Archive for March, 2009

Right Hand Man

When I found out a couple of months ago that I needed to have both of my rotator cuffs repaired I decided it was time to teach young Audie some skills to make several months of maddening frustration healing and rehabilitation more tolerable. Being a bright and biddable pup he’s enjoyed going along for the ride.

I had hoped to post video clips showing the many ways he helps me out — but the main things he does for me are help me get dressed and undressed — and, trust me,  you don’t want to see that!  Also, even when I have use of two hands my video taping and editing skills are marginal at best.  Since I haven’t managed to teach Audie videography skills yet, I’ll have to paste this post together with one hand.

Most of the tasks Audie does for me are built from just two basic skill sets; directional cues and fetch/hold skills.  Once I had taught him left, right, forward, backward, stay, fetch, hold, carry and tug I had the building blocks for a wide range of tasks.  Here are a few examples of what we’re doing:

  • To help me take my shirt off he takes hold of my left sleeve, stands still and pulls gently away from me while I let it come off my left arm then slowly pivot around to unwrap it from my body and useless right arm.  After the shirt falls off he picks it up and hands it to me. He’ll also tug off my socks and slippers if I ask him to.
  • When I put my sweatshirt on (I’m pretty much limited to zip front shirts and pull-on pants for now) he holds the bottom so I can zip it up.  Same with coats and jackets.
  • I got a new bath mat in the mail.  It was sealed in a plastic bag.  To open it I held one end of the bag in my left hand and had him grab it and tug hard away from me.  Together we easily tore the bag open and got the rug out.
  • The rug came in a box that was too big for me to pick up in one hand.  I took a piece of duct tape, made it into a loop, stuck it to the box and had Audie carry one side of the box by the loop while I held on to the other.  He’s also learned to carry a laundry basket with me this way.
  • A box with 6 bags of dog treats arrived today.  It was also too big to carry in one hand.  I cut it open on the porch, put the bags of treats in a tub-trug and had him carry one handle in his mouth while I carried the other in my left hand.
  • He’s learned to find and fetch the phone on command.  Zip will do this with the TV remote.  They’ll both carry items back and forth between Mark and I on command.
  • He’s a mobile doorstop.  I can open a door, park him in front of it, put him in a stay and he’ll hold it while I do what I need to in the doorway.
  • Basic thing, very handy – when I accidentally drop something I say ‘oops’ and either dog will pick it up.  They’ll either carry or hand me the item as needed.
  • Babysitting.  Walking back from the mailbox today I dropped a letter and didn’t realize it.  Audie saw it lying there, ran back and returned it to me before I realized that I’d dropped it. 

Audie’s not even two years old yet; and remember — all he needed to learn to do these things were a few basic skills.  The key is that he had to learn to do them very reliably and he had to be able to put several small pieces of a task together in a series.  These came, IMO from a balanced, sequential, four-quadrant approach to training that encourages a young or inexperienced dog to explore behaviors during the learning process but requires him to obey during the proofing process.  I use both positive and negative markers when I shape a new behavior and allow the dog to find the thing I want in a game of hot and cold.  Once he shows a basic grasp of the skill, we practice it in short training games and I watch him to see when he starts to practice or rehearse the skill on his own. 

In practicing he repeats an action I’ve taught him on his own volition.  Audie will 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.  Once Audie starts to practice a task, he’s ready for me to start proofing him on that task.  He’s got the basic idea and is demonstrating that he’s ready to generalize the skill.

The first week he *officially* helped me with these tasks he was sometimes silly or distracted and sometimes tentative.  This week (week 2) he’s calm and confident.  He understands that this is a job and he’s proud that he can do it.

March 24, 2009 at 7:22 pm 8 comments

Symbolic Understanding in Dogs

The use of symbols in communication has long been considered to be solely the domain of humans, great apes, cetaceans and a few bird species.  Human children typically start to understand basic vocal and gestural symbols at about a year of age.  By the time that most children are 2 to 3 years old, they are also able to understand the concepts of images and replicas.  As reported in Science News, a recent study demonstrated that dogs appear to be capable of a similar level of symbolic understanding.

Border collies quickly realize that their owners want them to fetch a toy from another room when shown a full-size or miniature replica of the desired item and given a command to “bring it here,” say biological psychologist Juliane Kaminski of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, and her colleagues. Even a photograph of a toy works with some dogs as a signal to fetch that toy from an unseen location, the researchers report in an upcoming issue of Developmental Science.

Three dogs already trained to fetch objects succeeded on both replica tasks right away. Two untrained dogs got the hang of replica requests after a bit of practice.

“The most reasonable interpretation of dogs’ success in the replica tasks is that they understood that by showing a replica, a human was trying to communicate something to them,” Kaminski says. Dogs evolved a feel for how people communicate as a result of living in human settlements for thousands of years, she proposes.

Earlier studies have found that chimps, dolphins and other nonhuman animals have great difficulty retrieving objects after being shown replicas of those objects, even after many trials.

Dogs appear to have an innate ability to understand human gestures and body language.  Chimps (like the famous Washoe) and African Grey Parrots (like Alex) have demonstrated the ability to be taught sign or spoken language. Now it appears that Dr. Bonnie Bergin’s idea that dogs can learn to recognize and respond appropriately to written word and symbol cues may have been ahead of its time.  Her “teaching dogs to read” appears to be just a short step away from their now demonstrated ability to grasp the idea of images and replicas.

Coincidentally, I have been working with young Audie for a couple of months on these kins of exercises.  I’ve successfully taught him to search for, find and then bring me an item that matches one I’ve shown him.  We’ve done this with a wide range of objects (shoes, boots, metal bowls, pens, bumpers, spoons, business cards and more).  Sometimes the object I send him to find is in a different room.  Quite often I don’t know where it is (hence the need to have him find it).  Still, he gets it right nearly every time.

The question that arises from this is; are dogs innately capable of these kinds of symbolic learning skills or does the ability only arise from a certain degree of training?  I suspect it’s a combination of both.  SAR work (like explosive and narcotics detection work) takes advantage of a dog’s ability to use scent as a symbol for the object he’s seeking.  In Learning to Smell, Donald Wilson and Richard Stevenson propose that smells “are outcomes of highly synthetic, memory-dependent processing that is further modulated by expectation, context, and internal state”  and they compare the process of learning how to smell to that of learning how to read.

Perhaps the combination of being a neotenized, highly social, scent-reading species that co-evolved with humans and has an innate skill to observe and interpret our behavior makes dogs uniquely well-equipped for certain types of symbolic learning. How much are they able understand?  Well, since they’re poorly equipped to talk or sign back to us we’ll have to wait a while longer to find out.

I’ll try to shoot and upload some video of Audie and I working on the “match game” this week.

March 22, 2009 at 4:07 pm 4 comments

A Dollar’s Worth

Worried about hyperinflation?
Facing possible foreclosure?
Need to kill some time in the unemployment line?
Want to make a $1 tip look impressive?

Try dollar bill Origami!

(Note: please forgive the shallowness and brevity of current postings.  Currently limited just to use of my non-dominant hand, everything is surprisingly difficult and frustratingly time-consuming.)

March 22, 2009 at 3:08 am Leave a comment

Animal “Husbandry”

Hat tip to BluntObject who pointed me to a atort in today’s Miami Herald.    Apparently Florida is one of the few states where bestiality is not yet illegal.  In a laudable effort to change this and make it a third-degree felony to engage in sex with animals the state senate has drafted a new piece of legislation.  The authors of the legislation felt they needed to specify that conventional dog-judging contests and animal-husbandry practices are still permissible and the Herald reports:

That last provision tripped up Miami Democratic Sen. Larcenia Bullard.

”People are taking these animals as their husbands? What’s husbandry?” she asked. Some senators stifled their laughter as Sen. Charlie Dean, an Inverness Republican, explained that husbandry is raising and caring for animals. Bullard didn’t get it.

”So that maybe was the reason the lady was so upset about that monkey?” Bullard asked, referring to a Connecticut case where a woman’s suburban chimpanzee went mad and was shot.

While I’m certainly not above a bit of snickering at Sen. Bullard’s expense, I have to say that I find this little anecdote far more disturbing than amusing.  At first glance I thought that the FL senate was engaging in pointless nit-picking when they granted exceptions for conformation and husbandry practices.  But viewed in the dim light of a state senator’s staggering ignorance of very basic animal welfare issues, their disambiguation makes perfect sense.  In fact, now I’m left wondering if they went far enough.

Has modern urban society become so disconnected with the realities of the natural world that we need to worry that conformation judges will be arrested for checking testicles on long-coated dogs or that collecting semen for artificial insemination could lead to years in prison?  Inconceivable!

March 19, 2009 at 6:32 pm 4 comments

Pit Dog


The Auditor was an eccentric lone-wolf with a talent for showing up when and where he was least expected.  The old hermit was quite well-liked in spite of his taciturn nature.  In fact, this one of a kind pit dog became a local celebrity. As reported last summer in the High Country News:

The mysterious, mostly wild mongrel has survived for 16 years in a 5,000-acre moonscape, the acidic, heavy metals-laden confines of the Berkeley Pit and the town’s only remaining active mine. Ironically, the dog’s only help in hanging on has come from the compassion of active and retired miners.

“He really is a neat dog,” says Steve Walsh, operations president of Montana Resources, whose employees have adopted the dog as their mascot — as much as the dog will allow, anyway.

The Auditor was first seen roaming the mine in 1986 after he was reportedly dumped at the mine’s viewing stand by a heartless owner.  He died in his doghouse November 19, 2003 after surviving nearly 17 years on his own in one of the least hospitable places this side of the moon.

Not a single blade of grass, nary a tree, shrub or weed can survive on the sickly yellow and burnt-orange crust that dominates the dog’s home. Reeking of sulfur and acidity, this is the kind of soil that eats men’s boots, let alone the paws of any normal dog.

Butte Montana’s Berkeley Pit is an enormous open pit copper mine. A mile long, a half mile wide and almost 1,800 feet deep, it contains toxic levels of a veritable smorgasbord of heavy metals.  It’s the second largest open pit mine in the world and the largest Superfund site in the US.  Most of the site’s environmental problems are caused by acid mine drainage.  Pyrite and other minerals in the ore and wall rock are only chemically stable in anaerobic environments like those they form in. When mining actiities expose these minerals to water and oxygen they break down and release acid. Water in the Berkeley Pit has a pH of about 2.5, roughly the same as gastric acid.  These acidic waters are excellent solvents for metals. In fact, the water filling the pit contains such high dissolved metal concentrations that copper is recovered directly from it.  The toxic stew also contains elevated quantities of arsenic, cadmium, cobalt, iron, manganese and zinc. 

It’s incredible that a dog was able to survive for nearly two decades in such an inhospitable environment.  The Auditor’s success in avoiding acute heavy metal poisoning was likely related to the very strong and long-lasting effects of tatse-aversion learning. Taste-aversion learning is a type of classical conditioning where an animal associates the taste of a specific item with nausea or vomiting. Taste aversion is a valuable survival mechanism that allows animals to learn to avoid a poisonous substance in as little as a single exposure. Unlike most other classically conditioned responses, a strong association will be acquired even if the unconditioned respose (i.e. illness) occurs several hours after the neutral (but soon to be conditioned) stimulus. This innate ability to associate the taste, smell and appearance of a potentially harmful item ingested long before the illness occurred allows the animal to anticipate — and thus avoid — the problem in the future.

The Auditor’s ability to survive life on a Superfund site caught the attention of Holly Peterson, a professor of environmental engineering at Montana Tech of the University of Montana.  Peterson had conducted a study where she compared metal concentrations in hair samples collected from pet dogs living in Butte and Bozeman. Her study indicated that dogs that lived in Butte were exposed to much higher levels of arsenic, lead and cadmium than Bozeman dogs were. When she heard about the Auditor, she couldn’t help but wonder what kind of metal concentrations she’d find in his hair.

The report indicated elevated levels of everything imaginable, the professor says. To date, she has sampled more than 400 dogs with the help of her graduate students at UM/Butte. She hopes to use the data they’ve collected to develop a new method of using domestic pets as ways to evaluate health risks in the environment.

Pets are increasingly being used as domestic indicator species. They ingest pollutants in tap water, romp on pesticide treated lawns and lick trace amounts of cleaners, surface treatments and other trace contaminants off paws, toys and floors. Their compressed lifespans seems to make them develop health problems from exposure more quickly than we do.  In his own small way, the Auditor helped advance this kind of research.

RoadsideAmerica reports:

Even before he died in 2003, money was raised to build a monument to the dreadlocked dog. The larger-than-life, 300 pound bronze statue with a copper patina (the Berkeley Pit was a copper mine) has been displayed in a local coffee shop, then a shopping mall, and currently the Butte-Silver Bow Chamber of Commerce. The statue will eventually be put on permanent display at the Berkeley Pit Viewing Stand, along with a plaque telling Auditor’s story. The dog no doubt would use it as a urinal.

March 17, 2009 at 7:27 pm 4 comments

Canine go Braugh

My brain is still AWOL after last week’s rotator cuff surgery so here’s a bit of fluff pasted together for your St. Paddy’s Day entertainment.   BTW – Did you know that blue – not green, is believed to be the original color associated with Ireland and St. Patrick?

Eero Aarnio’s Puppy comes in five colors and four different sizes. It’s a seat, a toy and a charming conversation piece. If I had kids, I’d get a pack of these for them to play with.


Adorable shamrock dog sweater from Scalawags. Available in quite a wide range of sizes.


Love this shamrock collar from Barker and Meowsky. Wouldn’t it look gorgeous on the OddMan?


Lovely handmade Belleek dog bowl.


Shamrock dog treats from K9 Confections. Hand-decorated with all-natural yogurt and carob, they come in peanut butter, vegetarian, and pumpkin flavors.


And beer! You can’t celebrate St. Patty’s day without beer!  Howlin’ Dog Draft from ihelppets


…or Heinesniffen and O’Drools from That Pet Place


March 17, 2009 at 12:58 pm 1 comment

Space Age Search Dog


A Texas Border Collie named Hopper has a unique skill. According to News8Austin the four-legged astrogeologist found a piece of the meteor that lit up Texas skies on February 15 and brought it back to her owner’s porch.

Meteors can be valuable and meteor hunting is a serious business. Meteor hunters are secretive and territorial.  They descended on the tiny Texas town of West in droves after the spectacular fireball fell to earth.  LunarMeteorHunters reports that three meteor hunters canvassing Hopper’s neighborhood for permission to search discovered the fragment lying on her owner’s porch.  Hopper’s owner was pleasantly surprised to find that the nondescript black rock she’d carried home was a`valuable specimen.

March 13, 2009 at 1:55 am 1 comment

ABC Exposes American Dogs

Last year Jemima Harrison’s controversial BBC documentary Pedigree Dogs Exposed gave British dog lovers a shocking look into the ugly side of the dog breding industry.  Inbreeding, exaggeration of maladaptive traits, a maniacal focus on eugenic purity and an obsession with fashion over function have wreaked havoc in far too many breeds.  While the expose hasn’t yet provoked the kinds of wide-spread changes in breeding that many of us would like to see; it certainly opened a lot of eyes.

This week ABC’s Nightline aired an eye-opening episode called Best in Show? exposing the countless, needless problems caused by closed registries.  As my friend Gina posted over at PetConnection:

It’s time to open these registries and get some fresh genetic material into the business of purebred dogs. And into the dogs as well. Open the registries to well-planned, scientifically sound outcrosses. You will still have your breeds as you like them, just healthier.

I couldn’t agree more. Pat the Terrierman posted some great information here — he was involved in preparing the episode.  Please watch both documentaries and share them with your dog-loving friends.  We owe our dogs the best health we can give them.  To do that we need to provide them with a genetic heritage based on health, temperament and working ability rather than outdated ideas of exaggerated type and racial purity.

March 13, 2009 at 1:52 am 2 comments

Invertebrate Rights?


HumanEvents reports that British readers may want to think twice before swatting that pesky house fly or feeding poison bait to the`ants in their pantries.  Apparently in Britain it’s now a criminal offense to abuse any animal kept as a pet.  The Animal Welfare Act specifies that you must take care of all of an animal’s welfare needs — or potentially face a fine of $30,000 or up to twelve-months in prison.

While the Animal Welfare Act spells out care requirements  for animals like cats and dogs in detail, it does not specify exactly how one should care rarer species like slugs or sea monkeys.  It also neglects to lay out how authorities will differentiate between pet mice, which must be properly tended from nuisance mice, which can be properly dispatched.

March 13, 2009 at 1:48 am 1 comment

Biting the Bullet


Zoned on post surgery pain meds.  One-armed.  Wrong-armed.
Very crabby.
 Zip offers a not-so-subtle suggestion.

(…and yes, I know  this is a shotgun shell, not a bullet — but big box ag store was fresh out of stuffed bullets.)

March 12, 2009 at 7:57 am Leave a comment

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March 2009