Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Older photos

Mmm! Tasty!
I was assembling an album for various members of the family, and came across one or two photos worth sharing here. The first is Morgan licking my son's foot. Compare the size of their heads. Morgan viewed him as her charge, and was never anything other than gentle with him. Being an infant, my son did not always reciprocate in kind, but he always treasured Morgan. Snickers, at this point, could still see. My son is about 16 months old in this picture, and he nearly fell over giggling - you can see my wife holding him up.

There were times when Snickers would simply amble up and lie down against Morgan. His loss of sight made him much more cautious with our later dogs (and probably rightly so). Trevor is simply too kinetic for Snickers' liking. Faith may be calm enough to become a friend with time.

Must. Lick. Hand.
Morgan could also have her utterly goofy moments. Like Trevor, it was the next best thing to impossible to get her to stop once she got going licking something. The picture is worth zooming in on - Morgan's expression here makes her look positively demented. Something about her intensely focused gaze, I think. My father, here, is not quite sure what to make of her. He isn't really a dog person.
My son is 15 months here, so you can get a pretty direct size comparison. Heck, the boy is 6 years and 4 months now and he still has 20 pounds to go to match Morgan's weight here.

There is a shot around age two of my father reading to my son on our couch as my mother looks on, with Trevor resting his head in her lap. From memory, that trip was the first time she met Trevor, and he was the first dog she really liked. In fairness, Morgan and my mom aren't that far apart in weight, and her (Morgan's) head was kinda heavy.

What's that!
But I think my personal favorite from the very early years is the cat, who wasn't entirely sure what to make of the new arrival. Here he is getting his first opportunity to inspect it. Snickers also decided that my son was friendly. My son loved to dangle cat toys in front of him. Amazingly enough, Snickers can track a balloon string even today, when (so far as he can tell) Snickers is now completely blind.

Monday, March 28, 2011

Rub My Tummy...

It has been 23 days since Faith joined the family. Tonight I was reminded that bonds take time to evolve.

This evening, as Faith and I were watching television, Faith turned herself belly-up for a tummy rub. And I realized that while she has solicited many kinds of scritchels, this is the first time that she has rolled on her back, stuck all four paws in the air, and said "scratch me". It's been coming, but today was the day.

And you know, after 20 years of living with dogs, it's still kind of nice the first time your dog says "Hey, you're pretty OK."

Friday, March 25, 2011

Dogs and Trust

It's remarkable, sometimes, the things our dogs (and cats) prompt us to consider.

I was up quite late last night, so this afternoon I lay down for a bit. Faith decided to snuggle up, and I started stroking her head and back. And Faith closed her eyes. She did so with no hesitation, and with no greater delay than any other dog might. And it suddenly occurred to me that this was quite remarkable.

Humans go insane (literally) if deprived of sensory input for too long. A person at rest has two main streams of time-varying sensation: sight and hearing. When at rest, the sensations of taste, touch, smell, and proprioception are quickly filtered out by our brains, because the inputs from those senses (when at rest) do not change very much. In consequence, if we are deprived of both sound and sight, we get very close to a state of sensory deprivation. Part of the challenge in transitioning to a sleep state is getting past this transition.

Because we have two time-varying senses, a blind or deaf person is not totally isolated from a sensory point of view. One sense does not function, but the other provides time-varying input. The thing is: a blind person cannot close their ears, but a deaf person can close their eyes. And when a deaf person closes their eyes, they give up both of the major time-varying sensory inputs.

If you hear and see, and you sit calmly in a chair in a dim room and close your eyes, you will quickly find that you hear all manner of distracting things, and that (for lack of anything better to do) your brain invests great effort to place each of those sounds in the space around you, trying to build a map of what is going on. Take a moment and try it.

Given enough time, you would learn how to do some degree of echo-location; this is approximately how a blind person navigates by tapping with a cane. An advanced martial artist, blindfolded, can quite literally hear a strike coming (no, that's not just in the movies). Now contemplate, just for a moment, how you might perceive that room if you did not hear.

I'll never know, but I suspect that the effect of hearing loss is stronger for cats and dogs than it is for humans. Snickers (our cat), while blind, tracks things with amazing accurately. His hearing, of course, is better than ours, but beyond that, he has a remarkable ability to place the origin of sounds in a three-dimensional space. I've done enough surround-sound audio mixing to appreciate how hard that is. Surround sound is about "fooling" the ears into hearing a desired placement of sound. The physics and the psycho-acoustics of sound placement is pretty well understood, and it doesn't involve any really fancy math. I can work the equations, and I actually understand them. I can explain the limits of localization accuracy in humans and why they occur. I can't explain how accurately Snickers can localize sounds from certain directions. If I didn't love the little booger, he'd make me nuts!

Watch a resting dog closely when an interesting sound occurs, and you'll see that the ears move to localize the sound with surprising precision. That reaction happens first; the turn of the head to bring sight to bear is slower. In some cases, you can watch the ears perk up, and then see them drop; the dog has decided that the sound wasn't interesting and isn't worth further attention. In many cases, the eyes never open.

And so as Faith closed her eyes, it occured to me that closing your eyes when you are deaf involves a very profound act of trust and vulnerability. Sure enough, if my hand is in contact with her and it moves, or if I am stroking her and the next stroke does not come when expected, her eyes open immediately.

It's not just that the dogs make me learn about them. It's that they make me learn about me.

If you are blind or deaf, and I have managed to get this wrong, please feel free to offer your insights and corrections. That's important! As you do so, please recognize that I am trying to convey matters as best I can, and that I am working to be respectful as I do so. If I have gotten it wrong, let's work together to set it right.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Fur-niture and Traif

I picked up a Xoom tablet last week to see what the Android version of an iPad looks like, and my son has been playing with the camera. He is still working on the idea that the tablet needs to be held steady, but he got one or two nice shots that I thought might cheer Sheena up today.

Faith on my grandmother's couch
We're a pretty dog-friendly house. Definitely a "that's why they call it fur-niture" kind of place. As you can see, Faith is having no trouble getting with the program. Here she is lying a couch that came from my grandmother's house. Trevor is lying on the floor in front of the couch, somewhat miffed that his dog bed has been usurped. Unfortunately those shots are pretty blurry.

I'm not sure my dad would appreciate this shot, but his mother would have. While she kept a very orderly house, it was first and foremost a house for people to live in. My mother isn't always sure what to make of the granddogs, but she seems to like Trevor, and Faith is probably more her size (literally) than any of our previous dogs. Mom was bitten by a German Shepard as a child, and she remains somewhat fearful. The Rotties frightened her a bit - even Morgan, who mom readily acknowledges was a gentle dog by just about any standard.

Mom is definitely not a fur-niture kind of person. For years she showed up with a lint roller and tried to get up the fur before she would sit down. Does the term "losing battle" resonate? Mind you, that lint roller had been packed in her suitcase and come across the country with her. Eventually she gave up and started wearing more casual clothes to our house. After that she was willing to let Trevor put his head in her lap, which made both of them much happier. It will be interesting to see what happens when she meets Faith. Faith is, if anything, more gentle than Morgan was.

This particular couch has an end that folds down; I slept on it often as a child when I stayed with my grandparents. My son occasionally sleeps on it today, but these days it mostly belongs to Trevor. On balance, I think my grandmother would feel that it was being appreciated, and that is what would have mattered to her.

My favorite dog bed.
Just to prove that Faith is not a complete couch potato, here is Faith making herself comfortable on her other dog bed. She likes this one because it's where I sleep, and she is a dog who seems entirely motivated by cuddling. Give her a dog cookie and you get the impression that she's eating it mostly to be a good sport. Give her a chance to snuggle with you and all is pretty much right with the universe. Hey, works for me.

Give my son a dog cookie, on the other hand, and it's completely clear that he's eating it to see your reaction. He'll also tell you, quite gleefully, that Trevor likes to floss his teeth. Especially his back teeth. If that gets a yuck face from you and Trevor happens to be handy, he'll demonstrate. My mom was utterly horrified, which had my son giggling for days. Today he went one better with a neighbor and explained during his little speech that Trevor eats cat poop sometimes (we have since gated off the litterbox). Having done the setup, he got a big "ewww" out of one of our neighbors by demonstrating the flossing thing with their dog. He, of course, thought that was pretty funny.

Well, that's it for tonight. I had the pictures and thought Sheena could use a light moment. One of her dogs, Piper, got in to some sort of poison yesterday. Thankfully, Piper seems to be okay now. From the description, it sounds like rat poison, which is exceptionally nasty stuff.

Oh. One more thing. My son announced today in the car that he wants another dog who is a mix of Trevor and Faith. He wants to call her "Traif"...

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

To Sign or not to Sign...

Through inexcusable circumstance, I've allowed Trevor to go essentially untrained, and the time has come to correct that. Faith, for her part, has exquisite training in a purely sign-based scheme. So should I train Trevor to respond to signs, to conventional verbal commands, or to both? That is the question. Opinions welcome!

Monday, March 21, 2011

Give a Dog a Fish...

Some of my favorite stories about the dogs involve some form of counter surfing. Natasha didn't do this. Faith hasn't yet. Morgan considered the infant in the height chair to be a self-replenishing popsicle stick: he was constantly covered in stuff that was worth licking off, and could be relied on to drop interesting stuff. Somehow, none of the dogs have had any trouble managing "oops" as one of their commands. But my favorite stories along these lines involve Pooh Bear and Trevor.

As a young dog, Pooh Bear (Sheena) had expensive taste in wine. We discovered this one night when we left our glasses sitting on a living room table to check on dinner. The Animal Health Techniciam I was seeing at the time had a wonderful goofy lab, Sunny, who proceeded to teach Pooh Bear that wine glasses were made for dog tongues. You think coordinating two legs is tough when you are drunk! No way these two were going to walk a straight line. The two conducted a series of wine tastings over several weeks. We determined that Sunny would drink (or eat) nearly anything, but Pooh Bear would not touch red wine, and would pass on any white below $20 a bottle. Considering that I was then living in the San Francisco Bay Area, where good wine is readily available in the supermarket at $12/bottle, that qualifies as expensive. Pooh also liked Guiness, but wouldn't touch other beers.

Sunny, for calibration, once ate Pooh Bear's leather leash. Whole. The only part he left was the clasp, and it's entirely possible that he just hadn't gotten to it yet. The AHT got it back in pieces over the next week and a half, and having a quirky sense of humor, carefully froze the entire collection so I could see it. Bleh!
I do feel compelled to point out that dogs cannot digest alcohol (they lack the necessary enzymes) and you certainly shouldn't try this at home! We didn't let them have very much - teaspoons worth on any given night. Being older, if not wiser, I wouldn't repeat those experiments today.
In her older days, Pooh Bear was pretty slow, so it was easy to think you didn't need to keep an eye on her. After all, how fast could she go? Fast enough, it turned out. Our neighbor (and landlord) brings his lunch out on his deck next store one day - a metal bowl of spaghetti with meat sauce. Pooh was out on our back deck, and in the time it took him to go back inside, hunt up a beer, and return, she had ambled over to his porch and finished his meal. We were inside, and we come out to see her nose covered in tomato sauce, licking her lips, and him trying to figure out whether to be annoyed or laugh heartily. Laughing won out, thankfully. Frank has a great sense of humor.

That same year, we found Morgan standing on our kitchen table trying to open a box of Matzoh (!) that was still sealed in plastic. It seems she was having a growth spurt, and was feeling a bit peckish. Either that or she was of German-Jewish descent. And when I say "standing on the table", I mean all four paws! This was my wife's first experience with counter surfing in it's full-on form, but it really didn't prepare her for what was to come. Which brings me to today's posting title.

A few years after the Matzoh Incident we had moved to Maryland and gotten Trevor. One night my wife takes a 2 pound salmon filet out of the oven in its pyrex dish and places it on the counter to cool while she sets up the table. Puts out the plates and so forth, brings out the vegetables, goes back to get the pyrex, and it's gone. Not the fish. The entire dish. As if it had never been.

Now this is puzzling, because she's sure she took it out of the oven, and... but maybe... oh hell, it's probably burning! And she steps around the island in the kitchen and kicks the pyrex dish accidentally, which is sitting on the floor with about half a pound of salmon left, and a very satisfied-looking Trevor gazing at it wistfully, trying to work out whether he has room for the rest of the salmon. Think Winnie the Pooh here, faced with a pot of honey he can't manage to eat. Like that. Now mind you, the pyrex is completely undamaged. Trevor had lifted the whole darn thing carefully off the counter and put it down on the floor for convenient access. Which made the whole thing too funny to be mad about.

Needless to say, we didn't feed Trevor kibble that night. :-) He issued salmon-smelling burps for the next week to remind us of his victory. To this day, whenever we bring bagles home to eat he keeps a particularly hopeful eye on my son. Who has been known to drop the occasional piece of lox...

Sometimes Rotties and BCs don't need to be taught. Motive and opportunity are quite often enough for them to figure things out all by themselves on the first opportunity. So maybe we taught him to fish after all...

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Don't Worry, Be Happy

In the emails that led up to adopting Faith, Sheena made two comments that concerned me. Nothing bad, just things to watch out for. One was that Faith might have some degree of separation anxiety. The other was that Sheena wasn't sure sometimes whether Faith was eager to please because she is really easygoing or because she was afraid of getting something wrong. In the past two weeks I've been watching for signs of both issues, and finding neither.

Concerning separation, Faith seems fine so long as she is in a comfortable place. A crate, our house, and my car all seem to qualify as comfortable. She'll watch to see where everyone is going, and she does a happy dance to be let out, but there is no sign of distress or concern while she is alone. In short order she lies down calmly and dozes.

Actually, the one who gets distressed if I take Faith and leave him is Trevor - even if other people are in the house and paying him attention. He has a very impressive suite of complaining whines and barks. He's fine with her getting attention, but he is distressed if she goes with me and he is left behind. The reverse is not true; Faith seems comfortable staying behind.

So far, at least, I also see no sign of anything like fear or uncertainty in Faith. Since she can't hear, she is naturally a little watchful about her surroundings. For example she is constantly looking to confirm her distance from me when walking to make sure she isn't drifting in to me and underfoot. But no more than one might expect. That's really the extent of the caution I observe. For the most part she's just a happy dog.

She is, however, unusually tactile. She just spent 60 minutes lying on my shoulder before shifting position, and when she did move, she shifted in a way that maintained some body contact. The previous record holder for shoulder pillow use was Pooh Bear at 12 minutes, after which she would shift to a remote corner of the bed and face the opposite direction. This seems to be a common pattern. Two dogs, or a dog and human, will almost always sleep facing opposite ways. Faith compromises between this and maintaining some physical contact.

I would describe her as the most cuddle-oriented dog I know, but it isn't quite true. In that she's tied with Katie, a BC I minded one summer for a friend who was traveling. If Faith has her head on your leg or is otherwise in contact, she's content. More so, of course, if she can get you to pet her, and gently persistent if you stop prematurely (which is to say: if you stop at all), but content.

Need to find her a job for sure, but so far supervising the cat seems to be doing the trick.

Now if only I could get that shot of Faith and Trevor driving my car, I'd be content too...

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Hear No Evil, See No Evil

Chorus: You understand that one is broken, right?
For her first week here, Faith would spend 30-45 minutes at a time staring Snickers down, making sure he didn't do anything stupid. Or for that matter, anything at all.
Snickers: The new big stupid things I'm stupid? Mrowf!
I was all set to try to get a picture of that, But as you can see, Faith has concluded that Snickers is broken, and doesn't respond to staring. This is very puzzling to her, and she has been throwing and consulting the nylabones non-stop to figure out how she can lift the anti-herding curse that seems to have fallen on her. Cats are tricksy that way. After all, Snickers may have something preciousss in its pocketses. Yess. Or his bowl, anyway. Still, gotta make sure the poor feller doesn't up and disappear on us. It ain't much, but it's a job.

Snickers, for his part, can't quite figure out why Faith does not seem to respond to warning hisses, the occasional spitting noise, or threatening looks. Only whapping works, and that's just too much like work.
Snickers: Is the tiny big stupid really as dense as the big big stupid and the little big stupid? I mean: just how much density can the world survive without imploding? Can you check if my term-life kibble insurance covers gravitational implosion?
Trevor, being the alpha dog in the house, seems to feel that Faith shouldn't score higher on any criteria, and certainly shouldn't win the "Who's the biggest stupid?" contest unchallenged. So he periodically interceeds to inform Faith that Snickers has paid his protection kibble (Snickers and Trevor each prefer the other's kibble) and should be left alone. Then he tries to inform Snickers that Faith is now part of the family, and that Snickers should straighten up, quit whining at Faith, and get on with whining to be fed - especially since when Snickers gets fed everybody gets fed.
Trevor: Look, Snickers. One paw washes the other, right?
Snickers: Licks paw. Considers. Whaps Trevor on general principles. Meow. Feed me now!
Faith ignores Trevor and Snickers whaps him on the nose for his troubles, so apparently Faith and Snickers have established a lasting common basis for a positive working relationship.
Snickers: But I still think she's stupid! I mean, she's a (sniff) dog!

Monday, March 14, 2011

Visiting Food Lady

Competition Nap
Faith and Trevor are obviously having a hard time getting used to each other. One white face, one black face, same adoring expression for their person. Or maybe that look is for the dog bowls I'm holding. Trevor tried to steal some of Faith's kibble today, and she gave him what-for. As she was doing that, Snickers snuck in succesfully for a blind taste test (as it were). Faith, of course, never heard him coming.

You wouldn't know from the picture that Trevor is twice Faith's weight (and built accordingly). Having spent the first year of his life trying to snap the rope that had him tied off, his entire hind end is overdeveloped and he's built like a truck. When you look from behind, he actually looks a little bowlegged.

But in honor of the Three Woofs readers, I wanted to say a little bit about my trip up to the Great White North, which, in the event, had rather more mud than snow. My son doesn't do well on long car trips, so we went up the night before and stayed in a hotel. He ended up crawling in with me, so Trevor got the other bed to himself. As you can imagine from the picture here, he thought that was just about right. I remember thinking as we were driving up that it would be interesting to meet the lady behind the blog, and that I was actually going to meet the dogs I'ld been following for over a year. Which struck me as kind of neat. My son thought it was cool!

We got over to Casa de Food Lady at around 10:00am, and Sheena was just coming back in with the crowd. The car was immediately surrounded by excitedly curious dogs peering in the windows on all sides. Unfortunately, it's been raining non-stop since, so I can't show you the paw prints on the car.:-) Finally the dogs calmed down enough for me to get out, whereupon they all jumped on me (which, to be clear, I more or less invited). Not to be outdone, Dexter proceeds to hop up on the hood and goes nose-to-nose with Trevor through the windshield. My son is still in the car, and he's watching this and laughing his head off. More so when Sheena let out with "DEXTER MORGAN WHAT ARE YOU DOING ON THAT CAR?!? GET OFF THAT CAR RIGHT NOW!". Dexter, mind, you, is completely oblivious to this, because he is too busy peering in the front window to see what's inside. I figured that a brown mud racing stripe down the center of the hood and the windshield painted in Dexter paws was pretty darn funny. Heck, I was there with a six year old and a dog on a ten acre farm in the rain, so we were obviously going to hose down everything in sight anyway.

Twoie lost out. Sheena put him up because he's dog aggressive. Tweed apparently doesn't like children, but by the time we left my son had managed to sneak in an unauthorized hello when Sheena and I were distracted. If I heard her right, this was the first time in 11 years that Tweed had allowed a small child to pet him without growling or biting. To his credit, my son had done the whole "meet strange dog" protocol correctly, slowly, and smoothly, but Sheena seemed pretty surprised that he'ld gotten away with it. Once they'ld gotten themselves introduced Tweed actually accepted a couple of gentle strokes. Maybe Tweed's made some progress. If so, that seems great.

For the last two years or so I've really only gotten to see Food Lady through the eyes of a blog author. Watching her in action is pretty striking. She's out in the field managing four dogs, each an individual, and each with very particular needs. Dexter can take criticism. Piper needs a gentler touch. Wootie is, well, Woo, and Faith loves to chase whichever dog is in motion at the time. And then there were my son and Trevor, chasing after all of them at once. And I watched Sheena over 90 minutes as she turned her attention from one dog to the next non-stop, shifting her style to meet each dog, never once losing track for a moment of who was who. How many people do you know who can do that with anybody (human or dog or whatever)? It's a true gift, and it was pretty amazing to watch in action.

She truly inspires the dogs. She call's Dexter back through a fence, and he's racing right along, and she calls to him "Go! Go! Go! Go! Go!" in a high-pitched, excited, encouraging voice, and it was like he found an entire new gear. You could literally see him hunker down, dig in, and give it everything he could find. Now yes, he is a Border Collie, and pulling out all the stops to respond is part of what they love, but in one way or another Sheena got that extra something out of every one of her dogs - even Faith, who was a relative newcomer. And Trevor, who was giving her provisional respect within a few minutes of joining the group.

I don't know how to say this better than: it's a pleasure to watch a real master at work.

At the end, Sheena spent almost 30 minutes sitting with Faith, nominally getting Faith ready to travel and allowing me to get my son into clean clothes in our car with some semblance of privacy. As to Faith and Sheena, I'm not entirely sure who was reassuring whom. Most likely both, of course. It's one of the wonders of people who do rescue. You can't foster an animal without falling in love with them, but you need to be able to let them go when the time comes. You hope and plan for the best, and frankly you don't hear a lot back unless something goes wrong. Sheena's been doing this for twelve years, and she's still an optimist. Which is pretty darn amazing when you think about the things rescue people see.

Meanwhile, my son is thrilled with his new cuddle-buddy (and vice versa). Faith, I think, has never met a lap she didn't like, and she truly loves to snuggle in next to people given any excuse at all. Trevor does too, so today I got some quality snuggle-sandwhich time between them on the couch in the picture.

Or at least, I did when Faith wasn't watching television. But that's a story for another night...

Photos and Blogs

This is way off topic, but it's interesting to see what happens to photos online. Many of my older photos are dark, and I don't have time at the moment to tweak them. But what's interesting is how different they look on different displays. Working in software means I have way too many computers around. Even the brightness difference between the iPad and the Xoom tablets is very striking.

I wonder how Food Lady manages to make them look good on all the displays? I guess that's why she is a pro photographer and I'm not.:-)

First Impressions of Faith

As the TDBCR site states, Once is a habit for a Border Collie. It's exactly one week today since Faith joined us, and I am already screwing up.

About 30 minutes after we left Food Lady's place, I allowed Faith to move up front with me, and I used my free hand to scritchel her while we drove. I've done this over the years with all of my dogs. Obviously, it's an intermittent sort of thing. Sometimes that pesky steering wheel actually needs two hands! Trevor has developed the habit of laying his head down near the gear shift, occasionally knocking it out of gear. Faith did the same, and then proceeded to paw me delicately to inform me that scritching time wasn't over, and would I please continue. Now. KThnx.

Faith is a source of wonder. Here is a dog who can't hear, but is - if anything - more responsive to hints and suggestion than Natasha was. By way of calibration, Natasha's abuse history gave her really compelling reason to read her humans attentively. For her first year with me, Natasha wouldn't voluntarily get more than six inches from my foot. Stop and think about what that requires: at any given moment your human may move in an arbitrary direction, and you never want to be caught off-guard. Try it with a friend and see if you can do it.

Even by that standard, Faith's ability to read human body language is amazing. This is, of course, the adaptive characteristic that makes herding dogs such good partners - perhaps more successful than any other breeds. Being deaf, Faith exhibits this quality in refined form. What's stunning is not that Faith tracks me so precisely. It's that she makes it look completely effortless. Even though she cannot hear.

Humans have relatively weak hearing, and we are surprisingly bad at integrating input from more than one sense at a time. We are visually oriented, and we naïvely expect that our pets work the same way. My house is a daily education in how wrong this is. Our blind cat (Snickers) has zero trouble finding laps to climb in to, but the deaf dog (Faith) is frequently oblivious to her surroundings. Go back and try that "follow your friend" exercise with a set of (unplugged) over-the-ear headphones on. You'll be surprised how big a role hearing plays in tracking your surroundings when the change is right in front of your eyes. And remember that you can still hear a lot of your surrounding with those headphones on!

To be brutally honest, I'm not sure that I'll live up to what Faith deserves. And that's probably a good thing, because I'm very challenge-driven, and I really want to be the person she deserves. I guess we'll see.

In one of her emails about Faith, Sheena noted that Faith didn't get on furniture. When Faith arrived at our house, she happily climbed on couches and beds. In our house that's not a problem, but given the initial statement I was surprised. When I stepped back to look at it, I realized that there were two cases:
  • Faith will get on my bed without invitation, but this followed a pattern that established she was welcome. She won't get on any other bed in the house without invitation.
  • In every case where Faith has gotten on a couch, some human has expressed permission with their body language. It might only be a dip of a shoulder in a leading direction, but it's clearly there. In short, Faith reads human body language better than most humans do.

In a lot of ways, working with Faith reminds me of working with Natasha: she forces me to re-examine everything I think I know as a handler, and to grow in the process. In Natasha's case it was submissive urination. In Faith's case it's how to communicate with hand signals. In each case, there is a need at every interaction to stop and think about how to communicate clearly with the dog in a way that is right for them, and to grow into the habit of new techniques as a handler. We'll have to see if I can do that consistently.

All in all, it feels a lot like it felt to be a professor. You can be one of the top five experts in the world in "your thing", but when you enter a classroom you suddenly have to present it in coherent and non-contradictory form. It's humbling, frustrating, and rewarding all at the same time.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Five Wonderful Dogs...

Seems only fair to give a quick introduction to the pack.

Pooh Bear (Sheena)
Sheena (a.k.a. Pooh Bear)

Pooh Bear was my first dog, a German Shepard mix. Sweet, lovable, somewhat aloof, and very gentle. An altogether wonderful choice for a first dog. She was the only dog who didn't bark incessantly at the humane society kennel. She simply waited with dignity to be noticed. Regrettably, few pictures of Pooh Bear remain, and they don't do her justice.

I have two particularly fond memories of Pooh Bear. The first is of her wandering across the street to greet an 12 month old child, giving the child a dainty lick on the lips, and then standing calmly as the child, having laughed and fallen down, used Sheena to pull back up. The second is of Sheena teaching Natasha (below) by example how to behave. More on that below.

Sheena was the first dog I trained. When we got to Philadelphia, I taught her to stop at intersections, which she did reliably.

We lost Sheena to cancer on Thansgiving day in 1999. Afterwards, my wife decreed that we would only get dogs she could lift.


Natasha was a one year old Rottweiler who had been systematically beaten and starved by her first owner. A cat rescue group intervened to get her taken away, and nursed her back to help with IV nutrients, but since they didn't really do dog rescue, they needed to place her quickly. I volunteered, and did a marathon drive from Philadelphia to Connecticut. She was terrified of men, and it took almost an hour before she would let me touch her. When the time came several hours later to leave, she was panicked and tried to chew her way out of my Explorer. Because of her early malnourishment, she never filled out properly.
At first she would pee submissively if you happened to look frustrated when you turned her way. Nobody had taught her anything that she knew she could do right. The most striking memory I have of those days is the day she learned to "sit" on command. It wasn't just that she knew how to sit. It was that she knew she knew how to sit. It was the first thing anybody had ever bothered to teach her, she knew she had it, and she knew that she could reliably be praised for that. From that point on, if she wasn't sure what to do, she sat. And she looked so proud doing it.

I was lucky to have Pooh Bear on hand at the time, because Natasha learned a lot from Pooh Bear. The thing about a dog that knows nothing is that when they get a chance they learn very quickly. Quickly enough that you can see the process happen before your eyes (which was amazing and wonderful). Natasha quickly decided that Pooh Bear knew what to do, so immitating Pooh Bear was safe. She did that assiduously. Because of her anxiety and fear, working with Natasha forced me to re-examine everything I had previously done as a handler. At the time it was heart-breaking, but it was also wonderful.

Natasha was good with Chinese puzzle crates. When I went to work, I would crate her in one of those wire crates that can be broken down for travel. Within 48 hours, she had worked out how to break down the crate all by herself. From the inside. In seven seconds (yes, I timed it). Some tie ties fixed that, but it was really impressive. Rotties are smart dogs when they are motivated.

By the end, she could be trusted to run at the dog park, but remained prone to fear-biting when strangers came to the house. We loved her, but she certainly wasn't a dog who could transition into a normal home.

We lost Natasha to bone cancer in 2003.


Natasha spent months keening after Pooh Bear died. Breaking the "can't lift" rule, we adopted another Rottie. Morgan came to us as a two year old; a certified child therapy dog who lost her home due to the idiocies of liability insurance. Contrary to what you may have heard, there is no credible data anywhere that Rottweilers bite people any more than any other dog. They are big, they are striking, they photograph well (I mean, look at her!), so they make the papers. Unless, of course, you remove from the sample pool those dogs who have been used illegally in dog fighting or as bait (that is: dogs we know have been abused). Guess which breed looks really good after you do that?

When we brought our son home from the hospital, Morgan looked at the infant carrier with an expression that clearly read "Cool! Did you get one for you too?" She would "boof" at us if we didn't respond to the baby fast enough for her liking. She was always gentle, and always at his side. She only growled at someone once, and her judgement was dead-on.

Morgan was a true master of strategic stupidity. If there was a way to pretend she hadn't heard, or just lie passively on the couch and wait, that would get her what she wanted, she did it. The running joke was she was the world's only Blonde Rottweiler.

We lost Morgan to an aggressively mutating form of MRSA in 2008. My son, who had never known a house without her, was devestated. With Morgan gone, we were back to no dogs in the house. By this point, I'ld had two dogs for most of the previous 20 years, and it seemed pretty quiet...


Trevor is a Border Collie mix (probably Springer Spaniel) from the Carolinas. 60lbs of perpetual motion machine. We adopted him several months after Morgan passed. I had been interested in Border Collies for a very long time, and this seemed like a good time to make the move. My son caught the bug from me. BC's will herd small children unless the handler is very good. I'ld lived with BCs before, but they weren't mine, so we ended up going the mixed-breed route. Thus: Trevor.

Trevor has limited herding drive, but loves to chase balls, people, children, other dogs, falling snow, and so forth. As a handler, I haven't done him justice yet. He came as my job situation was shifting, and too many things were allowed to get in the way. I'll be fixing that over the next several months. We'll be seeing a lot of Trevor, so I won't say much more about him here.


Faith is a five year old pure-bred Border Collie. She joined our household just last week, and has been trying to teach the cat how to be herded since she arrived. Faith comes from the Vancouver area, and my son and I took a weekend adventure trip up to Vancouver with Trevor to pick her up. In addition to being a BC, Faith is deaf, which makes the second time that I've had to re-examine and re-learn all of my handling skills. Which is wonderful. Faith is also very well trained. As BCs go (heck, as any dog goes), she's easy. Once again, we'll be seeing a lot of Faith, so I won't say much more here.

Mud Larks
Faith's fosterer (Sheena, a.k.a. Food Lady of Three Woofs and a Woo) warned us that Faith is perhaps the muddiest Border Collie she has ever encountered. Then she saw Faith and Trevor side by side, and conceded that perhaps we might already be familiar with the problem. Trevor and Faith had just spend two hours running around with Piper, Dexter, Woo, and Tweed. At one point, Trevor actually lay down in a mud puddle. Trevor also spent some time trying to wrangle the llamas at casa de food lady. Llamas apparently have razor-sharp hooves, and can be deadly when provoked. Faith and Dexter herded him back.

My son was determined not to be outdone, however. After working to determine just how deep this particular mud puddle was (about six inches), and nearly losing a shoe to the suction, he looked at me, plopped down flat on his bum, smiled, and said very matter-of-factly: "oops". Then he decided to test his skills at face painting. We were driving my wife's car, and needless to say, I owe my wife a car wash...


Which brings me to the outlier of the family: Snickers. Snickers really doesn't see what all the excitement is about these useless four-legged bits of ambulatory biomass-in-waiting. Snickers came to us without front claws, and his first reaction to Morgan went something like this:
It's big (whap). And it's stupid (whap). What's it for?
Morgan has been known laughingly as "the big stupid" ever since. When Trevor arrived, Snickers had this to say:
But we just got rid of the big stupid. And now we're getting a little big stupid?
I think Trevor knows this, since he has been trying to get Snickers to play (whap!) unrelentingly for the last four years. But Snickers seems to have met his match in Faith. She's deaf, and he's blind. He can't see her staring him down, and she can't hear him whining about how stupid he things dogs are in general and Faith is in particular.

The Patter Peet of Puppy Feet

The "patter peet of puppy feet". Hard to imagine life without it.

In this blog, I want to celebrate the wonderful dogs I live with and the things they teach me. My favorite breeds have been Rottweilers and Border Collies. Both breeds need experienced and self-aware handlers. On my best days I hope that I'll eventually learn how to be one of those.
Since 1989 I've adopted five dogs, two of whom are still with us:

Trevor is a Border Collie mix - probably Springer Spaniel. Smart enough to be a challenge, but not the full bore herding dog that he might have been. As a handler, I haven't done hum justice yet. Trevor recently turned five. He joined us from Atlantic Region Central Border Collie Rescue four years ago.

Faith is a pure-breed Border Collie who cannot hear. She's the dog who pushed me into finally starting this blog, and she's teaching me all over again how much I don't know as a handler. Faith just joined us from That'll Do Border Collie Rescue, and has just turned five.

We are also the property of a cat, Snickers, who is blind. Snickers has a lot to say about dogs as well.

I'll introduce all of the current and former animals properly momentarily.