Thursday, October 29, 2009

Putting my hand to the cart...

Down at The Farm this past weekend - a 'command performance,' if you'll allow me the license. HBIC needed the feed shed cleaned out, rather seriously, and I'm one of the go-to guys, it seems, for that sort of work. I don't flinch at rats, need little supervision, and am strong enough to make light of the lifting and toting.

The economy reaches into all manner of corners, and hard times mean fewer volunteer hours. The Farm is running on necessary minimums right now, those being the health, safety, and care of the dogs and other animals resident. That means that other things must give, like the cleaning and maintenace of unoccupied structures, like the feed shed. Oh, wait... Did I say "unoccupied?" I meant unoccupied by any animals that people care for. Rats had obviously been there, and had themselves a party. Spiders and grubs were in plentiful evidence, too - Grubs feeding on food spilled by the rats, and the spiders feeding on the grubs. Yes, the rats spilled food - a lot of it. Well, rats thrive on clutter, and that was what I was there to fix!

OMG! Clutter!

Clearly, there was some work to be done.

The HBIC was busy elsewhere (so busy I didn't realize until much later she was even at the farm), and it was a pleasnt day - a break in the recent rains, so I turned to and cleared the shed, tossing away what needed to be tossed, salvaging what I could, and reorganizing as I went. Sadly, a lot of food had been spoilt - hidden behind the clutter, the rats had been at it until the bags were sieves, and food once contained therein was thoroughly spoiled by rat feces and urine. Also hidden were cans of wet food that had become compromised - some had literally exploded, spraying high-velocity food into the damnest places.

Food - and money - literally down a rat-hole...

Unsalvageable - rats urinate and defecate all over what they eat, leaving it dangerous to eat by most any other animal.

One of the resident rescuees - Mickey, perhaps? - was there to supervise in the HBIC's abscence. Such a well-mannered guy! He was constantly nearby, but mostly not directly underfoot. He obeyed so well, and stayed out of the shed, even when clearly perplexed by what I was doing with that mound of spoilt food. He's going to make someone a wonderful companion - I hope he finds a home soon! If I'd so much as an inch of spare space at home, I'd take him in, in a heartbeat! Even knowing my wife would smack me a hard one (and correctly so). He's that good a dog.

Whatcha doing ..?
Da man supervises as I get down to some serious organizing.

Anyway, to make short of the tale, things much improved now, with room to move around and places to put everything. What could be slavaged was, and the rest disposed of. I'm not done - more work needed, but there's only so much time in a day. I'll be back to The Farm again soon, to finish up in the feed shed, and do more catching up on those things that have gone by the wayside in these tight times. At least now, all the food can be seen, and reached. There's space, too, for more feed to be brought in, and the rat holes can be blocked - Something more perminant will be needed, but for now the food is safe.


Space to work now - And to actually store food.

Think about your charities and causes. Times are hard, and money is in short supply, but if you can spare a few hours, that may be worth far more than money. Not every task needs a speciallst - sometimes, all that's needed is a willing pair of hands. Look about, and see if there's a place you can put your hands on the cart, and give it a push.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Simple pleasures...

Dawn is yet to color the sky, nor even a hint of twilight yet shows. The grass crackles crisply under my feet... Frost is hard upon the ground, and early hints of winter's chill sting tease at my nostrils.

Moans and grunts and sighs... eight paws flail frantically in the still morning air. Suka and Dakota roll in orgiastic delight, back-scratching on the frosted lawn. The distant city glow, dimly cloud-reflected, reveals flashes of teeth and gleams of eye, but their ecstatic wriggling is defined more by hint and occlusion than by sight.

My morning is complete.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Why I love my dogs (and cats)

Not the only reason, mind you. Not even remotely. But still a big one; they keep me sane.

It's Saturday evening. I'm at work. Probably until midnight. I'll be at work tomorrow, too. I should be working this very instant, as a matter of fact, but my eyes have gone cross-ways, and I can't see clearly to do what I need to do. So I'll post here, and get a soda, and visit the head, and then stick my shoulder back to the wheel.

I've Quality-Control checked nearly ten thousand pages of clinical data today - I've another nearly seven thousand to go before I'm done today. Tomorrow will be the same, I'm sure. Nor am I alone - The boss is in, and so are many of my cow-orkers. By the time I'm done, my brain will be fried.

But when I get home, the dogs will not care. Suka will be flying about shoulder high, as she always does when I come home - no matter how long I've been gone. Dakota will wheel and prance and moan with delight, as she always does. They will make demands - Attention, a trip to the back yard, more attention. But these demands never ease, never increase - These are demands of love and they are constant. The document awaiting my attention does not love me, nor do I love it. When I get home, the dogs will make their demands, and will force me to push this never-to-be-sufficiently damned document out of my head. I will be home, and work will be sent back to where it belongs, out of mind until I actually need to face it again. Just me, and the dogs. No time, no plans, no meetings; just us doing what needs to be done in the time it takes to do it. Like no one else, Suka and Dakota can take me out of my head and pull me into the now.

Max and Tuxedo, too, will make their presence felt. Not quite as in-your-face as the girls, but every bit as insistent and relentless in their own rights. Max will creak his way to where I sit, and painfully climb to his throne of power (that being wherever he choses to plant his massive, muscular butt), and casually demand his due - a back scratch. He'll reward loyal rendition of his due with purrs and the random head-butt, and maybe a lick or two. Attending to his imperial demands is a kind of command performance zen - you must sit, and you must scritch, and you must do it until His Imperial Majesty is satisfied you've done it properly, else... The PAW! IOW, there's no end in sight until you've reached the end. Tux is less blunt, but every bit as pushy in his way. He will climb on my shoulder and purr and poke his claws into my beard, try to steal anything I have that is even remotely edible, and will sit or strop his back on anything I'm holding. At least, until I literally knock him on his side and give him a quick and vigorous whole-body rub.

But as demanding as the cats are, they too take me out of my day, and bring me mentally home, to rejoin my body already there present.

Dogs alone might not be enough. Cats alone, certainly not enough. But together, they consipire to return me to my refuge of relaxation and recuperation. Whilst they are there, work may not trouble me - I'm too busy taking care of the immediate, and being loved. I bet this document wishes it had pets. :-p

Monday, October 5, 2009

Barrier aggression, barking, and a few other things

OK, so I was asked about fence running...

Fence running, or 'barrier aggression,' is an aggressive, territorial behavior, often born out of frustration. Basically, a dog tries to get to something they want - A kid they wish to greet, another dog they want to meet or play with or chase off, a stranger they want to confront, etc. - and they find a barrier in the way. So they run along the barrier, frustrated. The longer the temptation is present, the more frustrated they get. Emotional energy starts getting stored up as the dog races back and forth, and the adrenalin starts to flow. Barking, anxiety, hostility, redireted aggression (attacking something - like a fellow pack member - that they can reach, on their side of the fence) can all follow. It very quickly becomes a habit, and can be very hard to break. Barrier aggression can lead to some seriously nasty dog fights - I've seen dogs trying to kill one another through a chainlink fence - and nearly succeed! It can lead to people getting bitten, if the dog ever manages to get past the barrier. If nothing else, it's also annoying as all hell.

The ONLY way I know to reliably stop fence running is to step on it, hard, every time it happens. With Suka, that's easy enough - With me, she's got a rock-solid recall. So, when she starts up, I recall her, immediately. Lin cannot get that level of obedience from her, so Suka will fence run when Lin is around, and I am not - Until I stick my head out a window.

Now, Dakota is a dog less focused on me, and her recall isn't (yet) as solid as it should be - She's got a bit of teenage-style rebellion in her. Basically a very good dog, but inclined to try and get away with things, if she can. This means that even as I'm improving her recall, she'll try and blow me off at times when she thinks I can't see her, or can't intervene - So I go where she can't blow me off. Right in her path. Then she gets the message. But if I move out of the line, and she thinks maybe I've stopped watching, she'll be right back at it. So I'm still stepping on that behavior - And yeah, as the weather becomes cooler, that means I'm getting my barn coat and house boots on and standing out at the fenceline at 0500. She's getting it. Slowly, but she's getting it. I've had Suka some 14 months, and had plenty of time to settle her score. Dakota is a less responsive dog, and is still very new here - She'll come around.

Other forms of barking are also things you want to watch. You see, when a dog barks at something, there are a limited number of reasons - Play, excitement, warning, threat, call for help. Play barking is fine. Excitement barking isn't a real problem, if it isn't driving you out of your head from the noise - Suka's new-found excitement barking is like getting beaten in the head with a club covered in icepicks. Standard desensitization and behavior swapping generally works with this - Create the situation that leads to the barking, then don't provide the payoff! Swap in behaviors that are not objectionable that do provide the payoff!

Suka goes insane when I grab a lead. Until recently, that meant 'going for a walk or ride.' Now, I'll sometimes walk around the house all day with a lead in my hand, and even hang out near a door. But I never put the lead on her and take her out. Yes, I've had to put up with a lot of barking, but she's learning that 'lead' =! 'walk.' Now, with any obnxoius habit, there's a last minute frenzy of a particular behavior, called an 'extinction burst,' just before the habit is discarded. Suka's at that point right now, with regards to the lead. She's putting on one last furious display of barking when I grab the lead, hoping against hope that this time, she'll get to go for a walk. But all the yammering in the world will not get that door open. Silence, and a patient sit-stay, will. I've changed the 'go for a walk' behavior to require a quiet sit-stay at the door, and when she does that on command, she gets what she so desperately wants. If she starts yammering, I turn around and walk away. Very rapidly, her behavior is changing. Soon, the freakout derby at the door will be gone - I just need to stay the course.

By the way: If I were to yield, just once, I'd have to try ten times harder to stamp out the behavior again. NOTHING re-enforces a behavior like inconsistent rewards! This is one of the reasons fence running is hard to stamp out - The dog is faster than you are. You need to try as hard as you can to stop the behavior consistently. If this means you need to physically go out to the fence in the chill early hours, well, so be it.

Warning barking is fine - Until I respond. Then, I expect the dog to shut up and let me deal with it. When Suka or Dakota bark to warn me, my immediate response is to call them to me, and thank them. Once that's done, I expect them to hush. And I enforce it. I also check out the scene of the warning - Failure to do so can lead to more barking, and / or a shift to threat barking, if the dogs think I'm not doing my job as guardian. If I'm not doing my job as guardian, they will step forward and try to take the role; Letting that happen is a BIG no-no!

'Call for help' barking is when the dog is in trouble, or is facing something that scares them badly. You MUST respond to this! Failure will at the very least jeopardize your leadership status, or worse. Maybe disasterously worse. You'll recognize the change in tone - Like a child's cry, you'll know when it's serious, and when it's less so.

When a dog barks at an approaching stranger, they're warning at a minimum, and they may be threatening and / or calling for help, too. When the stranger passes on, the dog thinks "Ah-ha! I barked at the threat, and the threat went away! Mission accomplished!" Instant re-enforcement! When it happens again, well, that (in the dog's mind) is proof that the barking works. Now the mailman comes by, and walks Right. Up. To. The. House. The barking isn't working! So the dog barks louder, maybe spins around in frustration, bounces up and down a bit. The mailman moves on with his appointed rounds. The dog has now learned that truly obnoxious, over-the-top barking repells serious threats!

So, what do I do? I step up. I respond to the call for help. I relieve them at sentry, and require my dogs to take a subordinate role. I am the boss, the guard, the Alpha. When my dogs try to step in front of me to defend the territory, I stop them, and make damn sure they understand that I'm on the job. When my dog barks to warn me, I acknowledge the warning, and then tell her to stand down - I've got it now. "Thank you Dakota. That'll do. Good girl." If she doesn't stop, now she's disrespecting my authority. "Dakota. Come. Down. Stay."

Of course, I'm not a professional - I only play one at home. This is what I've learned from reading and talking to people I respect and from trial and error over time. There are most certainly people whom are much more sophisticated and scientific about this. Likewise, I live in an urban neighborhood - Things that I cannot tollerate because they disrupt the peace, might be much more acceptable or even desirable in more rural environments.

In general, I believe that "a tired dog is a good dog" but that can backfire on you - Teach a dog that every day they're going to get a lot of exercise, and then fail to provide it for a couple days, and you've got a potential problem on your hands! I keep my dogs exercised enough to keep them lean and fit, but I do it in differing ways. Sometimes, a nice walk on Main Street. Sometimes, a walk through a park, or the neighborhood. Sometimes, it's only in the back yard. Sometimes, it's in the house (usually when my wife isn't home!). Sometime, it's mental instead of physical - "hide and seek," "shell game," and obedience training all work a dog's mind well. Exercise alone will not produce all the behaviors you want, though, nor will it eliminate bad behaviors. For that, you need to train.

For a little relevent reading (I won't call it 'light!'), I suggest books by the Monks of New Skete, and Leslie McDevitt. Do a quick 'Google;' those names are easy to find on the 'web. There are many more books out there, but those are the ones I started with.