Friday, April 27, 2007

Mediacomm sux!

My phone and internet at home have been down for over 36 hours now. I have called repeatedly. First got told there was an outage in the area, be patient. Now, I'm told oh, the outage is fixed, must be something else wrong with yours, we'll have to send a tech. But not till Monday!

So here I am, with NO PHONE and NO INTERNET for the entire weekend. I'm glad I'm doing a trial and not trying to work, because I can't work. No blog updates either. Grrr.

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

My Kingdom for a Ball

Cala is ball focused. Now you must understand what this means. It doesn't mean that Cala will occasionally play with a ball. Oh no. It means that during every waking moment Cala is searching for a ball, carrying a ball, chewing on a ball, dropping a ball in my lap. Cala will also place the ball in strategic positions for me to pick up. As in, if I open a drawer, she drops it in the drawer. She loves to put it in the laundry basket as I'm throwing clothes in, then gets frantic when I don't retrieve it immediately. She also has an obsession with putting it in the dryer if I'm loading clothes, and will even put her front feet up and put it in the washer if I don't watch her. She loves to place her ball, back off, and lay down in sphinx position with her head flat on the floor, waiting for me to throw the ball.

Cala, in case you haven't figured out, is a bit weird.

And thus arises the game of shower ball. I'll be in the shower when suddenly, "PTUI!" a ball comes flying in under the shower curtain, rolling around the tub floor. "Flump." I hear her collapse into a down. A peek out the corner inevitably shows her in her signature down, stubby tail straight in the air, intently watching the curtain. So I pick up the ball, pitch out over the top of the curtain. Much thumping ensues as she explodes into action to catch the ball. Silence, punctuated by "skwok, skwok, skwok" chewing sounds. Then "PTUI!"

This is pretty much a daily ritual. Except today. Because today there was no ball. Why was there no ball you ask? Because she ate it. See, Cala loves balls but she's really, really hard on them. Even the toughest balls succumb to her Jaws Of Doom. Her latest ball, a supposedly indestructible Orbee, lasted a week. She chews them until she gets small chunks off, then chunks them all up, sometimes spitting out remains, sometimes swallowing them. Fortunately she chews small pieces. But I do have to watch Zipper, who thinks these small rubbery bits are just for him.

Today, with no ball, I got out of the shower to see Cala in her down, sulkily facing AWAY from me. Obviously it's completely my fault that there's no ball. It's my job to be a constant ball supply. I must be hiding one somewhere! Unfortunately there's no ball, and not likely to be a ball for awhile, at least not until payday. How ever will she survive?

Friday, April 20, 2007

When is enough enough?

The pet food recall just keeps going from worse to worse. Too many food companies are still in denial and it's been knocked off the headlines (justifyably) by the massacre in Virginia. But just get a load of this. Go here: and scroll down that list. Hundreds and hundreds of food types contaminated.

I think we will never know the true number of dogs and cats killed. It now turns out that Chinese manufacturers may have been deliberately adding Melamine to food to boost apparent protein levels. And it's just a matter of time before people start getting sick. Melamine-laced foods were fed to pigs being fattened for the human market.

Even if you aren't sickened by all this on behalf of the dogs and cats who have died (and acute kidney failure is a very ugly way to go), think of the Melamine case as a barometer of our food supply as a whole. In the past year alone we've dealt with tainted spinach, tainted lettuce, tainted peanut butter. And of course there's bovine spongiform (mad cow), which came about when economical farmers decided that churing up their bretheren's brains in food was a great way to increase weight in an herbivore.

It's simply a matter of time before something hits the human population due to poor food controls and kills not a few here and there, but thousands as has happened in pets. The inability of the FDA to adequately monitor our food supply is apparent.

For the dogs, I've switched to Innova Evo, which is grain free and from domestic animals and vegetables raised organically with no extra horomones given. I can't quite afford to go entirely organic myself, but I will certainly spend even more time this year at local Farmers Markets...


That was Zipper last night in Agility Foundations class. There were other dogs there! Dogs he did not know! He wanted to see those dogs! He wanted to see them bad!

And when Zipper wants to do something really bad, he shimmies and emits a hummy buzz. Sort of like a cell phone on a glass table set to vibrate.

But I've instituted a rule. No playing with other dogs in the training building. Ever. Some of the other trainers let their dogs romp in the building, let them play and interact. I can do that with Cala, but Zipper is too dog-centric. I just don't want him thinking that the building is where he plays with other dogs. I want him to think the building is where we do cool stuff together.

It did seem to work last night. At the start of the agility class he was focused on everything but me. By the end of class he was focused on me and having a good time. He's actually done this class before, but he was just a puppy then and didn't have enough attention span to be ready to move on. Besides, that was last summer. So he is taking the class again and already I can see that his 18 month old brain is far more settled than his 8 month old brain was. I really see some potential in this little guy, let's hope it stays that way!

Thursday, April 19, 2007

Clicker--Operant and Classical conditioning

I'm one of those "figure out how it works" geeks. When I first started learning about clicker training, there were a lot of terms thrown around I had no clue about. Operant Conditioning. Classical Conditioning. Positive Punishment. Negative Punishment. Positive Reinforcement. Negative Reinforcement.

At first it didn't seem that hard. I mean, positive something had to be good and negative something had to be bad, right? And clicker dogs were trained using Operant conditioning, right?

Well, no. Not exactly. And I do think it helps to really understand these terms as they apply to dog training Correct terminology and understanding how the methods work is one of the keys to effectively teaching your dog. So here goes.

Classical Conditioning is best described by the studies done by Pavlov. In Classical conditioning, a dog is conditioned to recognize that a certain event will always predict another event. In Pavlov's experiments, the ringing of a bell was always associated with food, so that the dogs began to salivate purely from the sound of the bell. Replace "bell" with "clicker" and you know how the clicker works. We teach the dog that the clicker always means a treat, therefore the dog begins to feel reinforced by the sound of the clicker itself and automatically anticipates food.

Operant Conditioning, first described by B.F. Skinner, is more complex. Basically, Operant Conditioning says "behaviors have consequences." The terms used in Operant Conditioning are Positive, Negative, Reinforcement, and Punishment. But these terms have some different definitions than we normally think of. It helps if you decide that scientists don't live in the real world and don't speak the same language we do even when it sounds the same. In science-speak:

Positive means Add Negative means Subtract or take away
Reinforcement means that a behavior *increases*
Punishment means that a behavior *decreases*
Extinguish means the behavior disappears

Please note that there are no emotional connotations to these terms. Positive is not inherently good. Negative is not bad, and nor is punishment. It's merely a science geek's way of saying add, subtract, increase, decrease. And all methods of dog training, from clicker to Koehler, use Operant techniques. It is incorrect to say that clicker training is operant training and other training is not. Clicker training is operant training, but so is smacking the dog in the head for not sitting promply.

There are four main ways to train a dog Operantly

1. Positive Reinforcement
2. Negative Reinforcement
3. Positive Punishment
4. Negative Punishment

So taking the science-geek definitions, what do these mean?

1. Positive Reinforcement = ADDing something to INCREASE a behavior
2. Negative Reinforcement = SUBTRACTING something to INCREASE a behavior
3. Positive Punishment = ADDing something to DECREASE a behavior
4. Negative Punishment = SUBTRACTING something to DECREASE a behavior

So I don't know if anybody is reading this so I'll ask a few questions and see if I get any comments or answers. Try to guess what each of the following is.

1. A dog gets out of heel position, and the owner pops the collar to bring him back.

2. A dog gets very excited about his ball and accidently bites the owner, the owner takes the ball away.

3. A dog is not fed if he does not track a scent trail.

4. A dog is given a treat for sitting.

Clicker Training 101

I thought that in my spare time I'd write a bit about clicker training. What it is, why I use it, and some useful tips and tricks to get started. Some of this will get long so I'll try to split it up. Each of these blog posts will be prefaced by "clicker--" so you'll know if it's a clicker training post. Or maybe at some point I'll actually organize them in a folder, but don't count on it.

The simplest explanation of what clicker training is, is that it uses a click--a noise--to mark a desired behavior. That behavior is then rewarded with a treat. For any reader new to the method, that's the one, real, basic tenet. The commandment written in stone.

Click = Treat

If you remember nothing else about this training, remember the above. You click the dog, the dog gets a treat. Every time. And dogs are pretty literal critters. Pretty darn soon, they understand that every time you click that clicker they've done something right and they get a reward.

Rewarded Behavior Is Repeated

Dogs are pretty much like us. If a particular behavior is rewarded, they want to repeat it. If a behavior is ignored while they're working for that reward, they tend not to repeat it. The click marks a behavior that the trainer wants repeated. In this, the clicker is incredibly precise.

Why is the clicker better than voice?
The clicker is better than voice for a couple of important reasons. The click is both faster than the voice and the click is unemotional and therefore unambiguous. Let's go into a bit of detail about that.

The clicker is faster than your voice. Studies have been done which show that the human body can twitch a finger/thumb much faster than it can say a word. In other words, it takes longer for the brain to go find a word, send it to the voice box, and for the mouth to express that word than it does for the nerve impulses to go to the finger for a click. And how many of you are like me? You'll look at your own sister Susan and say, "Jamie, Laura, Jenn, um, YOU!" we forget words all the time. On the agility course I'm likely to call a table a dogwalk and not remember my dog's name at all! Clicker is far easier. Just push a button. And being faster is better. The faster the clicker is, the more likely you are to catch a behavior at just the right moment and mark it. The more accurate you are at marking the behavior you want to keep, the faster the dog will learn and the more complex tasks you can teach.

The clicker is also totally unemotional. This is really, really important. The clicker is a marker. It is not praise and does not take the place of praise. But nor can praise take the place of the clicker. I hear many trainers say, "I just say the word "yes" as my marker." And that can work. Sort of. It will work but it's slower (see above) and it is not as unambiguous. See there's this weird thing. Dogs have developed over the past 15-100,000 years (depending on what scientist you talk to) to be exquisitely sensitive to our emotions. They are especially sensitive to our faces, our body posture, and our voices. They use those cues to "learn human." And they are masters at it. They know when we're mad just by our tone of voice and our face. And no matter how much you try, the "yes" you say to a dog when you are tired and have had an awful training session and are just trying to salvage something without punting Rover into the nearest wall is far, far different than the "yes" you say when the sky is blue, the grass is green, and Rover is doing everything perfectly with sparkle and verve the first time you ask. Your voice is different, your body posture is different.

The clicker overrides that. Dogs are very literal and so is the clicker. It says, "I don't care what my body posture says, you did that RIGHT and you get a TREAT.

Thus lies the awesome power of the click. And that's enough for this post!

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

The Cathedral of Training

It's been such a long time coming. Almost two years since my friends lost their lease on their training facility. Two years of searching for a new location, checking out warehouses, finally deciding to build. The land and loans were secured last summer, but endless city red tape delayed, then delayed again the building.

But it's done now. The Cathedral Of Dog. Columbia Canine Sports Center. The fabric building is light, airy, open. Over 50 feet high at the apex, 120' x 240' of clearspan space, sunbrightened by day, glowing at night. All on 3/4" recycled rubber flooring over 6 feet of crushed lime. A full sized agility ring, a 100 x 60 agility ring, a rally ring, and 2 Obedience rings with room for more.

In the old building, which had a 60 x 90 agility space and two obedience rings, the first night of classes was always chaos, with at least one near-escape dog fight and lots of tension. But something about all this soaring light decompresses dogs and owners. We had 3 rings full of dogs last night, all running simultaneously, and even the greenest of the green pet dogs were relaxed and happy.

And oh, how great it is to be training again. Cala the dobe, in her first Rally 2 class, did so well considering I haven't trained at all since last fall. She was tired by the end of the hour, but not too tired to run once on the agility course in Masters class. Where she did each of her contacts perfectly, which has been a big problem for us lately.

Zipper's first class is Thursday, but I brought him to start absorbing building noises and to get comfortable. Besides barking at dogs going by his crate (which I put an end to by covering it), he did really well. I took him out a few times and simply clicked him for attention on me, then took him to an empty agility ring and clicked him around the dogwalk. Zipper had an agility class last summer but definitely needs a refresher, so he'll start all over again.

We all came home tired, happy, and satisfied.

Sunday, April 15, 2007

I'd forget my head, part duh

If you look at my other postings, you'll find a blog where I lamented how stupid I am because a couple of weeks ago I apparently put my dog in my car but not in his crate. Coming out from dinner with friends, I found him happily nosing about in the mess of coats, dogbeds, treats and toys in the well of the van. I seriously worried about my sanity and absentmindedness. How could I lift a dog into the van, put water in his crate, and latch it and drive off without the dog actually in the crate?

Well tonight it happened again! I took the dogs for a run then loaded everyone back up and went to dinner. This time I looked at the little shit to make sure I'd remembered to put him in his crate. There he was, curled up sleeping. After a nice dinner I got back out to the car, unlocked it, and there was Zipper, happily playing in the heap of toys he'd pulled out of the training bag and most certainly NOT in his still-latched crate!

WTF? I mean, how on earth is this dog getting out of his crate and relatching it????

Then I figured it out. This little wire crate has a top hatch. And darn if it wasn't unlatched. He's waiting until I'm gone, and popping out the top of the crate like a Jack-in-the-box.

He had taken out only his favoritest toys--both rabbit skins, both racoon tails, the rabbit fur tug. He was so proud.

Back in the crate he went, and I latched the top too. NOW let's see if the little snot can get out.

Saturday, April 14, 2007

TotalMinPin updated

Been working all morning on updating the site. I've added several new articles including what to watch out for in breeders if you want a Min Pin. Because I'll tell ya, the bad Min Pin breeders are epidemic.

The weather is still crap, we're getting snow. On the 14th of April. The dogs are all curled up next to various registers, waiting, like me, for Spring to show back up.

Friday, April 13, 2007

Urgh, go to bed!

Zipper and I generally go to bed at about 9:30 or so. He crawls under the coverlet, over the sheet, and curls at my feet. And usually it takes a crowbar to pry him out the next morning. But for whatever reason (no exercise lately? New high-energy food?) I awoke this morning to 10 pounds of Min Pin jumping on my head on his way out the door. ZOOOMMM down the hall, I heard his tiny toenails clicking lightly. Did he need to go out? No, ZOOOMMMM here he comes back. Ka-bouncety-ka-bouncety onto the bed, bank, fly back off, and ZOOMMMM off he goes again.

This went on for a good 15-20 minutes. Very cute, but not at 4:00 a.m.! Finally he decided playtime was over and curled back up.

Today we're going to go for a walk, even if it's raining!

Thursday, April 12, 2007

Waaahhh, Waahhhh, Winter

Where'd it go? You know, that thing I wrote about just a week or so ago? Spring? It's gone. Pouf.

Many of my plants are dead, frozen. Even the Missouri natives like columbine. My honeysuckle vine is gone. Irises? greyish brown. That's what more than a week of below-freezing temps will do when plants are already budded out. Last weekend we had 3 straight days of temps in the low 20s. In April for God's sake! This week has been raw and brutal, more like February than April. We're going to get SNOW Saturday. On April 14. Which will be a record. Here in Missouri the peach and wine crop is gone along with all of the other fruiting tree crops and things like strawberries.

The dogs are not happy either. Zipper has gone back to floating from register to register, sometimes standing like a little bronze statue, sometimes curling right on top of the vent in a tiny ball. Viva's arthritis is back, now she's limping on the left front *and* the left rear, which is a trick let me tell you--she looks like a cow standing sideways on a hill. Cala is impatient with the cold, wanting to go run.

Climate change is interesting isn't it? We're moving into a time that man has never dealt with before, and the corresponding wild fluctuations in weather are part of it. Hopefully spring will come back some day!

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Using Negative Punishment

Cala loves agility. Oh boy, I did that one right--she LOVES agility. And she has extreme drive and always struggles to keep it from overwhelming her. So yep, we have real control issues and she only has her OA and her NAJ because she usually loses it about halfway through the course and just barrels around taking everything in her path as fast as she can, screaming like a banshee (nobody who has ever seen Cala run at a trial forgets it, trust me). My goal is to help her cap her drive (i.e., focus it and use it instead of spending it screaming and flinging herself at things).

In Operant Conditioning, Negative Punishment is taking something away to decrease a behavior. I want to *decrease* Cala's vocalizing. I also want to *decrease* her obstacle focus. She's too focused on obstacles and not focused enough on me. So I simultaneously want to *increase* handler focus.

I started out by crating her, putting a jump up to 24", and bringing her out. As we approached the ring, I kept her on a 6 foot leash and said nothing. As is usual, she immediately went to the end of the leash and began to pull to the ring. I backed up. She backed up too and glanced at me. Click/treat. It took 5 minutes to get to the ring on a loose leash with attention. Then she saw the jump. She zeroed in and began to move forward. Each time she looked at the jump, I either backed up or turned around and left the area. I never jerked her, she always came with me. I never said a word, and I kept my body posture and face calm and positive/smiling. She began to yodel in frustration. Each time she yodeled *or* took her eyes off me, I simply left the area of the jump she so desired. Sometimes I turned left, into her, sometimes I turned right, away from her, sometimes I simply backed up. Once or twice I clicked her for returning to heel position but I didn't want the game to become "I look at the jump and bark then return to heel and get a click." I was still completely silent. I was letting her figure out the problem with no input or anger from me.

It took another 5 minutes or so, but Cala learned that looking at the jump or barking at me or the jump got her removed from the jump. Looking at me and being quiet let her approach the jump. Once she was heeling to within a foot of a jump with total attention on me, I began to occasionally click and treat at the jump. And then I began to release her TO the jump. So now I've added positive reinforcement to the negative punishment. When I look at the jump or bark, it goes away. So I don't want to look at the jump or bark. (negative punishment). When I look at Mom and am quiet, I get a click and treat. When I look at Mom and be quiet, I may get to jump. Positive reinforcement--adding something to increase a behavior. In this case, adding the reward of getting to jump to increase the behavior of holding attention on me before the jump.

My plan is to work Cala up to being able to heel completely around an entire course with total attention on me and none on the obstacles. I've started with the jump. I'll add jumps into a jump grid, then begin working in other obstacles one at a time. My goal is not to shut down her drive or totally eliminate her obstacle focus (which wouldn't happen anyway, she's too obstacle driven) but to help her learn that taking cues from me is her route to the big goodies she loves so much. During our session, which lasted a total of about 10-15 minutes she never lost attitude, never lost drive, and was totally into the game even if sometimes a bit frustrated. And she's learning.

Tuesday, April 03, 2007

The Great Stalk

Two dogs sniff intently at the grass. One big and sleek and black and tan, the other small and sleek and glowing autumn red.

What's the news today? What has changed since we were here last night? What bugs have passed? Any rabbit scent? Say, there's a piece of paper!

Two bluejays flutter down in a corner of the chainlink at the far end of the yard. Their feathers are brilliant sky, cerulean, lapis. One hops a step forward.

Both dogs flick their heads up and freeze. The black one's docked tail rises. The red one oh, so slowly pulls a front foot into the air.

Haunches tense and lower just a little. A blue jay walks a step. Muscles begin to quiver. The heads are absolutely motionless.

A blue jay takes a hop. Two dogs, one large one very small, leap forward in concert, from zero to full speed in a single stride.

The jays indignantly flutter up to a branch. The dogs slow to a stop, watch, then lower their heads. Hey, what's the news today? What else has gone on in the yard since last night? Look! A leaf!

Monday, April 02, 2007

Oooo. Inbreeding. Sccaarrryy....

I'm having a discussion with someone on a list which shall not be named (not a Min Pin or Doberman list). A nice person, and I even considered getting a puppy from her at some point. But she sure has a myopic view about breeding.

This person has bought into the religion of "inbreeding is evil." According to these people, inbreeding should be avoided at all costs, all dog breeding should be based on inbreeding coefficients, and only by outcrossing can we avoid breed extinction through inbreeding depression. This theory, popularized in part by the late John Armstrong, blames all of the woes of the purebred dog world on those oh-so-shortsighted breeders who dared to breed close relatives, thus bringing bad recessives to the front and "ruining" breeds.

I've read the information, and in fact have been a member of the canine genetics email list for years, including several years before John Armstrong died, when there was debate between several big-name people, including author Don McCaig (IMO he's a far better author than geneticist). In those days the list was high traffic and the debate hot. After Dr. Armstrong's death the list went pretty much dead and though it still exists, it has very few messages.

In spite of it all, I have never been convinced that inbreeding is bad. Certainly inbreeding has risks. And by inbreeding I mean what most breeders call linebreeding (which geneticists call inbreeding). I think these days very few people do brother/sister sire/daughter dam/son breedings.

The question is, is inbreeding the ruination of a breed? No. How can it be when we have evidence of very inbred breeds who do well, like Portuguese Water Dogs?

Does inbreeding cause inbreeding depression and eventual breed extinction? No...otherwise how do you explain Greyhounds and Salukis, in existance for thousands of years, relatively unchanged, and relatively hardy and healthy? For that matter the Min Pin, a very old breed, is pretty darn healthy and hardy.

Does inbreeding make a breed more susceptible to genetic disease? According to George Padgett (foremost authority on genetic disease in dogs), the breed with the most known genetic diseases is the Cocker Spaniel, with 52 different genetic diseases. But this is drawfed by the mixed breed, with the potential for over 120 different genetic diseases.

Is homozygosity bad? It can be. But it isn't always. Homozygosity can increase the chance for expression of some genetic diseases, but insulates from infiltration of others. If you have a homozygous population that has an extremely low incidence of hip dysplasia, don't you want to keep it that way?

Is outcrossing a solution? IMO no. Outcrossing to what? Dogs are an artificial construct. They've been bred selectively by humans for thousands (some say 100s of thousands) of years. They are a homozygous population. Which is why they are so extremely useful in researching human diseases. It's far easier to find a dog model than a human model because dogs are so darn homozygous. Cross breeding between breeds only provides hybrid vigor protection to the first (F1) generation, and then only for diseases both parent breeds don't share. So breeding a Yorkie to a Min Pin wouldn't do a thing to prevent Legg-Calve-Perthes. And within a certain breed there really, honestly is no such thing as an "outcross" unless you have a pariah or feral population somewhere that has been isolated from the main population for some time.

Such is the case in Basenjis, where the parent club has been able to go to Africa and find some native dogs and thus battle Fanconi Syndrome. Unfortunately there are no feral populations of Min Pins or Dobermans or German Shepherds.

What ruins breeds are bad breeders. Any breeder who breeds for only one thing--such as a perfect head, or hard grip on a sleeve, great herding ability, or even just genetic health or the least amount of inbreeding in the bloodline is not serving the breed well. Good breeders know you have to look at multiple factors and juggle. It's not easy being a good breeder. You have tons of factors to weigh when making breeding decisions. Being too narrow focused on any one issue will end up doing a disservice to the breed.

As for inbreeding--like it or not, we're all doing it, every time we breed. The question is, how do you make it work for you and not against you?

The DDGraphix store!