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When my Border collie, Sky, wants to play, I often send her to find a ball, and sometimes, I let her know where to look.  She understands under and on, as in “It’s under the bed,” or “It’s on your crate.”  These hints are old hat.  But the other day I had noticed that a colorful selection of balls had ended up under my desk and so when Sky came and gave me the look, dancing around, backing up, “C’mon.  Let’s play,” without giving it much thought, I told her to look under the desk.  She went straight there and a moment later plopped a ball onto my lap.  But here’s the hitch.  I’d never sent her to look under the desk and when she frisked the area, she’d never looked there.  In fact, when I am at the desk, I am working and when I am working, I don’t want to be bothered.  As a result, I had never used the word desk before.  The desk is mine, all mine.  It’s my woman cave.  It’s not a place where I interact with dogs.  It’s a place where I write about interacting with dogs or draw pictures of dogs interacting with each other, with humans or thinking about doing so.

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So how did Sky do this?

Did she know what desk meant because it was not the bed or the crate or the bookcases I often name?  Did she know what desk meant because she heard me say things to my husband like “Leave it on my desk”?  Or did she pick up the picture I formed when saying, “Look under the desk,” the picture of a tennis ball, a squeaky ball and a high bouncer nestled in the far right corner of the knee hole?

Why is it that humans think we are the only thinkers around?  Why is it that we need to believe that animals can’t reason, that they have no feelings, that they have no moral code?  I know that this is changing now, at last, but it is changing very slowly.  For every parent that tells a small child, No, you can’t pet that lady’s dog.  That dog is working now, there are ten or twenty parents who shriek, DOGGY, when they see my working dog.  There are still so many people who think their dogs are dumb when the truth is that they, the humans, haven’t figured out how to communicate their thoughts and wishes with another species (or maybe even their own!)  Pets are still acquired without thought, left on their own all day, dumped in shelters when their humans are bored or disappointed with them. And on a more personal note, why is it that intelligent observation is ignored until, years later, SCIENCE comes up with the astonishing news that, say, dogs and humans get a rush of oxytocin when they gaze into each other’s eyes.  Like really, good people, unless you’re made of cement, you knew that all along.

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Not so fast.  One of the most important phrases for humans to use.  When the doctor is writing a prescription or checking his calendar to see when he can do your surgery.  When the veterinarian wants to give your dog yearly vaccinations or neuter your puppy.  When you find an amazing “fact” on Facebook that changes everything.  When the newspaper or the TV reports an incident.  When there’s a new diet or face cream or exercise program that will keep you young.  When there’s a new breed of dog, a little of this plus a little of that.  When the pet shop tells you they don’t get their puppies from puppy mills.  I could go on and on, but who has the time!

It’s a pain in the ass to do your research, but do it.  Because sloppy thinking, not giving a shit, stupidity and plain old self interest are informing some of the things you are reading and being told and worse, not to mention greed.  Greed is big.

Not so fast.  Making sure things add up correctly can save the day, maybe even a life.

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Years ago, when I began dog training, Manhattan was full of trained dogs.  After all, you had to ride in an elevator with your dog and sometimes he wasn’t the only dog there.  You had to navigate streets full of people and other dogs.  You lived in an apartment where other dogs passed your door on their way home.  And you took your dog to the bank, the dry cleaner, the hardware store and to lunch at outdoor cafes.  So logic would have it that your dog needed really good manners, that he’d hardly ever misbehave.

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Now I see people feeding their dogs.  Make a poop, have a treat.  Sit at the curb, here’s a cookie. Don’t jump up and try to steal food off the table at an outdoor cafe, here’s some other food instead.  But I don’t see trained dogs.  I see dogs looking at food pouches or pockets, not at the clues and emotions in their person’s face.  I see dogs who do not know how to work and I wonder, what happened to all those horrible, cruel trainers of yesteryear who turned out such happy, secure, well-behaved dogs, dogs who could be off leash in Central Park and come back when called, dogs who knew how to stitch together commands that made sense in context so that they weren’t just obeying, they were working.

Dog training, at its best, is a meeting of two minds.

Both photos from "Do Border Collies Dream of Sheep?"

Both photos from “Do Border Collies Dream of Sheep?”

Think about it – it is the meeting of two minds of two different species.  And it works.  It can be accomplished.   Start with your new puppy by walking around the house, asking your dog to follow you.  Use your voice to entice.  Use your body language.  Be inviting.  If your dog is older, a teen or an adult, add a leash and take the exercise out of doors.  From this gentle, good beginning, your dog learns to pay attention to you, to follow your lead, to watch your face and body language, to want to be with you, to be near you, for the pleasure of this relationship.  And take it from there.

Gadget-free dog training.  A meeting of two minds.  Where it’s at, folks.  Where it’s at.

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She was hand picked for the job because, in a well-bred litter of working Border collies, she appeared to be the most sympathetic.  Before she could see, she would scrabble across the rug to press against the breeder’s hand and when another puppy fell asleep alone and woke up cold, it was this puppy, then called the little dark tri, who left the warm pile of sleeping puppies and went to him, curling herself around him so that he could go back to sleep.

She learned quickly, copying Flash, my second service dog, doing the job before she knew why she was doing it.  She’s attentive, well-behaved in public (and sometimes even at home), patient and so wise it startles people, including me.  She figures out somehow, it looks like magic, that there are places she goes with me, places she knows where other dogs do not go, where she needs to be unobtrusive.  She knows how to navigate museums, airports, restaurants.  She knows how to disappear, but be there when needed.

Here are some of the questions I have been asked:

Doesn’t she get affection from anyone but you?

Does she ever get a vacation?  Does she ever get to go anywhere without you?

Why are you so mean to her? (Me, shocked: What do you mean?)  Why don’t you ever let me pet her?

And, of course, the infamous, What do you have and what does she do for you?

Pity the poor service dog, forced to be with her partner all the time.  Does she dream of being left at home along all day, like a normal dog?  Pity the poor service dog.  She’s not allowed to be distracted by people who just won’t let her do her job.  Pity my poor Sky, forced to travel with me rather than by herself.

Most service dogs, dogs blessed with work they and their partners value, get lots of time at home to play, to rest, to loll around and be given treats, to be brushed and groomed and fussed over, to play with other dogs (ours has one of her own!),   Most service dog partners know how to exercise their dogs – or get help from people who can, how to play games, even if they play from bed or a wheelchair, how to talk silly, be quiet, give a working dog a balanced, satisfying, wonderful life.  Most service dogs work hard, yet they are treated like royalty because that is exactly what they deserve.

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It’s not unusual for people to get stressed and it’s not unusual for dogs, either.  Anything can do it – too many bills (for the people), too much noise (for the dogs), confusing relationships (for the people), confusing requests (for the dogs.)  Working dogs, dogs who are out in the world helping their people, have many chances to get an overload of stress because they are often in environments where animals are not expected, allowed or considered in any way.  But pets, too, sometimes because of the long hours they spend alone, are subject to to stress.  Happily, help usually cuts both ways.  When you do something for your dog, when you consider your dog’s needs, you are, for that moment, not fretting about your own problems – and that in itself is a very good thing, a healthy thing.  In addition, some of the activities that can reduce stress in dogs can also reduce human stress, sort of a two for the price of one situation, another good thing!  Let’s look at a few.

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Sneezing

I used to have sneeze conversations with my Golden Retriever, Oliver.  This started right after we moved from the suburbs to the city.  When I’d walk him, the streets were crowded and noisy and though he was a pretty easy going dog, I thought the crowds and noise might make him feel isolated.  I had to watch where I was going when I used to be able to just watch him.  So I began to sneeze to him.  Most dogs will sneeze back and if you work on this a bit, laughing and praising his sneezy retorts, you can get a pretty good volley going back and forth.  The thing about sneeze conversations is that the dog knows they are all about the two of you.  They speak of friendship, telling secrets, joy (dogs sneeze when they are happy) and the private connection you two share.  But no one else has any idea what’s happening.  So Ollie and I would walk down Madison Avenue in the heart of New York City sneezing back and forth and while we did, his tail wagging wildly, I stopped worrying about whether or not my first novel would sell and he stopped focusing on the crowds and the noise.

Wait

When I swim, Sky waits at the end of the pool.  She’s fine with this, but after a while, a dog can feel neglected.  So every few laps, I hold up my pointer to her, the hand signal that means “wait.”  Unlike “stay,” wait not only means things will resume momentarily, it also means “I haven’t forgotten you.”  “Wait” warms my dog’s heart.  It’s like a Valentine’s card coming from the pool.

Silent Walking

I yammer at my dog as much as the next guy.  I tell her my plans, I complain, I make up songs and sing them to her and when I have nothing to say but still want to converse, I talk dog to her, a language I make up as I go along, gibberish, that she seems to enjoy because it means I’m sharing my feelings with her.  But a favorite stress buster for both of us is a long, long, quiet walk, me trying as best I can to walk Border collie speed.  We usually do this on the High Line, preferably in bad weather when it’s nearly empty.  There are no streets to cross, no red lights to hold us up and the sounds of the city are muted.  We can see the Hudson River and we’re surrounded by plants and trees, not bad for New York City.  Sometimes we’re uptown for something stressful, like a doctor appointment.  Afterwards, we head for Central Park for a long, fast quiet walk.  It soothes the soul, no matter your species.

A dog may not appear to be stressed.  They’re great at hunkering down and hiding their bad feelings, just the way some of us do.  But you know your own dog.  You know the signs.  Tail tucked, licking his lips, lots of yawning, hiding, licking his paws obsessively, less sparkle in his eyes, whining, plotzing down as if he’s given up all hope of any fun?  Take a walk.  Have a sneeze conversation.  Play a game of Smell it, Find it.  Take him to the dog run.  And be sure, when you’re busy, to give him his “wait” signal so he knows he’s on your mind and fun is just around the corner.

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2054A timely reward lets your dog know she did something right, by George, she got it, she learned the lesson, found the hidden object, left the pizza on the sidewalk, took away your pain, made you laugh, stopped on a dime, put the ball into your hand, didn’t annoy the cat, jumped through the hoop, or whatever it was you were hoping she would do.  So what’s a timely reward?

Though my dog will accept verbal praise and or a pat on the head or a scritch on the neck, for her, a timely reward is time. time with me, time when I am not writing a blog or reading the news or eating an apple or talking on the phone, time that’s all hers.  All hers.  And that means a walk, long, fast, with little conversation save the occasional “Go left,” or “Go straight,” or sometimes, just a whispered, “I love you, Sky,” which always gets me a smile, my reward.

Sure, you’ll want to say, “Good dog,” when you toss out a command and your dog obeys.  But the real stuff isn’t food, it isn’t that pat on the head, it’s time.  This is what your dog craves.  This is how the bond between you tightens.  This is putting your money where your mouth is.  And despite the weather, and all the things you need to do, it will not only be the best time of the day for your dog, it will be for you as well.  Always was.  Always will be.

Happy New Year.  Back soon.

Carol

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Some years ago I was training dogs to work off leash on New York City streets.  Doing this, as opposed to teaching dogs to work off leash in a training center, fenced area or anywhere in the suburbs, I learned something fantastic.  Dogs know exactly how much of your attention is on them and how much isn’t.  I do not use the word exactly lightly.  When you are working someplace where traffic is whizzing by a few feet from where your dog is off leash, you need one hundred percent of your attention on the dog, not ninety-nine percent.  Do you want to window shop? I’d ask my clients.  Fine.  Do so.  But put the leash on first and then unhook it when you are ready to work your dog again. Do you want to ask the trainer a question.  Same rule applies.

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Even without cell phones to check, because there were none then, here’s what I saw.  If a client took 11% of his or her attention off the dog, say to glance at me and ask a question, the dog misbehaved 11%.  They didn’t run off.  They just cheated a little.  11% worth.  I don’t have to tell you how astonishing I found this, nor do I have to go through all the numbers.  In fact, I had actually seen something like this with my demo dog Oliver.  People would ask if they could work him.  It was a lot easier and more fun than training their own dog!  With kids I worked with, working Ollie at the end of a good lesson became their reward.  With adults in class, sometimes it was actually useful to let them get the feel of a trained dog and for me to get to work their untrained dog.  How did Oliver react?  He would test whomever held the leash.  He would heel a tiny little bit forward, say 4%, watching them all the time.  If they didn’t tell him, “Heel,” and of course they didn’t, he stopped listening to them 100%.

What’s the point of all this?  Of course, don’t work a dog off leash in New York City if you haven’t taken every single step and precaution to make sure he’s ready for it.  And even then, don’t do it if you are not prepared to give him your full attention.

Full attention.  Something scarce these days.  Go out to eat and you may find half the people in the restaurant scanning their phones.  Be careful crossing the street.  Even drivers who don’t text while driving sometimes text at red lights, rolling forward as they do. Mothers out with their children? Texting.  People out with their pets?  Not paying attention.

Here’s the thing.  When you give one thing your full attention, there’s none left for anything else – unpaid bills, relationships on the brink, work stress, concerns about your health, whatever garbage is floating through your head lots of the time, day and night.  Getting fully involved, let’s say in a little walk with your dog, can be good for your health.  Beyond that, it’s good for your dog, too, and no doubt, he will notice and he’ll be thankful. I’m 100% sure of this.

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Someone’s been texting in my bed!

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Alas, I keep reading articles that tell me I shouldn’t hug my dog.  I shouldn’t pet her on her head.  I shouldn’t do this.  I shouldn’t do that.  Hasn’t anyone ever heard of body language?  Don’t people look at anything other than their phones any more?  A dog will tell you what’s OK and what isn’t.  All you have to do is look.

Here’s a true story.  When I went on book tour with Dexter, my first service dog, oh, you all know Dexter…

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Well, I would take him off leash the moment we entered a bookstore, all 84 pounds of him.  He’d go right for the audience.  He’d sit in front of the first person and wait.  If they smiled or reached out to pet his big head (his head, OMG), he’d put his front paws on the edge of their chair, one on one side of them, one of the other.  He was big.  He could do that.  And he’d wait again.  If they smiled or touched his warm, broad back, he’d lean forward.  Step by step, waiting each time to see if his advances were welcomed, he’d get closer until he had his front legs resting on the person’s shoulders, his big cheek resting against their cheek.  Me next, me next, people would cry.  And he gave each and everyone a hug, making them all feel I was an excellent writer!

Can’t we do what my old rescue dog did?  The occasional dog might not like a hand reaching over his head.  Some dogs don’t like arms around them.  But many, many do.  Of course, like me, dogs don’t like the feeling of being trapped.  They should always have an out, an option to end the hug.   So, go step by step, until you know for sure what the dog wants.  And if it’s a yes, sure, hug the dog, but with loose arms, gentle arms.  Sure, massage the top of his head.  But only after his body language and his eyes tell you he thinks it’s a good idea, too.

Sheesh, guys, if a dog can figure out how to do this, surely we should be able to figure it out, too.

Drawing of Carol Lea with Flash from DO BORDER COLLIES DREAM OF SHEEP?

Drawing of Carol Lea with Flash from DO BORDER COLLIES DREAM OF SHEEP?

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We’ve always found it funny to imagine dogs thinking and acting like people, but now tests have been performed and at long last scientists are coming up with the same conclusions many of us had come up with long, long ago.

I recently wrote that when I am swimming, if I suddenly don’t feel right, all I have to do is make eye contact with  my service dog, Sky, who is waiting at the end of the pool, and I feel better and can finish my laps.  Now tests have shown that eye contact with your beloved dog causes a flood of oxytocin, the so-called love hormone, in both human and dog.  Looking at your dog, petting your dog, snuggling with your dog, these normal activities cause not only a release of oxytocin but of serotonin and endorphins as well, lowering pain and making us feel just wonderful, and happily, making our dogs feel just wonderful, too.

Is it any wonder dogs chose to live with us, back when it was a choice, and that we continue to choose to live with them now?

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