February 25, 2011 § Leave a comment
the new URL is
It is still a WOrdpress Blog, jsut no longer hosted by WordPress. Thanks for understanding.
February 13, 2011 § Leave a comment
Rollo, a medium-sized piebald mix-breed, was Jack London’s playful childhood companion, and taught him that dogs feel “instinct, sensation, and emotion, and are capable of simple reasoning.” In his essay “The Other Animals”, London credits Rollo with inspiring him to look deeper for the possibilities in dogs, and helped form the basis for his classics Call of the Wild and White Fang. Those two books, featuring canine protagonists that demonstrated reasoning, felt emotions, and acted on loyalties, have inspired generations of dog lovers (including this writer) to include dogs in their lives. Jack London lived 1876-1916.
February 12, 2011 § 3 Comments
My wife and I adopted two female cats at the same time, Sweety-Pie and Lopsy. Though they looked alike, and got along well, they were not related, and were both female strays from different cities in western Washington. They were both around four years old. On the drive home we changed their names to “Pie” and “Lorena”, and a few minutes after that, we started calling Lorena “Larry”. Pie was the bossier of the two, and instigator of wrestling matches and generally more of a trouble-maker.
Pie was a very rare coloring called tortico: half tortoise-shell and half calico. Tortoise shell cats are known to be a little aloof, and Pie was that, but also affectionate in her own time, as calicos are known to be. I grew to be very fond of her rare but enthusiastic snuggle sessions. When I brought home Iggy, our bullmastiff, a few months later, Larry was a little scared at first, but Pie walked right up to him and bopped him in the noise. We would occasionally find a single little droplet of blood atop Iggy’s snout, and we knew that meant he had been investigating Pie a little too closely. Her confidence fascinated me.
We have always kept our cats mostly indoors, though we allow them to explore the backyard, and if they hop the fence into our side yard, we do not panic. They always come around to the front to be let in, or hop back over the fence. They sleep inside, and never go out in the dark or in bad weather. Pie, however, would fling herself against the door and yowl if she didn’t get to go out once a day. Even right after using her litter box sometimes, she just had to go out and smell the rain, or whatever it is that cats do.
Pie loved to be near me, and would pester me endlessly while I worked at my computer. Finally, I realized I was approaching the problem all wrong (I had been moving her away from the desk altogether), and I brought home a small cat mat and placed it on top of my printer. She did not much like working on tricks or behaviors, but she learned a pretty good stay. The cat bed became a favorite spot for her, and I rewarded her for staying on it, which she would do for hours while I worked at my desk.
Our animal family kept growing. We adopted a neighborhood cat, Dahlia, which had been abandoned by its family when they moved. Pie and she knew each other from the back yard, and tolerated each other. We adopted another dog, Frankie the rat terrier-mix, and Pie explained to him whose house this was (hers) and they got along pretty well, too. A friend lived with us for awhile, and brought along her cat, Simon. Pie didn’t really like Simon, but she didn’t hate him, either.
One day, about two years after we first brought Pie home, she disappeared. We had, at that time, two dogs, four cats (including her), and three adult people living in our little house. I am ashamed, but I admit I didn’t notice she was gone the first night. The next morning, my wife called me at work and asked when the last time I had seen Pie was. It had been the previous afternoon. Pie had a microchip, and the information was properly registered to me. I called the company to double-check and they confirmed what my records showed. She had a collar and a tag, with my home and cell numbers on it. I had never seen her go further than our neighbor’s yard, but over the next week, I put up posters around the neighborhood offering a $100 reward. I checked the local animal shelter, and put up ads on Craig’s List every day, offering $100.
I hired a lady who advertised that her dog could sniff out lost pets, and I paid her $100.00 up front, but I never heard from her again, and she never returned any of my calls. I am pretty sure she was a scam, though I know there are legitimate services that do search for lost pets. After a couple months, I pulled down the signs and stopped posting the Craig’s List ads.
I decided Pie was either dead or had lost her collar and been found by someone not savvy enough to check for a microchip. We have raccoons in the neighborhood. Perhaps she had been the victim of a raccoon, or a vicious dog. I fantasized that I would get a call and someone would have finally taken her to the vet, and her micro-chip would be found. Mostly, I felt terrible guilt for not providing a good enough home for her, for causing her to run away to wherever she had gone. Surely she would have come home that same afternoon if she hadn’t decided to go far away from that huge household of mammals.
During the year that passed since the day Pie didn’t come home, I wrestled with my guilt. I never should have let her out of the house at all, yowling be damned. I should have done something about those raccoons. I shouldn’t have let our friend move in with her cat. I should have worked more with Pie so she would have been more tolerant. I should have put up more posters, placed more ads, offered a higher reward, something… where the hell was my cat???
Last week a man called and spoke to my wife while I was at work. He was a plumber working on the 3-year reconstruction of Whatcom Middle School, just on the other side of our block. While working on the furnace/ boiler system, he found Pie’s mummified body, and called the number on her tag. The man said she was probably overcome by the exhaust and fumes of the furnace. He found her curled up in a corner, but not in any obvious distress. From our back fence to the edge of Whatcom Middle School is approximately 200 feet. Pie had not run away. She had apparently wandered where she should not have wandered, fell asleep in a warm spot, and died of gaseous asphyxiation.
I have cried a lot this last week, because now I know I will not get the call I had hoped to get, from a shelter worker or a veterinarian who found Pie’s chip. There will be no call from a kindly old lady who finds Pie on the other side of town living in a field off of mice and voles, who finally gets close enough to get my number off her tag. None of my fantasies about Pie’s return can come true, but none of my worst fears about her demise are true, either. She was not eaten alive by raccoons, or stolen and sold to a research facility. I feel guilty, of course, for letting her out at all, and I wonder why she was exploring the school, but I am relieved to know she died peacefully. I miss her terribly, but it is better to know.
February 8, 2011 § Leave a comment
History and Theory: Lures, Rewards, Whistles, Clickers
Contemporary, reward-based animal training has its roots in marine-mammal training. During the mid-twentieth century, people began trying to train captive dolphins and orcas using negative reinforcement, or coercion methods, just as people had been training dogs and horses. The trainers prodded and poked the cetaceans; all of the animals reacted in one of two ways: they would either take a big breath and sink to the bottom of the pool in the center and stay there until they couldn’t hold their breath any longer, or they would swim to the far side of the pool and keep the entire pool between them and the trainer. In no instance did any of the animals actually even attempt to do a behavior in response to being pushed or prodded.
This complete lack of success using coercion methods, combined with the simple practical problem of trying to figure out how to force an orca, or even a dolphin, to jump in the air, or how to punish them for not doing something (imagine hitting a 2,000 pound carnivore with a rolled up newspaper) caused the trainers and biologists to rethink their methods and start from a different place altogether. It took a lot of experimentation, but what they ended up doing worked so well their methods allowed the trainers to teach the animals to do things they hadn’t even considered possible. Most of us have seen, at least on television, coordinated acrobatic displays of dolphins and orcas leaping, flipping, towing humans, even swimming backwards while most of their bodies are out of the water.
The trainers taught the animals to do these things by using positive reinforcement and by shaping the performers’ behavior using markers. With marine mammals, the best marker was found to be a whistle, and this is the precursor to the clicker and clicker-training used with dogs, cats, horses and even chickens today. The first step was to cause the cetaceans to identify the whistle as a reward in itself. Like Pavlov with his bells and metronomes, the trainers blew the whistle each time the animals got a fish. Very quickly, the animals associated the whistle with something positive: being fed a fish. This allowed the trainers to use the whistle as an immediate reward (it is difficult or impossible to get a fish into the mouth of a dolphin at exactly the moment it performs a requested action; relatively simple to blow the whistle at just the right moment). The animals quickly learned the sound of the whistle meant fish was coming, just not at that moment, and so the whistle became its own reward, and a marker.
To teach a dolphin a simple (for a dolphin) trick like jumping out of the water, the trainers waited until the dolphin did it on its own, then marked that behavior with the whistle and rewarded it with a fish. To teach the dolphin to do a flip, they would lure it by using a fish on a pole. Eventually, the dolphin would do the flip as it followed the fish in the air. When it did, the trainers would mark that with the whistle and reward it with a fish. Very quickly, the tricks got more complicated, and possibly the most amazing part was that other untrained dolphins would mimic the trained ones, hoping for their own whistles and fish.
In 1963, a biologist named Karen Pryor signed on as a dolphin trainer at Sea Life Park in Hawaii. She was an expert dog and horse trainer, who had great success using traditional methods with those animals, but who had to relearn everything when working with cetaceans. When she left Sea Life Park several years later, Pryor tried using the same general principles she had learned in working with sea mammals on her dogs and horses. The effects were immediately obvious, and quite astounding. In one year she trained an adult dog for obedience competition. Conventional wisdom up to that time said that serious obedience competitors needed at least two years, and that starting with an adult dog, instead of an adolescent, was all but a waste of a time. She entered her dog and won, and did it without using any “corrective” techniques or equipment at all: no choke chain, no hitting, not even the use of “No!” To help prove this was not, as many other trainers claimed, a fluke, she taught her methods to another trainer, who used an adult dog with little or no obedience training. This time, it took only six months, and the new trainer and dog won the same competitions Karen Pryor had won the previous year. People began to notice, and asked for more information.
Pryor did more experimentation and research, and trained horses, dogs, chickens (turns out chickens are pretty smart, given the chance to learn things) and even people using what she calls “positive reinforcement shaping and training”. She has published many papers and articles, but is best known for her bestselling book, Don’t Shoot the Dog, which lays out the history, principles, and benefits to reward-based, positive-reinforcement training. As with most technological breakthroughs, many people were working on similar theories and ideas at the same time (who really invented the radio, the computer mouse-interface, or the automobile?). It took a while for these general ideas to become mainstream, but now these methods are the norm, while just 20 years ago most dog-training methods involved force and coercion instead of rewards and reinforcement. Don’t Shoot the Dog seems to be the most dramatic and important (but far from the only) catalyst for the movement.
Actual Method: Priming
To learn clicker training, I recommend working with a professional trainer, or getting a book on the specific topic. The new, revised edition of Don’t Shoot the Dog has a chapter on clicker training, and there are whole books on the subject available at many large booksellers and pet-supply stores. Click for Joy, listed in this site’s blibiography is also a great resource. I will explain how I do it, and I have had some success with it.
The first step is to get the dog (or cat, chicken, what have you) primed for the clicker. This is fun; we get to play Pavlov. It is as simple as putting together a bag of treats and getting a clicker, then feeding the animal the treats, and clicking each time. Timing is important! The click should happen just as the dog puts her mouth on the treat. Wait a few seconds, until the dog has completely finished the treat and put her attention back to you, and then do it again. Ten or so times per session is about right, and do it a few times a day, several days in a row. At the end of a session, pocket the clicker and show your empty hands, saying “That is all!” or “All done!” or something to let your pet know the session is over.
It is not essential, but it is helpful to have different kinds of treats for this, and for training in the future as well. I use a combination of small (puppy size) dog biscuits in various flavors, cut up pieces of dog loaf (like Natural Balance Dog Food Roll), and freeze dried liver, heart, and lung. You only need very small pieces for this to be an effective reward. The reason it is better to have different foods in your treat bag is based on a principle which has been shown to apply to most animals and especially people. No matter how much the dog likes their favorite thing, he will get tired of it. And no matter how much they like consistency, randomization is almost always preferred. Apply this randomization to later training, too — it is always best, when convenient. Think about it in terms of a slot machine that always pays something. People blow their life savings on slot machines for a reason — the hoping-for something-great causes us to pull that arm, and deposit our money, again and again. Same with animals! Randomizing their reward causes them to be more interested.
Actual Method: Shaping
Once the dog recognizes the click as something good, it can be used as a marker for a behavior we like. And the best part is it can be used as a marker for getting close, thus teaching the dog that it is getting the right idea. The first thing I taught my dog, Iggy, to do using a clicker was to catch popcorn in his mouth. First I made a plan. Making a plan is important because it helps avoid confusing the dog. How can we avoid confusing our pets if we are confused ourselves? My goal was for my dog to catch popcorn in his mouth when I threw it to him. My plan was to shape his behavior by rewarding him, at first, for anything that was even vaguely moving in the right direction. I decided this meant at first I would click for him if the popcorn even hit his muzzle (but not any other part of his head). After a few sessions of this, I planned to click only if he attempted to catch it, even if he didn’t succeed. After a few sessions of that, he would only get a click if he actually made the catch. Also important, is that I would not throw the popcorn unless he was in front of me and attentive (looking at me). I decided I would not require him to be sitting, but requiring him to be sitting would have been a reasonable choice.
Timing is very important, and I found it challenging to get this right. The click should come at the instant that the behavior happens, so this meant clicking right as the popcorn hit his muzzle, then right as he lunged for it, then right as he caught it. It was harder than it sounds, but I kept trying and Iggy learned this trick in about three days. It is important to limit sessions — how long is appropriate varies with the animal, but 20 minutes would be the maximum for an adult dog who is fairly patient and already somewhat trained. For a cat, I would keep it to 5 at first, and for a puppy I would try 10. Better to end early, than late! It is also always best to end upbeat. I always make the last thing we do in a training session something that Iggy has down cold, like “Sit.” We also begin with things he already knows, to get warmed up. The whole session should be fun; if you get frustrated or pissed, end the session and start again later. All training should be fun!!!
The popcorn trick is a fun one for the dog, because there are a lot of rewards happening, and no downside. If the dog misses the popcorn altogether, he still gets to eat it off the floor. If the dog gets a click because it hit his muzzle, but then eats it off the floor, well great! He is happy — he still gets the popcorn, and he earned a click! With practice, Iggy began to get the secondary part of the reinforcement, though: catching popcorn means the next piece comes faster. He doesn’t have to spend time rooting around on the floor looking for it, or resetting himself for my next throw. As he got better at it, I would only click if he actually caught it — close didn’t count anymore. This is because he now knew the goal, and just needed practice to get good at it. The popcorn is plenty reward!
Clicking is Temporary!
The clicker is a tool used to teach. It works the same way to simply say “Yes!” or “Good!” at exactly the right moment as it does to click. The reason the clicker is so great is that it is completely consistent, and sounds the same whether or not the trainer is having a bad day, is hoarse from a cold, is depressed, moody, or even if it is a different person training the dog (like a different spouse or sibling). The clicker is also a great tool because the sound is unique, and is not likely to be encountered in the household or out in the world, whereas a dog is bound to hear lots of “Yes!” and “Good!” in its normal course of life. I have taught Iggy lots of things using the clicker, but rarely take one on walks or to the park. He knows how to come to the front, heel, spin etc., and while he learned those things with the clicker, once he knows them, he doesn’t need the clicker anymore! His rewards for these things are either treats (I usually carry a treat bag), affection (he loves to have his chest rubbed), or even verbal praise (Good, good dog! Yes!).
February 2, 2011 § Leave a comment
It has been my habit for ten years now to participate in on-line forums. It is part of a recurring process: gain a new interest, read all I can at the public library, buy a book or two at Village Books or a used bookstore, peruse all the established websites, then sift through forums on the topic, looking for a safe but challenging venue to share ideas. The earlier steps are relatively simple, but finding a good forum is a challenge, and I was very lucky to discover Potty About Pets. Like most internet forums, it welcomes a world-wide audience, but its moderators are British, and this leads to a mostly British membership.
Though my own interests lie in the Dog and Cat sections, PAP’s also has areas dedicated to birds, rodents, horses, and even reptiles. All pet lovers are welcome, and offered a place to share ideas or seek advice. Too many forums are set up by their Administrator then left to succeed or fail – PAP’s is moderated carefully by members Laplady and Brandykins, and its Originators/Administrators Micki and Zoe are still daily participants and moderators. People do disagree, and vehemently (go ahead and restart the Great Raw Food Debate, I dare you!). If there was not an atmosphere that allowed, even encouraged, discussion and debate, I would grow bored and stop participating. Courtesy and civility are required, however, and there are many very expert people contributing, so while rudeness is not accepted (no matter how expert one thinks they are, or even might be), people who spout off uninformed opinions will be castigated (albeit politely).
I particularly enjoy seeing the photographs of dogs whose American versions are so often cropped or docked, a practice illegal in the UK. Great Danes, Boxers, Doberman Pinschers and others are presented whole – it is quite illuminating to not only see these differences, but read the opinions of people for whom this sort of thing is just no longer accepted in their culture.
One of PAP’s greatest attributes is the presence of a dedicated professional trainer, Laplady (Tricia). Laplady recognizes there is more than one way to accomplish a goal with a dog, but she also has a breadth of experience and a proven history of success. That combination of open-mindedness and expertise is too rare, and it has been a great blessing to discover her. Tricia is a moderator of PAP, and visits daily, gladly answering questions and offering encouragement for folks dealing with canine behavior issues. There is no cost for this incredible service, only the requirement that one registers for the forum and maintains a polite demeanor.
Micki and Zoe, the Administrators, and Brandykins and Laplady, the Moderators, answered some questions for Positive Canine Guidance:
Administrators Micki and Zoe
When and why did Potty About Pets come about?
P.A.P’s was launched on the 29th Oct, 2007. After noting other forums often suffered from members with ego issues which lead to nastiness. I wondered whether there were any forums around which had everything I found positive, whilst lacking the negative behaviour.
I also found it difficult to find a forum which catered to a wide range of needs… This gave me the idea to create a forum where members could discuss a wide range of topics, and not be tied to just one subject such as pets. Although P.A.P’s is a pet forum by name, we have several different sections to discuss other issues. Some trivial, others more serious. I guess the one thing that unites everyone on the forum is a love of animals. You don’t even need to be a pet owner to be part of this community. When P.A.P’s was launched, I was hoping to give people a place that had a bit of everything. It is an ongoing piece of work, but I hope we are achieving what we set out to do. We are always open to suggestions from members on how we can improve on what we offer.
Luckily we haven’t had much serious conflict on the forum. We have suffered the occasional obnoxious member, but this is the exception rather than the rule. Members like that don’t tend to stay. I’m guessing because they can see that the forum isn’t a place that attracts people who want conflict.
We’ve had quite a ride so far. We’ve collectively celebrated marriages and births, recovery stories of pets, and countless firm friendships have been formed. We hope this will continue and that the forum has many more years ahead, attracting people from all corners of the globe.
How did Laplady (Tricia) become involved?
Tricia became a member of the forum the day after it was launched. She soon became valued by all members, due to her many years of canine training experience. She proved a huge asset to the forum, and with her advice she helped several members have great success in rectifying problems they were experiencing with their dogs. We offered her the position of “Forum Canine Behaviourist” — An unofficial moderator if you like. We later found ourselves in the position of requiring a second Moderator to support our existing moderator Rose in her duties of monitoring the forum. Tricia seemed to be the natural choice for the position, having established herself as a member who could offer specific support to others.
Do you know the moderators personally, in real life?
We didn’t know Rose or Tricia before the forum was launched, but we have met Rose since, and we do have telephone contact with them both.
What pets do you have now,and what pets have you had in the past?
Currently we share our lives with our dogs and cats. I also keep birds, and breed Senegal Parrots. We have 3 tortoises and have owned snakes in the past. Having two small sons we have the obligatory pet hamsters and two rabbits. In the past we have had a wide range of pets: ducks, ferrets, rats, fish, all manner of rodents and birds ranging from small finches, parakeets, parrots, a crow and an owl. Our dogs are a retired racing Greyhound, a terrier, and two mixed Northern breeds.
Is there a professional angle on this, or is it strictly a hobby?
It is strictly a hobby. The ads members see are part of Pro-Boards and keep it all free; we just do it for fun and interest.
The Moderators, Brandykins (Rose) and Laplady (Tricia)
What attracted you to PAP’s, vs. other forums?
I have been a member on many forums, both American (current affairs forum, pet forums and a Japanese/American forum) and other forums here in the UK. PAPs is by far the best for the sound advice given to members and support and I am talking from first hand experience regarding advice and support given to me for Loki when she has problems I need help with. It is the friendliest forum on the ‘net without a doubt. I enjoy every minute of being on PAPs.
Tell us about your amazing dog, Loki?
Loki is a Utonagan dog. The breed was brought out in the ’80’s from crossing several breeds: German Shepherd, Siberian Husky and Malamute, and others. They brought them out as wolf look-alikes. Loki is a very gentle and fun loving dog, and very intelligent. She loves children and everyone. Unfortunately, due to the fits, Loki forgot a lot of her commands, as epilepsy destroys brain cells but there are enough cells to compensate. She is learning again.
Loki is on medication for the rest of her life, 2×60 gm Phenobarbs and 1 Potassium Bromide in the morning and 1 Pheno and 1 PB in the evening. I also give her a Milk Thistle capsule to counteract any liver damage caused by the Pheno. She is brilliant at taking her tablets, opening her mouth for me to let me pop them down her throat.
Is Loki your first dog? First of that breed?
I never had a dog before I got Loki. My ex bought her but his mother wouldn’t let him keep her as she already had two dogs in the house, so he brought Loki up to me the next day and she has been with me ever since! I was thrown in at the deep end, but wouldn’t have it any other way!
How has PAP helped you as a pet guardian?
The support I receive from all the members has made it a lot easier for me to help and support Loki when she is fitting. I know that I can come on here and I get help and support. That means a lot. It isn’t just a forum exclusive to dogs, PAPs encompasses all pets, from cats, rodents, birds and other exotic pets, and it is educational to read about all the pets on Potty! There are threads which give advice on all pets and information on feeding for all pets.
Tricia, how did you come to be part of PAP’s?
I was a member of another pet forum, but it was so bitchy and the admin members thought that they were Gods, and spoke down to any member who didn’t toe the line, and it was I met Micki and joined Potty. It’s the only forum that I am a member of now,
and have found that it’s a family, and there are NO DIVA’S!
Tell us about your dogs? I only have Jaz now, a 20 year old border collie/ cocker spaniel mix. I have bred GSD’s and Swedish Lapphunds. I have shown my dogs in breed shows, both open and championship, competitive obedience, working trials, and trained my dogs just for fun and interest, especially in agility. I have also judged at both breed and competitive obedience shows.
As a professional, why do you give away your knowledge on PAP’s? I have been a trainer for 40 years, and the profession has been good to me. Over the years my business has grown by word of mouth and not advertising, My aim has always been to help dogs and owners to solve problems, and if that is to give free info from time to time, so be it. I feel privileged that owners of dogs have passed my name onto other owners.
Will you talk about your methods a little?
My training methods have changed over the years, from using check chains in the very early years when training guard dogs, to now most of my training is clicker training, which is very adaptable from one person to another. Dogs and people learn at different paces, and don’t always get to grips with the timing aspect of the clicker, but that can be overcome with practice.
Sylvia Bishop (who placed and won at Crufts Obedience championships with her dogs), her gentle, calm method was an inspiration, then later on after other different methods and equipment had come and gone, I met, in around 1996, Kay Laurence. Kay was a pioneer of Clicker Training in the UK, and I was hooked right away. I found that dogs learn quicker and maintain the wanted behaviour without physical intervention.
I still get a buzz when both dogs and owners get that AH-HA! moment, even after all the years of training I am still learning. I believe that all pups should be taken to a 6- or 8-week basic training class, and that there are NO bad dogs born, just made by bad owners.
February 1, 2011 § 1 Comment
Google AdSense or recurring sponsorship? Hoping for the latter model.
January 30, 2011 § 2 Comments
When Rene Descarte posited “I think, therefore I am.” the necessary secondary conclusion is that those unable to form that simple declaration of self-awareness are, well, not. Were they able to perform the linguistic gymnastics (and thereby proving they “are”), one presumes they would posit “I cannot express my thought, therefore I am not.” Less well known is Gertrude Stein’s declaration of existence, “I am I because my little dog knows me.” Her proof of life is just as conclusive, except that it relies on the ability of her pet to recognize its person. In Descarte’s view, dogs cannot feel love, or any other actual emotion, because they are unable to voice their own self-awareness. In Stein’s view, her own self-awarewness is defined by her dog’s ability to love her. What is your view?