Monday, March 25, 2013

Talking With Dogs

As I am moving back into my role as teacher, not only through the upcoming Tricks class at Borderhauss Kennels but as a certified CATCH trainer mentor, I'm realizing how much nonverbal actions and consequences go into my daily routines.  My thoughts are constantly on reinforcing behaviors that I like, eliminating ones I don't like.  There are very few random treats I give my dogs.  I am in the mode of thinking that no cookie goes wasted.  I am, in essence, a training machine.

Til and Ms. Rip hanging out at Cindy's house.
While this might seem kind of sad, it puts communication on a whole new level.  I have had to reassess this, too, because now that I have my first border collie, I realize that I haven't made full use of the wonderful cognitive skills in dogs.  I no longer use the grunts and broken English reminiscent of an old Tarzan movie.  I use full sentences.  "Til, Nikita stole your toy and hid it in her cage.  You can find it in there.  Go get it out and bring it to me."

And he does.

I am talking to the border collie much more than I have to others, and the overflow extends to other dogs around him.

A few weeks ago, in house sitting for my friend Cindy while she was away, and caring for her two dogs, I was back to Square One.  The dogs, a Labrador named Nikita and a spaniel mix named Maggie, are both "amateurs" when it comes to the ever evolving "Bailey Method".  Nikita especially is completely clueless.  She is a big, tan, smiling, good-natured oaf, awkward and pushy in her affections.

I hold up a cookie.  "Sit," I tell her.  I KNOW she knows this cue.  She just stands there grinning, ears flattened, whipping her tail back and forth.

At this point, I have another revelation that with rescue dogs, and dogs who have been randomly reinforced, it is better not to talk.  Their lives are filled with meaningless noise.  They tune it out.  So I revert back to my old nonverbal ways and simply hold the cookie back over her head.  She sits. I toss the cookie and she clumsily snaps at it.

With Nikita I would be back to Tarzan Talk for a little while, using the barest of verbiage, while she begins to grasp all over again that language really does have meaning, and to listen intently for more complex instructions.  As she got to know me, she would eventually start to pay more attention.

Perhaps even more importantly, I would have to learn how to listen to her.

Dogs have a more difficult time, I think, when they are trying to tell us what's going on.  They are usually limited to body language and it comes out in something akin to a game of charades.  "Timmy fell down the well?" is a joke -- sort of.

I just finished a stint at the Reading Pet Expo in Pennsylvania, where Til and I performed our freestyle frisbee routine.  Luckily for me, Til is very adept at catching, which compensates for my lame throwing abilities. Add to this the fact that our routine is usually performed amidst the agility course, with the equipment providing a number of obstacles. During one of our shows yesterday, the frisbee fell down inside one of the hollow jump columns, which is about waist high and barrel shaped.  The audience erupted into laughter, but because I had pitched it from behind the high jump, I couldn't see where it had landed.  When I looked around the high jump, I saw Til running tight circles around the column -- clearly indicating where it was.

I don't think I could do that again if I tried!

Yesterday morning, while I was sitting on the hotel bed putting my shoes on, little Estephar the Chihuahua decided to attack me.  We were running late for the show, but I started wrestling with her anyway.  Til came over, picked up one of my shoes, and plopped it into my lap.

That time, again, the message was unmistakable.

As my friend Susan said, "At least there is one mature and responsible member in this family."

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Horses and Dogs

Rip and Til playing, "Ring Around the Pony"

Remembering a ride on the Island:  

It's Cliffy's turn to run free and I've saddled Trudy up. We are enjoying a lively trot down the road toward the shore. Til the border collie has taken it upon himself to do some sort of ad-lib herding thing, which consists of blasting ahead at top speed, coming back and circling behind both horses. 

Clifford is lagging behind to eat grass and then periodically galloping to catch up. On one trip back, Til sees him coming and hits the brakes. Most horses would slow down upon seeing a dog directly in their path. Clifford speeds up. He comes flying past Trudy, straight at the little dog. 

My heart is in my throat, but I say nothing because Clifford is clearly trying to scare me again. Til sees him coming, does a quick double back, and runs for his life with Clifford pounding along behind him. Cliffy leaps into the air and flings his back feet high, clearly ecstatic that he has had the desired effect. Til runs off up the road and Clifford stops, looking after him, and lets out a huge snort. "Take that!" Then he looks back at me to make sure I've caught the whole thing.

We go out to the shore and hang out for a bit, so the horses can drink lake water, lick the rocks and eat some of the harsh tufted grass which they clearly love. Clifford has had no interest in dogs since his surrogate mother Reva died in 2001. But I see that Til is not the least bit afraid of either horse and they seem to have some sort of arrangement. On the way back, it is the same, with the dog circling and racing and Cliffy nibbling grass. Then Clifford trots past us with his tail up, and I start yelling. "Git him, Clifford! Get that bad dog!"

More than happy to oblige, Clifford takes off, chasing the white dog madly up the road, shooting out his front legs and arching his neck and shaking his head. He has that same old suspension, floating above ground like he did when he was two years old. It is all a game, and the whole group of us, Trudy, Ms. Rip, Cliffy and Til and me, whoop and holler and run and ride like mad, all the way back to camp.

It's just like old times. It seems we just needed the right influence.

Dozing backstage at the Pet Expo

There is no question that the two species communicate very clearly to one another. 

I remember an incident at the 2011 Horse and Pet Expo in Secaucus New Jersey.  A lady stopped me in the aisle. She had a big boxer dog straining on the leash. She was smiling. "Could he meet your horse?" 

I was frazzled between shows, still had to take the dogs outside, fetch water and about a thousand other things. "Sure," I told her. "I'll have him out here shortly." 

I ran back by a few minutes later and she was still waiting with this big snorting dog. I grinned at her but I was thinking, "Good grief, why is this such a big deal?" 

I went backstage, got Clifford and led him over to his painting table. He was instantly mobbed as usual. He signed a couple of books but then, to my surprise, he singled out this big sloppy dog, walked over to him and went nose-to-nose. The two of them conferred for awhile with bobbing heads; the boxer with his grinning, gaping maw and Clifford with an interested spark. It was one of the sweetest things I've ever seen. Finally, the dog broke off and went back to his lady. She stood there with her eyes welling up. "Thank you." 

As they left, I made a note to myself that I should always remember to be kind.  I still don't know exactly what had happened there. I do know that when I stay out of the way, Clifford can do some wonderful things.


Monday, March 11, 2013

Today's Project - the Kingfisher

When I hear the signature chatter of this crested bird, I always stop and scan the trees to search for him.  He might be shooting overhead, preparing to dive-bomb the water (because if I hear him I am inevitably by the water) or sitting on a post or limb, unmistakable with his over-sized, crested head.  If I spot him, I get an rush of sudden and complete happiness.  I am not sure why the sight of Kingfisher accompanies this giddy feeling.

Today I looked him up and found that he is a cousin of the Kookaburra, the Australian laughing bird.  Native Americans believed Kingfisher to be a good omen -- a sign of new warmth, sunshine, prosperity and love.  Who wouldn't welcome all these things?  Supposedly, people with a Kingfisher totem should live as close as possible to water, and as far north as possible. That certainly applies to me.

But I think the reason that the chortle is so infectious is because of where I am when I hear it.  I am hiking, or riding my horse, or out in the canoe, or someplace where the Kingfisher frequents.  It is a call to the primal side, the voice saying, "Look! Over here!" and there he is.  It is an audible signature of being in nature, of living in the moment.

I haven't seen him lately, but I have him on the brain.  Here he is, materializing from my mind's eye, in acrylic, 11x15".  Thinking of him makes me happy, so he is already bringing good things.

Friday, March 8, 2013

International Women's Day - the Woman I Admire Most

“Your new little sister is a Mongoloid,” Dad’s tone was somber and he watched us all carefully for a reaction.  It was September 1970.  Dad had sat us all down, all seven of us, so that we could understand the depth of this new development.  The baby was going to show up with slanted eyes and a large, protruding, pointed tongue.

At nine years old, I took this all very seriously.  From his description she sounded like some sort of freak.  But my heart immediately went out to her.

Then she arrived.  She didn’t look like a freak.  She was a pink and golden infant with perfect skin and tiny, plump clenched fists.  It had been five years since we’d had a baby in the house, and when this one opened her eyes, I saw they were navy blue, so dark that the pupils were indiscernible.  I fell immediately, violently in love.  I had never seen a baby more beautiful.  I even loved her name:  Amanda Christina Bowman Bailey.  Maybe it was my age, or perhaps it was the fact that she was different from other babies, but some sort of tender mothering thing in me kicked in.  This became my baby.  I dressed her.  I fed her.  I changed her.  I held and talked to her for hours.  I sat by the crib and watched her sleep.

Amanda age 2, and already a superstar! Note one shoe off...

 As she grew, she became very much her own person, filled with the typical sweetness that people with Down's are known for.  But she has an added twist of sarcasm and an unexpected wit that will ambush the innocent bystander.  She has remained my good buddy all these years.  Her stoicism grounds me in ways that no one else can.  (Like the time she handed me a five dollar bill and said, "Go get a Coke and calm yourself.")

I've kept a journal of quotes from her over the years, and reviewing them always makes me wish I had started sooner.  Here's hoping for many more quotes, many more movies and pizzas and Girl's Day Out events with Amanda.

Nancy: Amanda, your eye is red. Does it hurt?
Amanda: No.
Nancy: Look that way. Look this way. Look up.
Amanda: It's okay.
Nancy:  How many fingers am I holding up?
Amanda: Two. (Making the shape of an L on her forehead) How many
fingers am *I* holding up?

Posing by Manistique light house!

·         Amanda: I told you about Elizabeth Taylor, right?
·          Me: I heard.
·         Amanda:  She's going to be buried right smack dab next to Michael Jackson. At Neverland Ranch.
·         Me: Michael Jackson is buried at Neverland Ranch?
·         Amanda: Yes. They have a cemetary there.
·         Me: They do?
·         Amanda: Yes.
·         Me: Who else is buried there?
·         Amanda: Elizabeth Taylor!
Amanda frequently helps out with Clifford's events.

Me:  I hate driving when I’m this tired.  My judgment is like the weather: A little cloudy. 
Amanda:  It’s not THAT bad.
Me: Aw, thanks Manda!
Amanda:  I meant the weather.
Dad and Amanda, 2012
Me (attempting to wax philosophical): What's the most beautiful thing you've ever seen?

     Amanda (without hesitation): You.

"Amanda With Her Coke", illustration from "Clifford of Drummond Island"