Archive for February, 2010

Science is the Poetry of Reality

February 28, 2010 at 6:44 pm 4 comments

Bird Dachs

Doing a bit of random blog-surfing I came across a post from the Star Tribune Outdoors blog that mentioned a little dog with lots of heart.  My curiosity was piqued so I googled Digby up and found a recent post over at Upland Equations that told me a bit more about him – and included some adorable pictures.

Digby is a seven month old dachshund who lives at a game club in California where he enjoys retrieving and flushing birds. He may only be a pup, but he’s already attracted a fan club.

I was pleasantly surprised to find that Digby’s not the only dachshund (or even the first) to enjoy working as a gun dog. From youtube, we bring you Weiner, who “just does what comes natural.”

Are Digby and Weiner a pair of achondroplastic geniuses? Maybe not. According to the folks over at Born-to-Track News, they are just doing what comes natural:

Many dachshund owners are probably not aware that a “water test” plays an important part of dachshund field testing system in many European countries. In Germany a test for the companion dog title includes evaluating the dog’s attitude to water. The handler throws a floating object at least 20 feet into deep water, and the dog is supposed to bring object back to shore. There is also a separate test in which two shots are fired from a shotgun while a duck is thrown 20 to 26 feet out into deep water. The dog is expected to swim out, retrieve the duck and bring it back to the owner. The VJT, a German club for hunting dachshunds, offers an even more challenging test as a dachshund tested does not see when and where a duck is thrown into water. The dog must find the duck by himself in the body of water, and a shot is fired when the dog is swimming towards the duck. The shot actually goes into the water in front of the swimming dog.

The North American Teckel Club (NATC) uses European dachshund Gebrauchshund, or usefulness tests as a basis to develop similar tests to assess how dachshunds on this side of the ocean perform. In the tests, each dog is tested against a performance standard, not another dog’s performance. A dog has to demonstrate gun steadiness before entering hunting tests. Dachshunds are tested in blood tracking, locating and trailing small game, locating, baying and/or bolting underground quarry, and flushing game in a controlled and obedient manner.

While doves and chukars may not be the standard quarry for dachshunds, the adorable, short-legged dogs were prized hunters long before they became one of America’s favorite lap dogs. I’m glad that groups like NATC are around to preserve the working heritage of the breed.

February 28, 2010 at 5:25 pm 5 comments

No More Dog “Ownership” in Wisconsin?

Loretta Baughan over at the Spaniel Journal has a new article up on proposed legislative efforts by the Dane County Humane Society (DCHS) and the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) to remove animals from the realm of property law in Wisconsin.

Proposed LRB-0677/2, creates new legal definitions, applying only to animal-related situations, that will eliminate the need for fact-based evidence in the seizure of property and allow subjective standards to be used as the basis for action. It would eliminate existing provisions that seized animals be held in custody until the owner is convicted, dismissed or found not guilty and allow animal protection organizations to immediately euthanize, sell or sterilize seized animals as they wish.

If HSUS and DCHS are successful in their legislative bid – a disgruntled neighbor could report you to a publicity-hungry local animal rights group for ‘abuse’ based entirely on subjective standards. The animal rightists can then show up at your door, legally seize your animals – and kill or sell them before you even have a chance to prove that you’re innocent.

Go, read the whole thing. And if you live in Wisconsin and own (or ever plan to own) animals – call your legislators now.

February 27, 2010 at 1:29 pm 7 comments

Comparing Veterinary and Human Health Care

While this is a gross oversimplification of the system, Balaker makes a couple of interesting points.

I should be a poster girl for health care reform. I’m middle-aged, self-employed and I’ve got a bunch of potentially bankrupting preexisting health problems. But when I see the kind of unintended consequences that arise out of relatively simple, well-intentioned programs like South Carolina’s certificate of need requirement, I remain convinced that rapid institution of broad sweeping reforms is a very bad idea. Changing a few things at a time would mean that problems in the system (and there are plenty of them) will take longer to fix, but a step by step process of reform could help prevent potentially catastrophic adverse effects.

In the world of politics there is sometimes a drive to achieve change by pursuing a system completely different from the status quo. But effective change is rarely made in a spectacular way.  Like our world’s climate, health care is an incredibly complex, dynamical system well beyond anyone’s capacity to understand or model accurately. I really hope our elected representatives don’t unintentionally throw it into a dangerously chaotic state of disequilibrium.

February 25, 2010 at 9:31 pm 38 comments


I TIVO’d the documentary “Mine” last night and hope to find time to watch it tonight.

In a bit of late night insomnia last week I caught parts of “Into the Lion’s Den,” a documentary on TV zoologist and big cat trainer Dave Salmoni’s work habituating a pride of wild lions to his presence. While Salmoni calls what he does “positive reinforcement training” he’s actually using the kind of very subtle approach / retreat – pressure / release (or negative reinforcement) skills that wild animal trainers have used since at least the time of Heini Hediger. (Hediger’s books are classics on how animals use and understand personal space and highly recommended for anyone who’s interested in how to use approach / retreat to work with animals.)

In Salmoni’s experience, every sound and movement a cat makes tells him how it’s going to behave. If he responds appropriately, the cat will respond appropriately, too. He will be successful when the lions consistently allow him to remain on foot in their close proximity, regarding him as neither a threat nor a potential meal. Salmoni knows the risks are enormous, but he is more concerned with the future of wild animals in our world.

I’m not sure how habituating wild lions to the presence of humans is going to save them – since habituated wild animals are the most likely to cause problems. A bit of googling shows that Salmoni is a controversial guy. He uses his looks and connections to make hyped up for TV documentaries instead of doing serious research. “Into the Lion’s Den” struck me as the wild animal trainer’s version of a parlor trick – but if you catch it, watch it to see how incredibly subtle the use of negative reinforcement can be.

Via MPR: [cheers!] Missing Mexican gray wolf found and returned to wildlife center:

The wolf was spotted by a police officer in New Brighton, and officials from the Wildlife Science Center in Forest Lake were able to tranquilize and net the animal at about 9:30 a.m. Thursday, said Joy Fusco, administrator of the Wildlife Science Center.

Via HumaneWatch:

Feld Entertainment has filed a federal racketeering lawsuit against HSUS.

The central claim of the lawsuit (see page 13 of the PDF) is:

[D]efendants have perpetrated and continue to perpetrate multiple schemes to permanently ban Asian elephants in circuses, to defraud FEI ofmoney and property and/or to unjustly enrich themselves, with the ultimate objective of banning Asian elephants in all forms of entertainment and captivity. To carry out these schemes, defendants conspired to conduct and conducted the Enterprise through a pattern of, among other things, bribery and illegal gratuity payments (in violation of both state and federal law), obstruction of justice, mail fraud, wire fraud and money laundering. (emphasis addad by HumaneWatch)

It’ll be interesting to see how this plays out. I expect this case to drag on for a long time…

And – for a bit of light entertainment check out this Life Magazine photo essay on the Dogs of WWII:

February 22, 2010 at 11:38 am 22 comments

Distorted Perspective

…you sure are

This excellent video was created by Retriever Rescue of Colorado.

February 21, 2010 at 5:29 pm 12 comments

Stop It!

Negative reinforcement is probably the most misunderstood concept in dog training. Many trainers equate negative reinforcement with punishment and then condemn its use as inhumane – while ironically some behaviorists have called to eliminate the distinction between positive reinforcement and negative reinforcement.

I wonder how many of these people ever went shopping with a tired, crabby toddler? Because when a cranky three-year-old throws a tantrum until that box of atomic sugar bombs goes into the shopping cart, he’s giving you a textbook example of negative reinforcement.

And the beauty of it is, you’ll rarely (if ever) need to use a stimulus as harsh as a tantrum when training your dog.

Animals are masters in the subtle, effective use of negative reinforcement. They use it all the time to establish and protect territory, maintain individual space, protect food resources and to teach boundaries to their young.  Negative reinforcement teaches your dog to lay in the shade instead of the sun on a hot day. And if you’re lucky, it’s the tool your puppy’s mother and littermates used to teach him bite inhibition.

In Animals in Translation Temple Grandin writes:

Rewards and positive reinforcers are the same thing: something good happens to you because of something you did. Punishment and negative reinforcement are opposites. Punishment is when something bad happens to you because of something you did; negative reinforcement is when something bad stops happening to you, or doesn’t start happening to you in the first place, because of something you did. Punishment is bad, and negative reinforcement is good. Punishment makes you stop doing what you’re doing, although a lot of behaviorists believe that punishing a bad behavior isn’t as effective as rewarding a good behavior when it comes to getting an animal to do what you want him to do.

Negative reinforcement is the hardest to understand. Negative reinforcement isn’t a punishment; it’s a reward. But the reward is negative in the sense that something you don’t like either stops or doesn’t start in the first place. Say your four-year-old is screaming and crying and giving you a headache. Finally you lose your patience and blow up at him, and he’s shocked into silence. That’s negative reinforcement, because you’ve made the crying go away, which is what you wanted. Now you’re probably more likely to blow up at him the next time he starts a tantrum, because you’ve been negatively reinforced for blowing up at him during this tantrum.

And part of the beauty of negative reinforcement is that, unlike punishment, it’s highly effective even when very subtle, mildly aversive stimuli are employed. This can involve little more than being somewhat annoying or tiresome – you just need to apply enough pressure that the subject of your attention wants to do something to make you stop it.

Here’s an example of mild pressure being used to make a horse back up and move forward. Note how calm and relaxed the horse and trainer are. In spite of all the ugly baggage we humans associate with the term, like a smile or a frown, negative reinforcement in its milder forms is one of the foundations of human and animal body language.

Ironically, even though negative reinforcement is something that all animals (including humans) use without thinking about it – most humans need coaching to use it consciously. The video linked here (by the most excellent Lori Drouin) provides some nice examples of how to introduce negative reinforcement (or pressure and release) into lure / reward training. It’s simple, fair and effective and as Ms. Drouin points out, the use of pressure / release also gives us an excellent way to segue out of luring.

Transitioning from luring to negative reinforcement is valuable because it eliminates the dog’s reliance on treats. In addition, because negative reinforcement is an integral part of dog and human body language, using it teaches you to pay attention to how you use subtle cues like touch, eye contact and body posture to turn pressure on and off. This is totally awesome because, along with petting and praise, these are tools you’ll have with you anywhere you work with your dog.

Don’t fall into the trap of believing the propaganda that using negative reinforcement to communicate with your dog (or, for that matter, your toddler) is cruel and abusive. Negative reinforcement is a fair and natural part of the way animals communicate with each other. Practice it. Learn how to use it well. Your dog will thank you.

February 20, 2010 at 9:55 pm 24 comments

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