Sunday, April 17, 2011

Who's That?

School listening face
Yesterday was a school day for me. Getting a good education is a wise idea for anyone--children, adults, therapy dogs, and household dogs of all kinds. It keeps the mind engaged, shows us new possibilities, and is in general fun! Here I am demonstrating my listening face. One of the first things I learned as a puppy was "watch me." I hear that and I make eye contact with my human. It's the basis for everything we do. If I'm barking and out of control, a quick "watch me" will often break my attention and redirect me. Similarly, if i'm in a dangerous situation a quick "watch me" can reorient me so I can hear other commands (like come, down, leave it, and other similar things).

Jake demonstrating patience
School of course is also a time to get some good exercise while we are practicing our skills. This here is my friend Jake. Here you see him practicing waiting. he had already gone over two jumps. He was asked to stop here and wait until he got the go ahead to do two more jumps. At the end he got to push an exercise ball, ring a bell, and he got a tasty little reward. Pretty fun, eh? Jake is an advanced student. He was able to do this task in two steps. His human had him do a sit/stay in front of the first jump. She walked out to this jump. She called "jump" and he did just that. When he got to the step she called out "wait" and he did just that. She walked out to the ball and called him again. Being a younger student, I worked on a different level. Sometimes when my human says jump I will bypass the jumps and just run to him. I'm learning what the words for all the different equipment mean. The goal over time is for the human to say "jump" from any place in the room and I go to the jumps and do them. That'll take a while.

Dog Walk!
Here I am doing the dog walk. It's one of my favorites, mostly because in the middle of the dog walk there are a couple of wubba kong's tied to a bar. I like to try to grab them on my way past. I'm getting pretty good at this part of the circuit. I run up and over the A Frame, through the tunnel, across the dog walk, and then onto the table where I do a down/stay. The human has to be extra careful because he has a habit of banging his knees on the dog walk--we both do this circuit while running.

My friend Sunny
We had a little break in our educational activities at school yesterday. I used this interruption in my schedule to investigate an interactive toy that we have in the classroom. See what a good job it does keeping my attention? The food the human put inside it helps of course. Occasionally using toys like this are a great way to engage your dogs curiosity--especially on rainy days when no one seems to want to go out.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

On Dog Fighting: Crime, Punishment, and Transformation

A friend on Twitter passed along an article from the Philadelphia Inquirer about dog fighting. The article itself wasn't particularly interesting or groundbreaking. Dog fights are arranged every day around the country and scores of people are watching at any given point in the day. Authorities investigate tips and make arrests. Courts pass judgement and convict people on animal cruelty charges.

The article goes on to say:

Marano said the SPCA investigates about 100 complaints of animal fighting per month. She said most of the cases involve dog fighting and cock fighting.

"Our mission, besides recovering these animals and putting a stop to this, is letting people know that it's a crime not just to fight dogs, but to attend a dogfight," Marano said.

Yes. It's a crime. Yes, in our society we use the criminal justice system to punish offenders (ostensibly to reform them) and to deter other from committing similar crimes. Does this really work? Does our system of punishing offenders effect change on either the person who committed the crime or others who are considering committing similar crimes?

No, not really. It is well beyond the scope of a short blog post to evaluate the research on the effectiveness of the criminal justice system. It would probably be more accurate if we all agreed to the purpose that prisons have in our lives. They make us feel safer. That satisfy our need for retribution.

A simple look at the statistics is stunning. According to the U.S. bureau of Justice Statistics, there are 7,225,800 people (2009 data) that were on probation, in jail or prison, or on parole. That number accounts for 3.1% of the adults in the United States. Viewed in another way, the 2,297,400 people who were incarcerated in U.S. prisons and jails makes our incarceration rate of 748 inmates per 100,000 U.S, residents. This means that 0.75% of our population is incarcerated--the highest total documented prison and jail population in the world.

We suffer a disconnect in our public discourse. On one hand, we label violence as abhorrent. We've delineated certain forms of violence as crimes that deserve punishment. In other ways, we glorify violence. We gather around the proverbial forum and enjoy the public spectacle created by some forms of culturally approved violence. We can't have it both ways.

How do we really make our world a world in which there isn't dog fighting? We transform ourselves--we strive to create a world in which we don't simultaneously abhor and yet glorify violence. We treat each other with dignity and respect. We learn to cooperate--even with those we don't agree with. Most importantly, we treat those who are most despised (those who have committed crimes) with humanity. That does not mean we condone their offences, or allow them to continue to offend. It does not mean that we "forgive and forget" or "turn the other cheek." We find ways to hold them accountable, demand restorative justice, and keep people out of society who are a risk to society.

Only then can we hope to create a world in which dog fighting doesn't exist.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Ask Maggie: How Do I Pick a School?

"Maggie, I've been accepted to several different graduate programs. How do I choose? I love every aspect of one program. I hate the price. Is the money worth the happiness in school when I will end up with the same degree on the other side?"

What another great question. Being a therapy dog I'm not as aware of financial situations. I'm told that it's important to think carefully about borrowing money for education since many humans have crushing student loan debts. With that issue aside, I'd say to go with what you love. Life is too short not to chase squirrels, take naps in sunbeams, and do what brings you joy. What better way to create a life than go to a program that brings you joy while training you for a job that will bring you joy?

Saturday, April 9, 2011

ASPCA 2011 "I Saved My Pet!" Photo Contest

I've entered myself in the 2001 ASPCA "I Saved My Pet!" photo contest. Interested in entering? Check out their website for information. Here is my entry --

"I was abandoned when i was one day old. Rescued by Peace and paws, adopted into a new home, and trained to become a therapy dog, I've been accompanying my human (a psychologist) to work. I'm by his side every day sharing my message of playful and peaceful compassion."

Friday, April 8, 2011

Ask Maggie: My Puppy is a Teenager Now

"[My puppy] has been a bit unruly since she turned two. We need good behavior, especially now that training has started for the therapy dog class. Help?"

Well that's a great question! Being almost two, I've been making my human work hard. I'm testing all sorts of limits.Never fear though, this is an easy problem to work through. When puppies get a little older they need two things in an abundant quantity: exercise and structure. This isn't a time to start harsh training techniques. Yelling at your dog isn't helpful either. Have you ever tried yelling at a teenager? Is that an effective way to modify their behavior?

Preparing for flight
Exercise. The easiest thing is to get in the habit of taking two or three daily walks. It's hard to do. I know you humans all have busy lives. However exercise is important for both dog and human. Make time for it: the benifits are myriad.  I'm marched around for 30  minutes in the morning, 30 minutes in the afternoon, and 30 minutes in the evening. The human always says a tired therapy dog is a good therapy dog. I also get lots of extra stimulation. I stop and sniff things. We visit with other people. We pass by other dogs. All of these are extra training and socialization opportunities. 

Take  yesterday for example. We took an extended afternoon walk. I discovered a discarded sandwich. I got to practice the "leave it" command. We passed by seven dogs. I got to practice sitting as they passed. For added excitement the human had me practice the "watch me" command. It was a challenge, but I spent most of the time watching my human and not watching the other dog. We do this a lot because I'm excited around other dogs. 

Having all this stimulation makes me more inclined to nap at another times during the day rather than find  creative ways to get into trouble. Keep in mind that when teens are getting in trouble they generally are asking for something to do. Give them a job and everyone is happy.

Demonstrating a down/stay
Structure. Now that I'm a teen my human is making more of an effort to structure my time. We like to have periods of intense play. For example, we might wrestle, tug, or chase squirrels. We'll do this for a minute or two. Then I'm asked to do a down/stay or a sit/stay. I do that for a minute or two. then more play. We do this three or four times several times a day. Why? Because it's fun. That's the biggest reason. We also do it because it gives me structure. There are times to play and there are times to play. I'm learning that even when I'm excited, it's okay for me to do a down/stay. Sooner or later I'll be able to get back up.

Want an extra challenge? The human has been doing this with me. We go into a fenced in area that is safe for dogs. We spend some time chasing after tennis balls and sticks. The human then has me do a down/stay in the middle of the tennis court. He walks all the way around the tennis court. Sometimes he skips, sometimes he sings, sometimes he waves around sticks, and sometimes he bounces the tennis ball. I watch. The human will reward me for staying on a random basis. Sometimes I get a treat. Sometimes I get pet. Sometimes he yells "go play" and I get to run around like a wild little puppy. 

That's not the challenge.

Puppies really can fly
The challenge is this. The human will throw the ball in one direction and then call me to him. The hope is that I will come to him rather than the exciting toy. This hasn't worked so well. I go get the toy and then I come to the human.

Never fear. This isn't a failure. It's a learning experience. The human pushed me too far. He now holds the toy and calls me. I start running and he yells "stop!" The desired behavior is that I stop in my tracks. When we first started this he had to run toward me as he yelled stop. I've gotten good at it now. So good that I add an extra flourish. When he yells stop I either go into a down position or a play bow. It's kind of cute. 

Hope this helps. Thanks for asking!

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Ask Maggie: How can I help?

I was thrilled to wake up this morning to receive my first question in the mail. I hope this is something that becomes a regular feature on this blog. Keep your questions and experiencing coming. Click on the image to your left to send me an e-mail or visit the Ask Maggie page for more information.

The question that was posed to me is a serious one. It is one that is an issue that is close to my own heart: my mother had to endure with this situation. It's an issue that many of you in the northern hemisphere of the world will face more of in the coming months as summer approaches.

How can I help dogs tied to cement?

This wasn't an uncommon sight when my human was young. He grew up in the suburbs where people had big green back yards. During the summer months many of those back yards would have a dog resting in the shade attached to a tree or post by a long length of chain. His own dogs would often spend a bit of time enjoying the great outdoors safely tethered to a chain.

The key here is that the human's dogs enjoyed this for short periods of time. Dogs weren't left languishing on a chain for hours (or days) at a time. They had access to water and shade. They had access to human companionship. They had access to stimulating and exciting experiences and environments.

Other dogs aren't so lucky. They are tied outside and left alone for hours, days, and even weeks, months, and years. My mother showed signs of this sort of neglect--when she was examined after being rescued many of her teeth were ground down suggesting she spend many hours chewing or gnawing on a chain or fence. This summer the human saw a news report of a dog who was left tied up in the back yard of a house that was foreclosed. The owners moved out without bring their dog and left him hidden in the brush for weeks without a source of food and water.

If you have a dog, and chain them up for long period of time, the Humane Society of the United States offers some tips on how you can improve your dogs experience.

There are several organizations that have put together information on how someone can help a dog who is chained up. Some of the organizations have a network of volunteers who are trained to approach people who you think might be neglecting their dogs. Your local animal officer, animal shelter, or animal creulty association may also have resources.

Here are a few resources to get you started:  Paw Rescue guide to helping chained animals; Dogs Deserve Better; and the Human Society of the United States guide A Dog's Life: Chaining and Your Community.

Saturday, April 2, 2011

Last Day Before Spring Break

Class started off normally enough today. The human and I always get there a little bit early since we all gather in the fenced in back yard and get in some off-leash play. All of us know each other, and the humans make sure we are safe by regularly practicing recalls. When the energy gets too ramped up, for example, all of us dogs are called back to the humans and we spend a little time settling down and grounding ourselves. We do this over and over again. It's great practice.

After the outdoor playtime, we get back on leash and go inside the training building. Our teacher Maureen Ross always has a few words of wisdom for us. We check in with each other on how the previous week has gone. We talk about what we'd like to work on in the class.

Those first few moments are always a nice time to connect and bond with our humans. Here is a candid moment shared between Jake and his human Kathy. They are awfully happy together, don't you think?

Some of my classmates have a more laid back attitude. Gracie, who was helping me herd around a Newfoundland named Journey, decided to recline a bit and grab a quick nap. I've seen her lay like this for hours--unless of course she's invited herself into someone's lap. She also has developed this incredibly cute behavior. She'll roll over on her back and lay perfectly still--perfectly still until someone walks close to her. She'll then use her paws to gently beckon the unsuspecting human toward her.

Class often presents me with an opportunity to practice tolerating change. That happens sometimes, doesn't it? You think you know what's going to happen. You think you can depend on a routine. Then everything changes and you need to adapt. If you can't adapt--well--you bark a lot and then adapt anyway.

You see, today Maureen had an idea. This is Maureen's idea face. Look closely. Learn this face. When you see it, there are frequently costumes involved. This is also a high probability of laughter and general silliness.

Being an adolescent, I provide the teacher with a lot of attitude when she asks me to do something that I find ridiculous. Sit? Stay? Really? Who wants to listen at school. This is my response to her idea face.

Mind you, Maureen doesn't do it alone. Please memorize the following faces. If you see any of them coming into your dog class turn the lights off, lock the door, and pretend like you aren't there. It's for your own safety. You could also find them all at New England Pet Partners -- just in case you'd like to invite them to your facility to provide a little animal assisted therapy (and humor, too).

"Pam" -- Wanted for dog drooling incident
"Liz" -- Wanted for questioning related to a howling noise disturbance
"Kathy" -- Wanted in two states for excessive treat giving
"Diane" -- Wanted for contributing to the delinquency of a dog (Gracie last scene in the back of a police cruiser)
"Noreen" -- Wanted for questioning in a herding incident
Okay -- we have that out of the way. So what did we do today? I thought we were going to do a conga line. The humans did after all have costumes on. It looks a little like a line dance, doesn't it? Here is what we did: one at a time we practiced sit/stay (or down/stay) and then one human walked away. The human then asked us to do something at a distance (for example, down -- or come interrupted by a "wait!" or "stop!"). That way we each got to practice several new behaviors in new combinations (an interrupted recall, being told commands at a distance, etc.). We also each got to work on our patience because we had to wait until it was our turn. As you can see from this picture, my classmates were all doing a great job of paying attention--that is except for me and Gracie. I was bored out of my gourd and Gracie--well--who knows what she is thinking.

Last thoughts? Dog training is important, fun, and a life long process. It's important (and easy) to learn the basics like sit and down. It's more complicated to learn those skills in different contexts. Dog school is one fun way to learn how to behave in a variety of situations. It provides constant novel stimuli, companionship, and fun. Try it out. You and your human will be happy.

Friday, April 1, 2011

Ask Maggie: How Can I Help the Homeless?

"[I have a question for you Maggie.] It is about your picture today of the homeless man under the trees. it's a little easier to approach someone in need when you have a dog.....but I was wondering what you do or what you recommend in different circumstances (more direct contact).

Where I live, we don't really see homeless camping in parks like in your photo or as I've seen in California. Obviously we have homeless but they're not in obvious places. however, we're right along a major interstate and in some areas people stand at on/off ramps near Wal-Mart or other busy areas holding signs asking for help.

They usually are in a spot where I wouldn't be able to stop if I wanted to - but one time there was a young couple with a dog standing on a cement island at an intersection. it was a 100+ degree day and they  had a dog with them, so I got a few big bottles of water, a plastic bowl for the dog to drink from, some treats and cash - told them to take care of each other and gave it to them. They seemed sincere and thankful and I was glad I did it - but when it comes to single men standing by the road....admittedly I wonder if they really need help, or if it's a "scam" (since it's near the highway).

What are your thoughts on the issue in general? Some say "if they want money they should just go get a job!" but you and i both know it's not that simple."

That's a great question, and I'm glad you asked. My experience is different than many. First, years ago my human worked with people who were homeless and mentally ill. his clients regularly lived under bridges, in elevator shafts, and in boxes tucked away in hidden corners. He has a certain degree of comfort in these situations. Second, our experience in Harvard Square is also unique: the homeless people that we encounter are always in busy areas. There are lots of people around and it feels safe. The human has worked in the square since 2004 and gotten to know the regular residents of the area, the transient residents, and a few he just avoids because it doesn't feel safe. He and I might feel different in a different set of circumstances.

So first off, I am so proud that you even thing about these things. That speaks volumes about you as a person.

Second, pay attention to your safety. Know the area you are in. Do not approach people in hidden areas, do not poke people who are sleeping or appear to be unconscious (do call 911 if you are worried for their safety!), do not approach people who for whatever reason cause you to feel unsafe.

Third--then what? What do you do? Do you really need to know if the people area actually homeless? Does it matter if they are scamming you? Do you give money? A cup of coffee? Something else?

None of that matters for me. The folks who line the streets and are tucked away in hidden corners are invisible. Take a minute of your time to watch the folks who walk past them. Some pretend to talk on the phone. Some avoid eye contact. Some show great cruelty and laugh or even spit.

These people along the side of the street are just that--people. They are people who are for a variety of reasons hurt, lost, and forgotten. Many in our society like it just like that: we can walk past them, blame them, or tuck them away in places where they cannot be seen.

We've never given money, and rarely offer water or other creature comforts. We offer something else. The human and I choose to see the people who line the side of the road. We choose to take a moment, stop and make eye contact, and extend a little bit of humanity.

It's hard to do this. It is hard to recognize fellow travelers in life. It's hard to make eye contact with a person on the side of the road and let them know you can see their plight. It's hard to say I'm sorry I can't help.

It is worth it, though. It is so worth it to learn how to really see clearly, unadorned, and without modification. In bearing witness to the experience of those around you, the possibilities of what might be expand exponentially.