Archive for January, 2009

Odd News from the World of Dogs

From the Ventura Country Star a dog problem for Dr. Phil (or was that Dr. Ruth?):

A 25-year-old woman was arrested for assault in Bremerton, Wash., in December after fighting with her boyfriend in the shower over whether the man’s dog could join them. The woman objected and said the arrangement would be a deal breaker for their relationship, to which the boyfriend replied that he hoped his next girlfriend would appreciate the dog more. At that, according to police, she punched him several times in the face and, in their struggle, he dislocated his shoulder.

The Vallejo Times-Herald provides this piece for our “that was a really stupid idea” files:

A Pennsylvania woman who was selling “gothic kittens” with ear, neck and tail piercings has been charged with animal cruelty, AP reported.

The 34-year-old dog groomer, who reportedly has her own piercings, says her name, reputation and business has been ruined by the charges, brought by authorities after animal advocates were tipped off.

Canadians nanny state ninnies gone wild! The Reading Eagle tells us:

Robert Christianson, 64, was arrested in October upon his arrival at Tampa International Airport, based on a hold requested by Canadian customs officials. Christianson was being sought only on two warrants: allowing a dog to run at large and having no license for his dog.

From the Battle Creek Enquirer, a bit on British quirkiness:

The British Federation of Herpetologists announced in November that the number of reptiles kept as pets in the U.K. is probably greater than the number of dogs (8.5 million to about 6 million, with cats at 9 million). One benchmark the federation uses for its calculation is the booming sales of reptile food, such as locusts, frozen rodents and crickets (now about 20 million a week).

And last, but not least, the Morning Sun reports on an odd bit of canine heroism:

When Jack Hornbuckle heard a dresser drawer rattling at 3:30 a.m. the morning of Dec. 29, he realized that his dog Heidi was in the room and had bumped the furniture next to the bed.

“I was kind of half-awake and half-asleep, but I knew the dog was there and wondered what had caused the commotion,” Hornbuckle said. “My wife was restless and awake, and I thought I would get up because something just didn’t seem right. When I sat up on the bed, there was Heidi, and she fell right at my feet.”

The couple’s 8-year-old golden retriever/border collie mix gets hyperactive when there is thunder and when Hornbuckle operates his small generator if the power goes out — as it had that night.

“That’s when it hit me,” he said. “I had seen a TV commercial about carbon monoxide detectors that day, and they said the symptoms are an excruciating headache and a burning nose, and I had them both. I was just not thinking straight, but I kept saying to myself, ‘What’s wrong here, what’s wrong?’ and then it hit me.”

While adjusting the generator so that water didn’t drip onto it from the eaves of the home, Hornbuckle had inadvertently adjusted it so that the exhaust was directed right at a vent into the crawl space. The area under the house was filling up with carbon monoxide.

Jack Hornbuckle struggled to wake his wife, to get the dog to move — even to stand up and be steady.

“I was really out of it and struggling to think,” he said. “I called 911 and the operator there did a great job.”

Firefighters soon arrived and within minutes had the couple and Heidi out of the house. After treatment at the scene, everyone was OK.

January 30, 2009 at 9:59 pm 2 comments

Pod People

Matt Mullenix’ comment on this post over at Querencia prodded me to write this post. He was talking about the pod people when he said; “When you told them you’d rather walk alone, they would open their mouths at impossibly wide angles and send a silent scream to the hordes who come to collect you.”

I had an encounter with the pod people. What follows is a true story.

Last fall the dogs and I were out enjoying a long walk together. Zip, Zorro and Audie were with me. At this time Zorro was nine and suffering from the effects of Addison’s Disease and Leonberger Polyneuropathy. He was an enormous and very imposing looking dog, but that presence masked that fact that he was frail old man no longer steady on his feet. Because of this we were following trails along a relatively level section of the steep river bluffs that Red Wing is known for.

Audie was a cheerful four month old pup. He probably weighed about 20 pounds. Zip was a healthy young adult with quite rigid ideas about etiquette. It was a day much like this:


As we wound our way along the trail I caught sight of an older couple some distance behind us.  Preferring to walk alone, I sped up a bit to stay well ahead of them.

Much of this trail winds along steep hillsides so there are only a few areas where one can see those ahead or behind. As we came to another open area I was disturbed when I saw that not only had these people hurried – nearly to a run – to catch up to us, but that they were accompanied by a teenage Rottweiler mix. Stuck with staying on the trail because of Zorro’s lack of coordination, I resigned myself to the inevitable encounter.

Red-faced and out of breath, the pod people finally caught us at a three-way fork in the trail. The woman asked — no, demanded that they walk with us to that her dog could “play” with my pack.  When I politely declined she immediately turned astonishingly ugly. Not bothering to listen to my explanation that a young pup and ailing senior citizen weren’t appropriate playmates for a wild, 90-lb teenager and that my fit, fast 35-lb bitch was likely to teach her youngster a (probably much needed) lesson; she raged at the unfairness of it all. After all, who was I to deny her this?

Visibly embarassed by her behavior, the man took her firmly by the elbow and literally dragged her down one fork of the trail. Panting with a combination of stress and relief, the dogs and I beat feet down the other. I felt utterly violated. Our walk had been ruined by a clueless poddie who probably would have gotten more enjoyment from a walk through a crowded parking lot than she would ever find in this quiet place. For a long time I could not walk in that place without constantly checking to see if I was being followed.

I’m not alone in my nightmares. The thing that really terrifies me is the idea of not having a place to be alone in.

January 29, 2009 at 7:10 pm 1 comment

Play — or Pay

Two interesting articles caught my eye today.  First in “The Serious Need for PlayScientific American points out that children and animals that aren’t given opportunities for loose, unstructured free play when they are young grow up to be anxious, socially maladjusted adults. Then in “The End of Solitude,” The Chronicle of Higher Education discusses how technology is taking away our ability to be alone (h/t to Matt Mullinex of Querencia for this one).

Two seemingly unrelated articles – but I believe that they’re both related to the same issue – the diminishing importance of nature in our lives.

As I’ve written here before, I am concerned that we are creating a world where young people prefer to learn about nature though Podcasts, interactive computer games, television and surfing the web rather than by actually experiencing it.

SciAm reports:

Most psychologists agree that play affords benefits that last through adulthood, but they do not always agree on the extent to which a lack of play harms kids-particularly because, in the past, few children grew up without ample frolicking time. But today free play may be losing its standing as a staple of youth. According to a paper published in 2005 in the Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine, children’s free-play time dropped by a quarter between 1981 and 1997. Concerned about getting their kids into the right colleges, parents are sacrificing playtime for more structured activities.


But kids playsoccer, Scrabble and the sousaphone-so why are experts concerned that these games and more structured activities are eating into free play? Certainly games with rules are fun and sources of learning experiences-they may foster better social skills and group cohesion, for instance, says Anthony D. Pellegrini, an educational psychologist at the University of Minnesota. But, Pellegrini explains, “games have a priori rules-set up in advance and followed. Play, on the other hand, does not have a priori rules, so it affords more creative responses.”

Free play is natural play.  It’s playing with other kids when there aren’t any adults around to supervise or intervene. It’s not a soccer game organized by rules, coaches and referees. And it’s not Guitar Hero where rules of rhythm, pitch and imitation control the action even when you’re playing alone.

Free play is crucial in developing healthy social skills in all social animals. You can’t learn how to deal with bullies – or learn not to be a bully when there’s always a grownup there to butt in. And the idea of taking turns becomes a lot clearer when your skill at it directly relates to how often you get to participate in games.

When I was a kid, most of our free play time took place in nature. An overgrown vacant lot. The wooded area behind our school. A stretch of marshy land along the lake. A cow pasture. Those were ourplaces. Places we were free from adult interruptions and interference. Places where we did the stupid things that taught us a lot of the most important lessons of our lives. No helmets, kneepads, referees or rulebooks required.

Was it safe? Hell no, it wasn’t safe. I got a concussion, I broke my hand, I broke two ribs, lost my big toenail and ended up with stitches more times than I can remember. I got my feelings hurt and I did stupid, mean-spirited things that hurt other kids’ feelings. But those physical and mental hurts healed and in the process my friends and I learned things we couldn’t have learned anywhere else.

And because those free, empty places were an integral part of my life, I learned how to spend time alone. A skill that I fear will soon be numbered among lost arts like root cellaring and rhetoric. Deresiewicz writes:

Technology is taking away our privacy and our concentration, but it is also taking away our ability to be alone. Though I shouldn’t say taking away. We are doing this to ourselves; we are discarding these riches as fast as we can.

How did this happen?

…Urbanization gave way to suburbanization, and with it the universal threat of loneliness. What technologies of transportation exacerbated – we could live farther and farther apart – technologies of communication redressed – we could bring ourselves closer and closer together. Or at least, so we have imagined. The first of these technologies, the first simulacrum of proximity, was the telephone. “Reach out and touch someone.” But through the 70s and 80s, our isolation grew. Suburbs, sprawling ever farther, became exurbs. Families grew smaller or splintered apart, mothers left the home to work. The electronic hearth became the television in every room. Even in childhood, certainly in adolescence, we were each trapped inside our own cocoon. Soaring crime rates, and even more sharply escalating rates of moral panic, pulled children off the streets. The idea that you could go outside and run around the neighborhood with your friends, once unquestionable, has now become unthinkable. The child who grew up between the world wars as part of an extended family within a tight-knit urban community became the grandparent of a kid who sat alone in front of a big television, in a big house, on a big lot. We were lost in space.

Lost in an alien space of our own creation, we put our faith in regulation and technology, thinking they’d save us. But instead of saving us they’re retarding our social skills, reducing our ability to cope with stress and anxiety, eliminating our opportunities for introspection, making us less flexible and creative — and creating in us a disturbing sense of uneasiness with nature.  Our access to places where we can play freely or enjoy solitude shrinks as we become subject to increasing levels of rules and regulations. Will we continue on this path and develop new values as we become more like our new electronic companions or will we find ways to rediscover the values of our ancient ones?

Go HERE to read Melinda Wenner’s SciAm article on play and HERE to read Deresiewicz’ excellent piece in The Chronicle of Higher Education.

         Jack russel long haired ( 1 years )aibo

January 29, 2009 at 5:26 am Leave a comment

Just Get Over It

In a series of studies published last year in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Colgate University psychologist Kevin Carlsmith and his co-authors, Timothy Wilson of the University of Virginia and Daniel Gilbert from Harvard University explored the emotional costs of imposing retaliatory harm on a social transgressor. The abstract of the article presents their rather unexpected findings:

People expect to reap hedonic rewards when they punish an offender, but in at least some instances, revenge has hedonic consequences that are precisely the opposite of what people expect. Three studies showed that (a) one reason for this is that people who punish continue to ruminate about the offender, whereas those who do not punish “move on” and think less about the offender, and (b) people fail to appreciate the different affective consequences of witnessing and instigating punishment.

So, while we anticipate that exacting revenge will give us an enormous sense of satisfaction, they found that getting even just cements that sense of dissatisfied frustration more firmly in our psyches. If instead we ‘d just pull our heads our of our hinterlands and get over it — that sense of righteous indignation will fade and we’ll end up feeling less stress and frustration.

While human beings seem to have an enormously difficult time figuring this out, our dogs have a pre-programmed predisposition to forgive and forget.  It’s one of the best lessons they can teach us.

It also gives me a chance to harp on one of my pet peeves in the world of dog training.  This would be the difference between punishment and correction. Most new age dog trainers will tell you that there is no difference between punishment and correction. They’re both pigeonholed into the P+ quadrant of their sacred, reductionist operant conditioning diagram. defines punishment as:

1. the act of punishing.
2. the fact of being punished, as for an offense or fault.
3. a penalty inflicted for an offense, fault, etc.
4. severe handling or treatment. 

It defines correction as:

1. something that is substituted or proposed for what is wrong or inaccurate; emendation
2. the act of correcting.
3. punishment intended to reform, improve, or rehabilitate; chastisement; reproof.
4. the various methods, as incarceration, parole, and probation, by which society deals with convicted offenders.
5. a quantity applied or other adjustment made in order to increase accuracy, as in the use of an instrument or the solution of a problem
6. a reversal of the trend of stock prices, esp. temporarily, as after a sharp advance or decline in the previous trading sessions

Did you happen to notice how that definition for correction was a lot longer and more detailed than the one for punishment? Did you also notice that while the definition of punishment relates entirely to retribution or harsh treatment — that the various definitions of correction very specifically relate in all but one instance (#4) to transmitting information?

In the four sacred quadrants of operant conditioning punishment is defined as an aversive stimulus, such as introducing a shock or loud noise, resulting in a decrease in an antecedent behavior. Note that in this context, all that is required of punishment is that it be aversive (i.e. unpleasant) and that its presentation should reduce the frequency at which the behavior that occurred before its application.  An operant punishment doesn’t give the punishee any information about what he did wrong or how we might prefer he behave. It just tells him that unpleasant consequences will tend to follow it.

Yet — radical ‘purely positive’ trainers will tell you that punishments and corrections are the same thing. And they will condemn you to a Skinnerian hell for using either.

And this brings us back to Carlsmith, Wilson and Gilbert.  The ‘purely positives’ are right in one way.  Retributional punishment, the kind where you get even, er – umm; apply an aversive stimulus to a two- or four-legged animal after it behaves in a way you don’t like is as unhealthy for you as it is for the target of your anger, oops… the subject.

Whether the purely positives want to admit it or not, outside of behaviorspeak, correction is not the same as punishment.  Correction can be gentle and it should always be fair. It doesn’t just reduce the frequency of behavior by applying an unpleasant consequence, it provides information on why the behavior is not desired and / or what other behaviors to engage in instead. And when it’s done without anger and with even a moderate degree of skill, it doesn’t create fear or stress in the student or the teacher.

Its time to drop the behaviorist’s strict reductionist / operant idea that correction and punishment are identical.  Correction is not punishment.  Correction is rooted in explanation — not in retribution.  Correction should never be done in anger.  And — because a good correction creates an immediate improvement in behavior (however small)  it should always be followed immediately by forgiveness and praise.

               Forgive him!

dog is rewarded - behavior is reinforced

January 27, 2009 at 4:59 am 3 comments

“We have dragged them far from their own realm”

In his Sur l’universalité de la langue française the Comte Antoine de Rivarol writes:

“Thus nature and the chance happenings of life furnish animals with signs which means that the kind and number of such signs are greatly limited. Only humans are capable of furnishing them with artificial and varied signs, which, for the animal are neither natural nor representative.”

“When we start to treat animals in this way, an insurmountable hurdle soon arises; we have dragged them far from their own relam without transporting them into ours; and the vast majority of our signs still express needs they do not have and ideas they do not conceive.”

As Rivarol wrote, all animals — including dogs, have their own signs and languages.  The dog’s language is built primarily upon scent and gesture and his signs are far simpler and more natural than ours.  Because human ideals like fashion, commerce and rhetoric are “needs they do not have and ideas they do not conceive,” much of our behavior makes no sense to the dog.  But because all dogs are masters of reading and interpreting human body language we forget how limited their comprehension of spoken language — and of the complex, modern human world really is.

And there lies the rub. While living our own busy and complicated lives we tend to forget that, skilled as his deceit may be, the dog doesn’t understand our language or the odd cultural constructs of our world. Then the poor dog is blamed for “behavior problems” created by an unfortunate combination of miscommunication and unrealistic expectations — not willful disobedience on his part.

Most dogs live in an alien world dominated by strange beings who, for the most part, behave in ways that make just enough sense to keep them guessing.  We make a little sense — and a lot of nonsense.

When dogs behave badly the root cause is often is that we have “dragged them far from their own realm.” Stop dragging  your dog, slow down and find a way to lead him.

January 26, 2009 at 3:58 am 2 comments

Breakfast of Champions

The English Shepherd is an all-purpose farm dog.  Unlike more specialized breeds such as Border Collies and terriers, English Shepherds are bred to herd, act as watchdogs and kill vermin.  It’s a breed characterized by substance rather than style. 

The English Shepherd Club doesn’t hold conformation events or award championships.  In fact, they don’t award titles of any kind.  The ESC’s sister group, the American Working Farm Collie Association will, however, award a  Certificate of Merit to dogs who qualify in each of the three working categories (herding, hunting and guarding). To qualify, the owner of the dog must provide verifiable evidence of the dog’s working ability in each category. This evidence can consist of a video tape or a live observation by a qualified AWFA representative.

Both of Audie’s parents have been awarded the PRGN Certificate of Merit.

Breakfast of Champoins

Breakfast of Champions

This morning  young Audie took the intiative to work on that “hunting vermin” leg on his own.  Here’s a picture of my Minnesota Feist — holding his freshly caught breakfast.

January 22, 2009 at 7:23 pm 9 comments

Degenerative Myelopathy and Lou Gehrig’s Disease

Today Genetic Enginerring & Biotechnology News reported that researchers from University of Missouri and the Broad Institute have discovered that the genetic mutation responsible for degenerative myelopathy (DM) in dogs is the same one that causes Lou Gehrig’s disease (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis or ALS) in humans.

“We uncovered the genetic mutation of degenerative myelopathy, which has been unknown for 30 years, and linked it to ALS, a human disease that has no cure,” said Joan Coates, a veterinary neurologist and associate professor of veterinary medicine and surgery in the MU College of Veterinary Medicine. “Dogs with DM are likely to provide scientists with a more reliable animal model for ALS. Also, this discovery will pave the way for DNA tests that will aid dog breeders in avoiding DM in the future.”

That DNA test would be a blessing. Six years ago we had to let our Aussie Roo go when DM completely robbed her of the strength and agility she was known for in her youth. Words can’t describe how difficult it is to watch your dog get weaker and less coordinated every day — and worst of all, to be utterly helpless to stop it.

         Aussie Roo
Aussie Roo

DM and ALS are progressive neurodegenerative diseases that affect nerve cells in the brain and the spinal cord.  As the motor neurons atrophy and harden, muscle weakness occurs, especially in the arms and legs.  As the disease progresses and motor neurons die, all ability to initiate and control muscle movements is lost.

There is no cure for either disease and DM typically progresses so rapidly that most dogs are euthanized within a year of diagnosis.

Comparative medicine is the study of the similarities and differences in disease patterns in different mammals. Dogs are particularly useful to study because they share our environment, and are similar to us in body size.  Parallels in the diseases that affect humans and our dogs can provide benefits to both species.  Studies conducted on dogs can help develop treatments and genetic screening tests for humans — and these drugs and tests can also be used to improve the health of dogs.

Previously, ALS research has relied heavily on transgenic rodents that expressed the mutant human gene SOD1, which causes ALS. Researchers found that dogs with DM also had mutations in their SOD1 gene. Many rodent models possess very high levels of the SOD1 protein that can produce pathologic processes distinct from those occurring in ALS patients. Since the SOD1 mutation is spontaneous in dogs, the clinical spectrum in dogs may represent more accurately that of human ALS.

“Compared with the rodent models for ALS, dogs with DM are more similar to people in size, structure and complexity of their nervous systems, and duration of the disease,” said Gary Johnson, associate professor of veterinary pathobiology in the MU College of Veterinary Medicine. “The results from clinical trials conducted with DM-affected dogs may better predict the efficacies of therapeutic interventions for treating ALS in humans.”

The staff at the Broad Institute are doing some wonderful work in conjunction with the canine genome project.  Please visit their website and, if your dog is eligible, consider participating in their research.  They need DNA samples from both healthy and diseased dogs and they can’t do this work without our help. 

We gave them blood samples and other information when Zorro died last spring – the old man’s many health problems made him particularly interesting to them.  They were kind and helpful, sympathetic to our loss and generous in the help they provided our vet.  Knowing that the information they got from his DNA might help cure or prevent the diseases he suffered from was one small comfort we could take in that difficult time.

The cost of a blood draw is small is tiny compared to the great good it may do.  Be generous.  That blood might help save the life of a dog – or person – you love someday.

January 22, 2009 at 6:20 am 6 comments

Dog vs Technology – Round II

nobody wins

January 21, 2009 at 3:04 am 4 comments

Dog vs Technology

dog wins


From Gizmodo

January 21, 2009 at 2:46 am 1 comment

Another Nutty Recall

Just when we thought it might be safe to pick up some of those convenient potentially toxic processed foods from the grocery store — another massive food recall slaps us back to our senses.  Today MSNBC reported that:

The company that sells Little Debbie snacks announced a recall Sunday of peanut butter crackers because of a potential link to a deadly salmonella outbreak.

The voluntary recall came one day after the government advised consumers to avoid eating cookies, cakes, ice cream and other foods with peanut butter until health officials learn more about the contamination.

Little Debbie, Little Debbie!  It’s not bad enough your snacks are just empty vegan calories sold in non-recyclable waxed cardboard containers – now we hear that they’re unhygenic too.   The tainted foods were made with peanut products produced at a Blakely, Georgia facility owned by the Peanut Corporation of America.  MSNBC reports:

The Scene of the Crime

The Scene of the Crime

Most peanut butter sold in jars at supermarkets appears to be safe, said Stephen Sundlof, head of the Food and Drug Administration’s food safety center.

“We urge consumers to postpone eating any products that may contain peanut butter until additional information becomes available,” Sundlof told reporters in a conference call. “As of now, there is no indication that the major national name-brand jars of peanut butter sold in retails stores are linked to the recall.”

“This is an excellent illustration of an ingredient-driven outbreak,” said Dr. Robert Tauxe, who oversees foodborne illness investigations for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Like other food-borne problems we’ve seen in the last few years, this one may be more widespread than early reports indicate.  According to The Examiner; “potentially contaminated product is showing up in states where it is, supposedly, not distributed.”  The FDA has published an FAQ page on the outbreak in which they state:

FDA and CDC are working to identify foods that contain the peanut butter under investigation. Both agencies will keep the public informed of their progress.

Given their track record on such things, it might be prudent to avoid all peanut butter products for a while.  That includes pet foods, as many dog treats are made with peanut butter.  But because his digestive system operates quite differently than yours; unless your dog is very old, very young or has a compromised immune system; salmonella contamination in dog treats probably presents a greater risk to your health than his.

January 19, 2009 at 12:33 am 1 comment

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January 2009