Thursday, November 26, 2015

Sand Dancer's Infinite Sky

Puppy Tao has been upgraded, so this post has moved. It will eventually be unavailable at this location.

When I graduated college, one of the first things I did was start a search for my first dog. My old friend and dog expert, the oft-mentioned Jill, was my roommate at the time and was looking for a dog herself. We ended up getting littermates: my beloved dog Gus, who died in 2008, and her equally beloved Finn, who died a few hours ago.

Finn has appeared many times here over the years, and I have always loved him for the extraordinary dog he was, mixed with a kind of bittersweetness ever since Gus died.

I remember Finn at 8 weeks, when he first came home from Maine. I remember his sweet face before it turned sugar-white and how serious he looked when he would watch you talk to him, as if he was trying to learn English well enough to anticipate what you would say. I remember the way he would play with the new puppies, both Jill's and ours, years after we were no longer roommates. He played with Comet and with Jax both as babies, and he was one of the most steadfastly happy, kind-hearted dogs I have ever known.

Jill took this photo when I came to watch Lush compete at Westminster
a couple of years ago.
Finn used to sing me a song when I visited. Jill tells me he didn't really do it for anybody else. He'd spin around and sing and whine for the first few minutes after I showed up, and I'd pet him and laugh with him. I never knew who was happier to see whom, the dog who was singing, or the man who was laughing and trying to pet him as they spun around.

A year or two ago, when Finn's arthritis was acting up and Jill didn't know if she'd have a few months or a few years left with him, I wrote him a letter and sent a care package for his birthday. Truly a silly thing, to send a dog a letter, but if there was ever a dog worth corresponding with, it was Finn.

I had just stumbled across an Eric Whitacre setting of an e.e. cummings poem, and while I was learning and rehearsing it, I couldn't help but think of Finn over and over, so I wrote him a happy birthday note with some lines of the poem in it, care of Jill, and I sent along some smelly salmon treats and a nice dog toy because I'm not crazy and I know dogs don't actually read.

The poem is about being thankful for the day, and "for the leaping greenly spirits of trees / and a blue dream of sky;and for everything / which is natural which is infinite which is yes" (2-4).

If there was anybody who was a leaping greenly spirit, who was a blue dream of sky, who was natural, infinite, and forever yes, it was Sand Dancer's Infinite Sky, my friend Finn.

When I hike with our dogs and they've gone out of sight around the bend of the trail as it curves through the leaves, I whistle for them to call them back where I can see them.

I do this a thousand times a year, and a thousand times they come racing back, steaming their breath in clouds around their heads, pounding the dry dust of pine needles. More than a few of those thousand times, I let myself hope that Gus will somehow come back with them, like he did so many times, as if his complete faithfulness would let him cheat death and come racing back along the trail to me.

So now when we are among those green spirits of trees, and when the sky is an infinite blue dream, and I whistle toward the bend in the trail, I'll crane my neck a little farther, and I'll let myself hope that just a moment behind Comet and Jax will come Finn and Gus together, wise and fast, clouding the air with their breath, leaving puffs of pine dust behind them.

Sunday, May 24, 2015

The Marker

Puppy Tao has been upgraded, so this post has moved. It will eventually be unavailable at this location.

The single most important piece of advice I give in dog training is this: reward what you want. We have a tendency to pay attention to behaviors we don't like (No, Spot! Stop barking! No, Spot! Stop jumping!), and when the dog is behaving the way we want, we have a tendency to ignore it. It's a huge and common mistake. The dog gets feedback that undesired behavior gets attention and calm behavior is pointless and boring. That's exactly the wrong message!

After helping lots of handlers and dogs in group classes communicate better with their dogs, I have a second piece of advice to add to the first: When you're rewarding what you want, make sure you mark it first. Marking the desired behavior helps your dog connect his action to the reward more easily. It's a way of helping your dog figure things out.

A marker is a unique sound that you make at exactly the moment the dog has done something right, and you always follow it up with a reward (e.g., a treat, a toy, a game, etc.). That sound could be a clicker, which is the heart of clicker training, or it can be a unique sound you make verbally, like a happy "yes!"

Getting a dog to hand you the ball when he retrieves is often the hardest part
of training fetch. A marker at the moment he releases it into your hand can
help him understand how to get the reward of another throw.
Why do I need a marker? If I'm teaching my dog to sit, and he sits, and then I give him a treat, it's not easy for him to connect the treat to the key action (butt on the ground) that I want. There are a million other things going on in his world, so what made the treat happen? Was it making eye contact with me? Was it being in front of me? Was it the hum of the refrigerator? Was it the tile floor? Was it the fact that I reached into my treat bag? My facial expression? The way my hand is on my hip? The fact that he danced his paws a little in anticipation?

By marking the moment of success with a unique sound, you make it a lot easier for the dog to figure out that his butt hitting the ground is what made the reward happen, since you mark at the moment of success each time. So a dog who has been marked at the moment of success and the rewarded five times in a row is a lot more likely to "get it" than a dog who is just rewarded those five times with no marker first.

When you're learning to mark your dog's behavior before rewarding, the clicker has the advantage of being a unique, precise sound. We babble at dogs all the time, so the "yes!" isn't quite as clear as the clicker. However, the "yes!" has the advantage of freeing up your hands. I'll use one or the other, depending on the situation. I like the clicker for shaping truly precise/complex behaviors, like putting the back two paws on an agility obstacle and the front two paws on the floor. And I like the verbal marker for general training when we're out and about and I don't have a clicker handy or a hand free for one.

So as you're looking to develop truly effective communication with your dog, consider adding a marker to the mix. Decide the criteria of what you're trying to teach your dog, mark the exact moment he meets those criteria, and follow up with great rewards. This isn't an intuitive thing for us to do, so it really takes focus and attention on the handler's part to make it a consistent part of giving clear feedback to the dog. But it's absolutely the second biggest improvement most handlers can make to their communication.

Monday, May 11, 2015

Darkling Birdling

Puppy Tao has been upgraded, so this post has moved. It will eventually be unavailable at this location.

Another nice evening meant another opportunity to hang out in the backyard and see who stopped by.

This House Finch and his spouse are nesting in a bush by the deck, but he takes many opportunities during the day to fly up to a higher branch and sing his crazy gallimaufry of a song.

Later on, we moved down by the river again to relax, and a female Ruby-throated Hummingbird visited on and off as the day darkened.

It was late, the sunset backlit her, and she is only a few inches long, but she spent enough time with us that I was able to get a couple of nice shots—my first ever of a hummingbird.

Saturday, May 9, 2015

Orioles and Apple Trees

Puppy Tao has been upgraded, so this post has moved. It will eventually be unavailable at this location.

In early March, Andy and I closed on a new house. It took us almost two months of renovating and cleanup, but we're finally able to relax and enjoy our little place on the river. Our section of the river reverses with the tide, so we have a mixed habitat that supports all kinds of songbirds, wading birds, waterfowl, and raptors.

Adding to my impatience with the renovations was the rapidly progressing spring and the missed opportunities to shoot great pictures of our wildlife. So you can imagine my disappointment when I finally unpacked my long lens a couple of weeks ago, only to discover that I had broken the focus mechanism in the move. Fortunately, the repair was straightforward—if expensive—and my newly repaired and cleaned lens was returned to me late this afternoon.

Andy was at work, so I decided to take a book, a drink, and the camera down to the apple trees by the water to enjoy the cool evening. I figured I could relax in a chair and read, and if anything interesting happened, I'd snap a few pictures. It seemed a little too late in the day for good lighting, so I didn't have my hopes up.

I caught a glimpse of a Baltimore Oriole right when I sat down, but I didn't get a good picture. I chalked it up to poor luck and caught a few shots of this Tufted Titmouse, who was a bit agitated by another Titmouse a couple of branches over. They got in a bit of a scuffle over whatever it is that Titmice fight about.
A few minutes later, the oriole returned and spent a good half an hour drinking nectar from the blossoms of the apple tree.

Usually, I have to work a lot harder for a good photo, but sometimes the bird just comes to you. I literally didn't have to leave my comfy chair for these pictures.
At one point, he stopped and favored me with a quick song, but mostly he was there to eat. When he really wants to sing, he goes to the high branches of the larger trees, but he rattled off a few bars here and there during dinner.

After a while, I put my camera down and just watched him hop and sing and chide and dip his beak into the apple blossoms. My book stayed on the table, and I spent some time in the fading twilight, sipping drinks with an oriole.

Friday, April 3, 2015

Mystic Grand Champion Ad

Puppy Tao has been upgraded, so this post has moved. It will eventually be unavailable at this location.

I recently did another ad for my favorite dog trainer/Golden Retriever breeder friend, Jill of PoeticGold Farm, so I figured I'd post it. Mystic won his championship at a particularly young age, and then he became a grand champion while we were putting the ad together—fortunately in time for publication.

This dog is as sweet as he is handsome, with true Golden temperament to go along with his good looks. Since his name is a reference to Carl Sagan's work, it seemed only fitting to use a NASA image of the Andromeda Galaxy as one of the elements in the ad.

A large, print-friendly PDF of this ad can be downloaded here.

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Ajax: Therapy Dog

Last week, I wrote about Comet and how well he was taking to therapy dog work. This week, it's Jax's turn.

Jax is a bit more food-focused than Comet, and he goes absolutely bananas for the director of nursing. Her office is right beside the spot where I drop my coat and sign in, and she keeps a box of dog cookies on her shelf so she can spoil the therapy dogs.

So Jax cannot wait to visit her office when we arrive, and she sometimes gives him a bonus cookie or three when we leave.

Like Comet, Jax has done wonderfully in is role as a hospice dog. He's particularly good at picking visiting family members who need some love and sidling up to them for a long, involved scratch behind the ears. And for such an intense, nutty dog, he really understands how to behave in a calm, gentle fashion around sick people.

Sunday, February 15, 2015

Comet: Therapy Dog

For a few months now, Comet and I have been making visits at The Connecticut Hospice as a therapy dog team. He and Jax take turns, so I'm only ever handling one dog at a time (a requirement of our registration with Pet Partners as well as a good idea).

But for this entry, I just wanted to celebrate Comet on his own. He took right to his role as a therapy dog, charming the nurses, warming up to patients, and comforting families.

I don't think I will ever get over how good it feels to see the family member of a patient light up when they see him, and to see Comet in turn light up to see that somebody is looking at him and gesturing for him to come over. It is a privilege to work with a dog capable of so much good, such a gentle soul who brings a little light to people who may be in the darkest moments of their lives.

Just when you don't think you could love a dog any more than you already do...

Sunday, February 8, 2015

Therapy Dogs

Over the summer, I decided to get moving on a long term goal of registering Comet and Jax as therapy dogs. In order to register with Pet Partners as a therapy team, you need to take a humans-only course on handling a therapy animal and then pass an evaluation that has three components: your skills as a hander, your dog's aptitude, and your ability to work as a team.

At that evaluation, you can receive one of two ratings, simple or complex, based on what kind of environment you are ready for as a team. More info on the Pet Partners dog evaluation here.

I took the human part of the course over the summer at Paws 'N Effect, then took the dogs to a few weeks of practice sessions. In August, we took the test and both dogs passed with a "complex" qualification, meaning we are rated to engage in therapy work in both "predictable" (i.e., quiet and controlled, with strong support from the facility staff) and "complex" (i.e., louder, less predictable situations and clients, with more independence for the team). Pet Partners breaks down the distinction in more detail here.

Even though we passed the test in August, it took until almost October to finish getting the dogs registered and to receive our badges. There is a rather large packet of information that has to be filled out in order to certify that the human has taken the course, that the dog and human have received a rating at the test, and that the dog has been certified as healthy by a veterinarian.

A Therapy Dog Is Not a Service Dog

A lot of people understandably have some confusion on this issue. A service dog is one trained to perform a specific task or tasks for a person who has a disability. Service dogs are allowed nearly anywhere in public, and there are specific legal protections to enable them to go where they need to be.

There is also a classification called "Emotional Support Animal," which is not the same thing as a service dog. An ESA is an animal prescribed by a mental health professional for a person with a mental illness. ESAs are not automatically allowed in all public places, though they are allowed on planes and in certain kinds of housing. While the ESA designation is sometimes abused by people who simply want to bring their pets with them on planes and in public, it's intended for people with real mental illnesses that significantly reduce their ability to engage in major life activities.

A therapy dog, on the other hand, is a dog that is registered to help provide animal-assisted activities or animal-assisted therapy to people. Animal-assisted activities are the typical therapy dog work of greeting people and bringing comfort. An example of an animal-assisted activity would be bringing a dog to a bedside at a nursing home or participating in a reading program at a library. Animal-assisted therapy is when a therapy animal is used as part of a specific treatment plan directed by a health professional. An example of animal-assisted therapy would be helping a person who has had a stroke learn to hold objects again by teaching that person to brush a therapy dog. Animals can provide key motivation and emotional support in such situations. More on the difference between AAA and AAT here.

I think it's incredibly important to distinguish for people the difference between therapy dogs and service dogs, because even though we have only been certified since October, I have been asked more than once if I pursued therapy dog registration so I could bring my dog with me in public. It saddens me that people seek to manipulate a system designed for those with genuine disabilities just so they can exempt their dogs from the rules.

I would love it if dogs were allowed in more places, and I would love to see some kind of certification system that would allow a pet dog access to more places if he or she passed a test like the one for the AKC Community Canine designation. But the problem with manipulating existing rules to allow a pet access to a place is that it can blow back on people who have legitimate needs that are filled by a working dog.

Comet and Jax Get a Job

Right down the street from our house is The Connecticut Hospice, the nation's first and arguably foremost hospice care facility. So it was only logical that we explore volunteering there. After an interview and a lot more paperwork and training, we began visiting the patients, families, and healthcare providers at the hospice. I go once a week, and the dogs take turns, as Pet Partners only allows one animal per handler (and two dogs at once wouldn't be as helpful anyway).

After a little more than four months of weekly visits, I am so impressed by the deep caring of the people who work and volunteer there. Privacy laws and good manners will prevent me from relaying many of the specific details of our work, but I look forward to writing in the coming months about working with active therapy dogs in a real medical environment.