Archive for September, 2008

“Just Like a Real Dog”

Today’s New York Times reports:

IN the 1930’s, when the Swiss developmental psychologist Jean Piaget quizzed children to find out if they could tell the difference between living creatures and inanimate objects, he concluded that they defined life by figuring out which objects could move by themselves, without an outside push or pull.

In the last 20 years or so, that particular theory of Piaget’s has been almost completely overturned by research showing that young children are not fooled by things like garage doors that move by remote control. That is, children can tell the difference between animals and machines even if the machines appear to move by themselves.

Now children are encountering a new category of objects, things that seem to possess intentions, preferences and others characteristics previously reserved for living beings.

In an age where robotics and virtual reality create increasingly believable simulations of living beings – do we risk raising a generation of children who find it difficult to differentiate between reality and fantasy – and who have a vastly different idea than we do of what it means to be alive?

Dr. Sherry Turkle of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and her research assistant Andrea Audley are conducting ground-breaking research on our evolving relationships with nonbiological objects.  According to the Times:

In a research project still in its early stages, Professor Turkle and Ms. Audley have visited after-school centers in the Boston area to watch the ways children 5 to 10 years old play with Furbies. They have also sent Furbies home with children and asked the children and their parents to keep diaries of the interactions.

Again and Again, Ms. Audley said, the researchers have asked the children: ”Is it alive? Is it like a real pet? Does it know you?”

”Strikingly,” Ms. Audley said, ”often the answer they settled on was, ‘It’s not alive in a human or animal kind of way, but in a Furby kind of way.’ ”

Watching children assign personality and emotion to toys is nothing new for children, but this category of ”sort of alive” breaks new ground. It is showing up more and more as a first generation of children plays with interactive toys that need attention and nurturing.

Is developing a new concept of what it means to “be alive” an adaptive response to a world where technology plays a greater role in our lives every day — or will this new, nebulous boundary between animals and robots, the worlds of the living and the pseudo-living, change the way we view living things in a new – and potentially maladaptive way?

Empathy plays a key role in how we understand and interact with other living beings.  When we talk about empathy, we generally refer to it in one of two ways: 

The first is the capacity of a person or other cognitive being to “read” and respond correctly to social signals and situations.

The second refers to the capacity of a person or other cognitive being to recognize or understand another’s state of mind or emotional state.  Colloquially – to walk a mile in their shoes.

How will our society’s experience and understanding of empathy change when that someone we are empathizing with is alive in “a Furby kind of way?”  When it doesn’t really  need to be fed, housetrained, or exercised, doesn’t age — and doesn’t die (or who, if he does “die”, can be replaced with a near exact copy).

Too many of us have already fallen for the twin allures of immediate gratification and entitlement.  It’s not enough to just want to have it all anymore, we’re entitled  to have it all – and not to have to wait for it.  The problem is – feeling like you’re entitled to immediate gratification has a tendency to reduce or eliminate your sense of empathy.  After all… caring takes time.  And effort.

A friend forwarded me a post today with this “puppies for sale” ad:

Have you ever wanted a dog but stopped yourself from getting one because:

* * * 1. *You’re allergic to their fur?
* * * 2. *You don’t have the energy or space for a big dog?
* * * 3. *Yappy dogs annoy you?
* * * 4. *You travel too much?
* * * 5. *You don’t have time to train a dog?
* * * 6. *You’re a cat lover?

* * * *Well I think I’ve got the solution for you! I have 6 beautiful puppies looking for a home!  And they’re perfect for you because:
* * * 1. *They don’t shed!
* * * 2. *Fully grown they weigh between 6 and 10 lbs!
* * * 3. *They don’t bark!
* * * 4. *They fit in any size doggy travel bag and are wonderful travel companions!
* * * 5. *They are very quick learners!
* * * 6. *They’re way better than a cat!

* * * *Claim yours today! They will be available to take home on ______. They are Shitzapoo’s, and they will be all caught up on shots and meds by the time they can go home with you. I own both of their parents and can assure you that the puppies are being well taken care of, and obviously come from a good home. ****

I don’t even know where to begin a critique of this ad.  There are so much ignorance on display here – the mind boggles.  So, apparenly, now even people who:

x x x   Don’t like dogs
x x x   Are too lazy to train a dog
x x x   Are too lazy to groom a dog or clean their house and -
x x x   Are more interested in a fashion accessory than a relationship…

Should  have dogs too. 

Yikes. Maybe the idea of pet robots isn’t so bad after all.  In a time when so many people appear to have already  lost their senses of empathy and mindfulness – the danger of growing up confused about what life is and is not may be balanced by one great big positive benefit – that careless and uncaring people can go out and buy companions who aren’t capable of suffering… 

Sega's "Dream DogTX"

Sega's "Dream DogTX"

Given the potentially culture-changes effects they could have on us – the interesting question becomes – how will robotic companions change us.  Again from the Times:

Professor Turkle said. ”The new objects sidestep arguments about what is inherent in the machines and play instead on what they evoke in us.”

Mortality has traditionally defined the human condition, Professor Turkle said. ”A shared sense of mortality has been the basis for feeling a commonality with other human beings,” she said, ”a sense of going through the same life cycle, a sense of the preciousness of time and life, of its fragility.

When we live with beings who don’t go through the same cycles of birth, life and death that we do; who can be conveniently turned off or put into storage when we don’t have time for them; and who can be repaired or replaced when they malfunction – will we also lose some part of our sense of the beauty and fragility of real lives?

September 18, 2008 at 7:23 pm 1 comment

Remembering Prunella

Prunella was a goat.  I don’t know how old she was or where she was born.  I only met her once and know of her mostly through the stories my friend Audrey told me about her.

Prunella spent the first two years of her life living and working in a research laboratory at the University of Minnesota.  We don’t know what kind of research she participated in.  We just know that after the study was over, Pru was scheduled for euthanasia.

One of the students who worked on the study – and knew Prunella – was a friend of Audrey’s.  When Pru was scheduled to be ‘released’ from the program she contacted Audrey, who she knew had a farm with pastures and a barn, and begged her to take the goat in.  Audrey’s not a goat person, but she can be a sucker for a sad story – especially when it involves an innocent furry creature, so she agreed to take Prunella.

That was almost ten years ago.  Audrey and I joked about Prunella a lot – we agreed that we wanted to volunteer for whatever study it was that she had participated in…  You see, that darned goat was the absolute picture of health.  She never got sick.  She never had problems with infections or parasite infestations.  She was a super goat.

Mostly, Prunella was a pet.  She was an Alpine doe and I suppose Audrey could have bred her and used her as a milk goat, but she didn’t.  She just tamed her and fed her and cared for her.  They were friends.

An Alpine goat.  Not Prunella.

An Alpine goat. Not Prunella.

Until Sunday.

Sunday afternoon Audrey was doing chores around her place when she heard the hens in her barn raise up a great and terrified ruckus.  They were obviously panicked.  Really panicked.  So she sped out to the barn to see what the problem was. 

Clustered in a tight flock in the corner of their coop, the hens appeared to be terrified, but unhurt.  As she checked on them she heard odd, raspy sounds coming from Prunella’s stall.  She assumed that what she heard was the sound of a terrified goat, and went into the stall to visit Pru and calm her down.

As she entered the stall, she was horrified to see that two dogs were in the stall and Prunella was lying on her side in a corner, obvoiusly in distress.  The dogs, a border collie and a rottweiler mix, were snarling and their faces were bloodied.  Audrey – who can be incredibly intimidating when she wants to be – chased them out of the stall – with nothing more than her voice and presence.

Once they were gone, she went to check Prunella – and found that her trachea had been badly torn.  It was a wound she could not survive.

Filled with righteous indignation, she leaped into her van and drove up the road to the house where she knew the dogs lived.  Their owners were just piling into a car, dressed up for some outing, when she arrived.  Smart woman, she parked her van diagonally across the drive to block them in, then told them that their dogs had fatally injured her goat. 

The female owner leaped right into denial.  She whined that it couldn’t have been their dogs – they’re always chained up in the yard.  A pointed look toward two trees surrounded by hard-packed earth and empty chains said all that needed to be said about that.  So Audrey told the male owner that he needed to take ownership of the problem and come to put her goat out of its misery – NOW.

Quietly, he got his gun and did as he was told.

Then they all piled into the car and went off to their party.  Leaving their dogs to roam free through a neighborhood filled with poultry, sheep, calves, pets — and children.  No tears. No apology. No offer to bury or replace the goat.

No responsibility.

Sadly, it will be dogs who pay the price for this bit of ignorance and stupidity. Their owner will likely let them run at large until a neighborhood vigilante shoots them or the county sheriff picks them up and gets rid of them for him.  Then he’ll find a couple more dogs who are ‘free to a good home’ and chain them up outside his house until they die or go mad.  Or kill something.

A dog doesn’t need a home in the country.  It needs a home that cares. 

   The Goat And I

-Robert W. Service

Each sunny day upon my way
         A goat I pass;
He has a beard of silver grey,
         A bell of brass.
And all the while I am in sight
         He seems to muse,
And stares at me with all his might
         And chews and chews.

Upon the hill so thymy sweet
         With joy of Spring,
He hails me with a tiny bleat
         Of welcoming.
Though half the globe is drenched with blood
         And cities flare,
Contentedly he chews the cud
         And does not care.

Oh gentle friend, I know not what
         Your age may be,
But of my years I’d give the lot
         Yet left to me,
To chew a thistle and not choke,
         But bright of eye
Gaze at the old world-weary bloke
         Who hobbles by.

Alas! though bards make verse sublime,
         And lines to quote,
It takes a fool like me to rhyme
         About a goat.

September 16, 2008 at 3:08 am 2 comments

Tenacity

Ya gotta love beagles

September 15, 2008 at 9:03 pm 1 comment

It’s COOL to Know Your Food

Over the last year we’ve worked harder to fill our larders with locally grown, locally raised – preferably organic foods.  During this little journey I’ve been unpleasantly surprised at how difficult it was to find out where the food I was buying came from. Country of origin labeling, or COOL, is a federally mandated program that will require most retailers to include information about where our foods came from on labels. 

Political foot-dragging meant that the program was 6 years in the making, but as of September 30, 2008 U.S. consumer will know just where their food originates.  Sort of…

From Scientific American:

The measure – backed by farmers eager to compete with foreign producers and food safety advocates – requires meat, poultry and produce to contain labels listing their country of origin.

… Notable exceptions to the requirement include products sold in butcher shops and fish markets — as well as in restaurants where disease outbreaks often originate, the Sacramento Bee wrote in a recent preview of the law.

and…

What’s more, packers don’t have to be specific about where the meat consumers are buying came from, the Des Moines Register noted in a recent piece. Instead, they can list all the countries they bought from during a given period. “So in the store, ground beef could be labeled like this: ‘Product of the United States, Canada, Mexico, Australia, New Zealand and/or Uruguay,'” the Register explained.

Hmmmm, does this mean that that bulk package of bargain bin burger will now come with a label that includes more unintelligible information than Dr. Bronner’s Soap?

According to yesterday’s Chicago Tribune:

Food safety groups have hailed COOL as a necessary step toward broader consumer education and buying choices. But now they complain that the Department of Agriculture has defined it as narrowly as possible.

For example, they say, the agency has defined a host of foods as “processed,” such as mixed frozen vegetables, which exempts them from the new law.

“When they finalized this rule, they bent over backward to make as few things be covered as possible,” said Michael Hansen, a senior staff scientist with Consumers Union. “There are giant, giant loopholes in the law.”

One Mack-truck-sized loophole is the law’s definition of “processed.”  Again from the Trib:

“It’s considered processed if it’s combined with one other ingredient,” said Patty Lovera, assistant director of Food & Water Watch, a non-profit consumer rights organization. “We think they’re being incredibly broad.”

O-Kay.  So, if I break down and buy that pre-marinated pork loin, does the marinade constitute processing and make the product exempt from labeling?  If the packing plant adds salt and pepper (or artificial coloring) to my steak – is it now an exempt, processed product?  I suspect I know the answer to this, and I expect that the number of products I’m willing to buy from the grocery store will decrease significantly soon. 

The issue becomes even more convoluted when one deals with imported meat:

Another controversy involves imported livestock. Under COOL, meat derived from cattle imported into the U.S. for immediate slaughter can bear a label that states it’s a product of its origin country and the United States, even though the animal was raised entirely outside the U.S.

So some parts of COOL are not so cool.  Still, the law seems to represent a step in the right direction, especially for those of us who want to know where our food comes from.  And according to a poll by Consumer Reports – 92% of Americans fall into that category.

Now if they’d just expand the program to include ALL human and pet foods….

September 14, 2008 at 4:42 pm 1 comment

Assess-A-Hands and Toddler Dolls

I watched a recent episode of DogTown last night.  One of the scenes in the show featured staff doing a temperament test on a dog with a bite history.  The dog was shown reacting well to several different handling exercises including restraint and looming. 

After the dog passed the handling exercises it was “tested” (and I use the term very loosely here – a more apt term might be “tortured”) by having a large, bizarre looking toddler doll forced on it.  The doll was presented to the dog by rocking it back and forth so that it moved like a miniature version of the Stay-Puft marshmallow man – AND NOT AT ALL LIKE A REAL HUMAN BEING.  The doll was pushed toward the dog face first – a posture that most dogs will interpret as a threatening approach when confronted by an alien being. Understandably – the dog reacted to the “utterly freakish thing looks like a baby but isn’t a baby and came at me head on in a stiff, jerky, threatening manner” apparation by drawing back and growling.

After being freaked out by the evil Stay-Puft toddler, a bowl of food was put in front of the dog.  The testers waited until the dog was busy eating the food, then began to poke annoyingly at its face with a fake hand on a stick.  He reacted – in a COMPLETELY understandable way – by growling.

This constituted failing the test.

Now in their defense — and unlike most other shelters that use these tests, the staff at Best Friends used the results they got to decide what additional training the dog would get – not to decide whether or not to euthanize it. 

But I’m confused.  Maybe I’m just utterly stoopid — but this kind of testing makes no sense to me whatsoever.  As my friend Heather posted in her blog yesterday – dogs absolutely know the difference between real people and bizarre-looking monsters.  And – quite understandably – they don’t tend to react to monsters the same way they do to real human beings. 

In far too many shelters today, good dogs get killed by bad testing.  Their ability to tell the difference between a cheap manikin and a real person is being underestimated in a fatally unfortunate way.  Dogs die because human beings can’t – or won’t admit that they can tell the difference between a real hand and a plastic one on a stick.

Audie bites a hand - but NOT the one that feeds him.

Audie chews on a hand - but NOT the one that feeds him.

Before you fly off the handle and dare me to use my own hands to test potentially aggressive dogs let me point out that: a) I do regularly handle aggressive dogs; and b) I believe that there are better ways to test a dog’s willingness to bite in resource guarding than poking a shelter-stressed dog in the face with a stick. 

Most people don’t realize this, but space is a valuable resource to dogs.  Like other social animals, dogs use space, or yielding, as a way to express rank and claim ownership of resources.  When one dog seeks to claim a resource from another, he will often place his body between that dog and the resource – usually facing the other dog as he does so.  This movement/posture is doglish for “back off buddy, this is MINE!”

Using this kind of body language yourself with a resource guarding dog – asking him to yield the space around the valued resource to you – will usually elicit an aggressive response from him.  If you do this kind of exercise with the dog safely back-tied so that he can’t reach you – in my opinion – it’s safer than poking him in the face with a stick while he’s eating.  And because you’re gauging the dog’s reaction to a real human – not a bizarrely frightening artificial one – asking him to yield constitutes a much fairer test.

Before you rush out and start using this “method” to test dogs, I strongly suggest that you read this excellent article by Dick Russell on yielding and incorporate it successfully into your own training program for several months before trying it on a strange dog with a questionable disposition.  Yielding is a powerful tool for communication with and between dogs.  It’s an important part of my training program.  But trying to force an aggressive dog to yield can (and likely will) get you bitten if you’re inexperienced and if you don’t take the right kinds of precautions.

In the interest of balance I’ll add that I saw one thing on the DogTown episode that I really liked. The dogs at the facility were often filmed while they interacted at liberty in large groups.  Most shelters keep dogs in kennels and runs where they are either entirely sequestered from each other or occasionally allowed to interact in a limited way with just one or two other dogs.  Keeping them separated from each other not only adds to the sense of loneliness and isolation dogs experience in a shelter, it also cuts them off from those who are, in many ways, in the best position to help them.  The ‘people’ who know best how to teach dogs to be sane – are other dogs.  Dogs teaching dogs how to be dogs is very good therapy. They make sense to each other. 

There’s a small shelter a few hours north of us.  I’ve had the pleasure to meet four dogs adopted from that shelter in the last three yars.  All four of them are great dogs.  Social, agreeable – quietly comfortable in their own furry skins.  This shelter keeps their dogs in a couple of large, communal runs for much of the day.  I suspect that these communal runs is part of the reason that so many of the dogs that come out of that shelter manage to do so with their psyches intact.

Testing and evaluating shelter dogs is a difficult and often heart-breaking job.  No test is fool-proof, but most agree that some kind of testing is necessary to limit risks to the people who adopt shelter dogs. Its a dangerous, dirty – largely thankless task and I’ll admit I don’t have all the answers on how to best accomplish the job.

Hat tip to Linda Kaim who provided these links to a couple of very good articles on how to evaluate an assessment program.  If you work in a shelter / rescue environment or have an interest in doing so.  I strongly recommend you read both articles. There’s excellent information and advice in both of them.

September 13, 2008 at 10:31 pm 6 comments

Homemade Laundry Soap Recipe

Here it is – the long overdue and much anticipated recipe for homemade laundry soap.

I got this recipe from my friend Audrey.  She’s been making and using it for years.  You can make either powdered or liquid soap with the recipe.  We’ve done both, but tend to prefer the powder as it’s easier to make and store and seems to work as well as the liquid in my large, front-load washer.  Note that this detergent will not create suds.  This makes it very good for new, high-efficiency washing machines – but it may look really odd to you if you have a top load machine and peek in while the load is running.

Ingredients

1/3 bar Strong Soap (see below)

1/2 Cup washing soda

1/2 Cup borax

Optional – essential oil for fragrance

Equipment

Grater or food processor

3 gallon stockpot (for liquid soap)

5 gallon bucket (for liquid soap)

Stove (for liquid soap)

Stick blender (optional for liquid soap)

Air-tight container (for powder soap or extra powder to make more liquid)

Empty detergent bottle (for liquid soap) look for one with a no-spill, self-measuring lid

Directions

Note that this recipe is easily multiplied.  It’s a lot easier to make a triple batch of powder than a single one.  If you’re making liquid soap, you can keep the extra powder in an air tight container until you need it.  That way you don’t need to store gallons of liquid at once.  For both recipes you’ll need to grate the soap.  I use a Cuisinart food processor and the fine grating attachment.  I cut the bar in thirds and feed it into the food processor.  It makes short work of the job.

Liquid Soap

If you’re going to make liquid soap you’ll need 6 cups of water and a large (3 gallon) stock pot.  Put the water in the pot and put it on the stove on medium heat.  Add the grated soap and stir until it dissolves.  Then add the washing soda and borax and stir over heat until they are dissolved.  If the mix is not dissolving well, carefully use a stick or hand blender to mix it up.  Increase heat and bring pot to a boil.  Boil for 15 minutes.  The liquid should have about the texture of honey.

Take the pot off the heat.   Mix it well with a hand blender.  Once the soap is dissolved and well mixed, add enough hot water to make two gallons.  Add water a quart or so at a time and mix well before adding more to keep the mixture smooth.  Add a teaspoon or two of essential oil if desired.  A lighter oil (less viscous) with no color is best.  We like lemon and cedar,

I use about 1/2 cup per load in my large, front load washer.  Make sure the lid on the bottle fits very tight, as it’s best to shake the bottle before using it.

Dry / Powdered Soap

For dry soap, just grate the bar soap and add it to the borax and soda.  Stir well, then add essential oil if you want and mix again.  About 1-2 Tbsp per load (depending on how dirty the clothes are) works for me.

This soap will not work well if you have very hard water.  Adding extra borax to the recipe may help in this case.

A Note Regarding Bar Soaps

Regarding soaps.  The most commonly available strong (lye) soap is Fels Naphtha.  Fels is a lye and animal fat based soap.  It used to contain Stoddard Solvent (or mineral spirits) which made it more effective at removing oily stains.  Fels was an old time remedy for poison ivy.  If the name or the idea that it used to contain solvents bothers you, you can substitute Octagon Soap or Zote.  Fels Naphtha and Octagon are available at our local grocery and hardware stores.  You’ll find Zote at a tienda.

Don’t use facial soap.  It usually has added oils you don’t want and isn’t an aggressive enough cleaner for laundry. 

Or if you are incredibly motivated — and handy (like Audrey is) you can make you own bar soap from lye and rendered lard.

September 11, 2008 at 6:01 pm 5 comments

Practicing

Young Audie is a very conscientious dog.  A thinker.  Things matter to him.

As we continue with his education this attitude of mindfulness becomes more apparent.  I can often tell when he reaches a new stage in understanding a concept because he will begin to practice (or rehearse) it on his own.

In practicing he repeats an action I’ve taught him on his own.  He’ll often practice an action a few times in a row, then go lie down to process what he’s taught himself.  The calm, mindful demeanor he expresses as he practices is utterly different from the bounding exuberance he is prone to much of the rest of the time.

Here are a few recent examples of his practicing:

  • I’ve been working to teach Audie to pick up his and Zip’s metal food bowls and bring them to me at meal times.  They’re somewhat heavy and oddly shaped which makes them more difficult to pick up than most (though not all) of the items I’ve had him fetch to me.  If he picks a bowl up in what seems like the simplest way – by gripping the rim closest to him in his mouth – the bowl is not only difficult to balance in his mouth, it also obstructs his view as he tries to walk with it. So, I’ve been coaching him to work against his first instinct and pick the bowl up by gripping the rim of the bowl at the point where it is farthest from him.  About a week after we started to do this I noticed that Zip’s bowl (the smaller of the two) seemed to be randomly moving around the house.  I didn’t initially see him pick her bowl up and carry it, but it would *miraculously* appear in a new place three or four times a day. About four days after Zips’ bowl begin its journey, Audie’s bowl started to wander as well.  The morning after he had apparently started to carry his bowl around on his own, he made the leap.  When I looked down at him and asked “Would you like your breakfast?” he grinned, ran across the room and very carefully picked up Zip’s bowl – correctly, by the far side of the rim – and brought it to me.  I took it from him and told him “Find the other one,” and he turned around and picked up his own bowl – correctly again.

    Audie holds his bowl the 'wrong' way. It was difficult to get him to hold it this way now that he knows the right way to do it!

    This is still not a simple chore for him and he still practices it a few times a day.  I’ve caught him at it recently and it’s fascinating to watch how he experiments with the task.  He’ll often still sometimes take the bowl by the near side – then stops with a “hmmm, this isn’t right” look on his face – sets it down, tries again and then visibly goes “Aha!”

    My smart boy holds his bowl the right way.

  • We’ve also been working more on off leash heeling skills.  Since my dogs spend most of their lives with me and off leash – heeling is one of the last “standard” obedience skills I teach them.  Because my own dogs have a strong foundation in other skills (recall, send out, stationary commands, directionals, yielding) before we begin to work on the heel, we do most of our heeling work off leash right from the start.  I start out working my dogs on short bits of off leash heeling with lots of turns and stops.  The initial goals are to teach them to stay on my left side and to pay close attention to where I am going.  My kitchen has had a central island surrounded on 3 1/2 sides by counters.  It was a perfect place to practice beginning heeling skills as the narrow aisle between the counter and island restricts his ability to move out of correct position to, mostly, forward and backward errors.  We started out working on short bits of heeling there, then as his skills improved moved inside the training building.  There I set up traffic cones to create a smaller working area inside the 50×50 training room and we worked on random weaving patterns.  From there, we moved on to working in amongst the seveal large hardwood trees in my front yard. As we moved from one training environment to another, I kept the patterns much the same.  And I used the same body language to coach him.After I while he started to sometimes come and sit at my left on his own.  He’ll usually do this either when I am standing still in a place where we’ve working on heeling – or when he wants my attention.  And he adopts a rather formal posture as he does it.  Without giving him a verbal command, I’ll crook my left arm, lead with my left leg and move forward.  He looks up at me with a huge grin and heels along with me.  He does this voluntary heeling in a very cheerful and animated way.  Like a it’s dance, or a game.

It’s fascinating to watch this young dog learn and grow. I’ve learned to watch for these periods of practice and use them to establish the rhythms of our work together.  If he seems to be having difficulty with a task, we keep working on it – but don’t add a new layer of complexity to the task until after he masters it in his own practice.

September 11, 2008 at 1:06 am 5 comments

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