Jason consistently noticed every time I looked at him. When I did, he said "focus", clicked the clicker, and gave me a reward (a pet, an excited "good girl", or a bit of food). While the other dogs were more interesting than him, I liked the reward so I had lots of incentive to keep looking at him.

When everyone was focused one dog/person team would get up and slowly walk around the room. While this was happening the other dogs had a task: keep their focus on their owners. Easier said than done with all the cute fur balls running around.

I did pretty well at the focusing part while we were sitting down. When it came to my turn to walk around the room, it was a little more challenging. I've got two things working against me: I'm part Basset Hound so my nose is powerful and I need to smell everything and I'm a puppy so everything is new and I want to check it out. I did some tugging and pulling on the leash.

Jason had a decision to make. He needed to make a correction. This could be done by pulling on the leash and turning in the opposite direction. Most of the TV trainers do some variation of this move. Jason could be really ineffective and yell at me (do you listen more when you are yelled at?). He could redirect my attention by saying focus and rewarding me with attention or a treat when I look. What did he do? He went with the last choice. He let me do what was in my nature (sniff and explore) and caught me each and every time I looked at him (a click with the clicker  immediately followed by a good girl or a small piece of food).

It takes a lot of time and energy to teach a dog to focus. More dramatic interventions like yelling or hard yanks on a collar that tightens around a dogs neck might quickly teach me to follow close because if I don't something bad will happen. Do I want to learn that bad things happen when I explore and discover new things? Not really: I will become afraid of discovery and curiosity.

It takes an investment of time and energy to teach a dog to focus--and build attention--through the method that Jason has picked for me. It's worth it--I learn that its safe to explore new things but I also learn limits. I develop a close and intense relationship with Jason: all this focusing and looking at him teaches me that when he's around, good things happen; when he's around I am safe; and when he asks me to do something and I comply, even more good things happen. Why would I not want to listen?

Friday, January 22, 2010

DNA Testing

Well this is unexpected. I had been under the impression that I was part Basset Hound and part Blue Heeler (aka, Australian Cattle Dog). This evening I got an e-mail from Melissa, the woman who runs Peace and Paws. That's the organization that rescued me and my siblings from the shelter and fostered me until my home was found. Cactus Jack, one of my litter mates, got a DNA test. His new owners were curious about his heritage.

I am indeed part Basset Hound. For those of you who are curious, Basset's are short-legged sent hounds that were bred to hunt rabbits by scent. There aren't a lot of rabbits running around where I live. Squirrels work well, as do the Canadian Geese along the river.

Basset's usually top out at one foot in height at the withers. However they are stout muscular dogs weighing between 40 and 70 pounds. They are usually brown and black, most often spotted, but do exist in a variety of colors. They are considered a friendly breed though "forget" training when a reward is not present (those of you who have met me have no doubt figured out I have this quality). Bassets are also a very vocal dog--howling and barking when they want something, or a low murmuring whine to get attention (I especially do this when falling asleep).

Training needs to be persistent, as Bassets listen with their noses more than their ears (strange, since they have such big ears). They can be stubborn, but highly motivated by food and respond well to positive reinforcement methods (e.g., clicker training).

I am also part Blue Heeler, also known as the Australian Cattle Dog. These are medium sized dogs with short coats. The dogs have either brown or black hair distributed evenly through a white coat (which ends up looking red or blue). They are a herding dog originally developed in Australia (thus the name, silly) to drive cattle over long distances of difficult terrain.

Female Blue Heelers are between 17 to 19 inches tall at the withers and weight between 30 and 60 pounds. The mask on Blue Heeler's face is one of the most distinctive features of the dog. The mask is a black patch over one or both eyes. If it's on one eye is a single (or half) mask. If it's over both is a double (or full). Have you seen my pictures? As a puppy I had a double black patch. As I'm growing up that patch is turning brown. Kind of cute, no?

Blue Heelers are known to have a lot of energy, abundant intelligence, and an independent streak. They are not aggressive dogs but form strong attachments with their owner. This can lead to heelers being protective of their owners and their possessions. Heelers require copious exercise, companionship, and a job to do. By nature, they tend to herd people by nipping at their heels. Particularly if those people are young children who run and squeal.

Now here is for the surprise. The genetic testing indicated that I am equal parts Basset Hound, Blue Heeler, and Collie. Collie? What?

So I got my paws onto the computer and read about Smooth Collie's on Wikipedia. There is a lot left for me to learn since I've not done any previous reading about collies.

I'm attaching a picture of a smooth collie that looks just a little bit like me. This is considered a large dog, with females ranging from 22-24 inches tall at the withers. Weight is from 45 pounds in females to 75 pounds in males. The dogs come in four colors. Sable (that was Lassie); tricolor (black with tan and white markings) and blue merle (silvery gray marbled with black and tan markings); or white (mostly white with heads and usually a body spot of sable, tri, or blue color).

These are sociable dogs that are considered easily trained. Collies are considered smart and eager to please their owners. Training usually involves a light touch since they are sensitive to correction and don't respond well to harsh treatment (would you?).

Collies are herding dogs, so like the Blue Heeler, they need a job to do.

It's interesting learning about my genetic background. It helps me understand some of my behaviors and gives clues how to best shape my behavior toward things that I instinctually want to do. It also hints how to best engage me in training.

Have you learned about the heritage of your dog?

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Maggie Graduates/Real World Training Is Important

I was a little delayed getting my graduation certificate. The winter holidays really got in the way of my regular attendance in class. Nonetheless, I am indeed now a graduate of my level one puppy class. I celebrated this morning by romping around with six other dogs for nearly 45 minutes. That's what I call a fun time.

I overheard the most interesting conversation. People are actually training their dogs with their Wii. While I'm not sure if the thing about the Wii is true, I do know that an awful lot of people replacing dog classes with television shows (It's Me  Or The Dog, Dog Whisperer, etc.) or DVDs that they purchase.

This isn't really the effective choice for dog training. I hope you think so too. Reading books about dog training and watching programs are important: there is a lot of information to be learned. It's important too, however, to get some real life training. Part of why puppy class is so important is that I get to play with other dogs. In doing so I learn how to be a well socialized pup. I get feedback from other dogs when I play too much or too rough; I learn how to give feedback when I'm doing playing or don't like how the playing is being done. I also learn how to respond in different environments. I can sit fine at home. It's much more difficult to sit and stay when there are other dogs milling about. Likewise, I can come when I am called. It's so much harder to pay attention when I'm called in a room full of frolicking dogs.

Please sign your dog up for a class today!

Friday, January 15, 2010

Therapy Dogs in Action

My therapy dog colleagues who work with other kinds of clinicians have a much clearer job description. Take for example Rocky, a five year old golden retriever who works alongside a physical therapist.
An article in the Bellingham Herald talks about a young girl with schizencephaly, which is a rare disorder characterized by abnormal clefts in one or both halves of the brain. In order to help with the development of muscle coordination and strength, the young girl learns to move Rocky's leash from hand to hand as well as brushing his fur. The end goal of this exercise, along with others, is for her to learn muscle coordination, increase her ability to grasp and release, control her torso and posture, and build strength in her arms. Not a bad treatment outcome to get from hanging out and making a dog feel good!

Rocky also helps the young girl during painful exercises. Her muscles are very tight and with Rocky sitting on her, she stretches her hamstrings and repositions her pelvis. She ordinarily wouldn't tolerate this exercise, but with the help of the loving presence of Rocky, she is able to make it through the experience. Still not done working, Rocky is helping the girl learn to stand on her own. With the support of Rocky, the young girl practices standing with her hand or hip resting against the sturdy stable dog.

What a wonderful way to engage a young child in her treatment.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Bone Burying Behavior

Sorry that I've not been a regular blogger recently. We took a trip over New Year and Jason had succumb to some sort of nasty bacteria. In that I'm a dog with no fingers, I rely on Jason to help me type. He's not been feeling up to it over the past week. It looks like I'm back up and running!

Those of you who work with me in the office no doubt have seen me burry a bone. Okay, I don't actually bury the bones--there isn't any dirt in the office. I tuck bones into the corners of chair cushions, under couch pillows, or wedge them behind objects on the bookshelves.

This is a clip representative of this behavior. It wasn't actually filmed sideways but I can't figure why it shows up this way on blogger. Maybe the cats have something to do with that? I'll go chase them and make them tell me what they did later.

So why do dogs bury bones? I did a little research to find out. Not all dogs will bury bones. Whether we do or not is dependent on our genetic heritage. Over the few thousand years that dogs have lived with humans, dogs have evolved from our wolf ancestors. Various genetic lines have kept various behaviors that wolves displayed. Some dogs display very few--if any--behavioral traits of wolves. Some breeds of dogs display many.

Burying bones is thought to be a genetic trait that links back to wolves in the wild. One of the more important activities that wolves engaged in was finding and maintaining an adequate and nutritious food supply. Wolves sometimes would kill prey large enough to feed the entire pack. Other times they might only catch bite-sized creatures. During abundant times, there was more food than needed. The wolves however never knew when the abundant times we end: sometimes days or weeks might pass before a kill.

Bones, in particular the ones filled with marrow, are nutrient-rich. To hedge against those times where food was not abundant, wolves would cache or hoard these bones in or near their den. When food was scarce, the pack would be able to rely on these bones to keep them alive.

Caching or hoarding food is a common behavior among dogs, wolves and foxes. Squirrels do it, and even camels too!

So why do I bury bones in the office? I'm fed a healthy and nutrient rich diet which helps me feel satisfied, healthy, and safe. When I come across a tasty treat that I don't need, I tuck it away somewhere just in case my food supply dwindles. I also do it because it's fun. 

Monday, January 4, 2010

Home From Vacation

Traveling by car with dogs in the winter can be rough--especially in blinding snow storms! Home safely now and will be working on some new blog posts. Here I am watching the snow during the long drive across I-90.

Anyone out there have any good suggestions for traveling by car with dogs?