Thursday, August 22, 2013

Sing for Your Supper

There is a nursery rhyme about a little English lad that goes:

Little Tommy Tucker,
Sings for his supper.
What shall we give him?
White bread and butter.

Just like little Tommy Tucker in the nursery rhyme, 5-month Piper has started to sing for his supper. Well, not actually sing, but work for his supper, which is what little Tommy (an orphan) had to do in the England of yesteryear when unfortunate orphans often had to fend for themselves.


Master Piper is a puppy-and-a-half. If I could give him a Dickensian counterpart he would be a hybrid between Oliver Twist and the Artful Dodger. He is quick and smart and mostly sweet, but he does like to stay busy. As I have learned, if you don't give him constructive tasks to occupy the hours and his mind, he will find his own tasks - and they may not be to your liking. Tasks like bothering the cat or the more senior dog members of the family, or inspecting the counters in the kitchen, etc, etc. You get the idea.

One terrific way to diffuse some of that excess energy is prolonging Piper's mealtimes. Instead of releasing him to his food bowl, where he can polish off the contents in a couple minutes, I drag his meals out for a good 30 to 45 minutes. This is done in two ways:

This stuffable toy is called a Tux.

Part of his food I moisten with water or broth for about 3-5 minutes, then stuff into two Kongs and place in the freezer. The kibble isn't soft all the way thru, it's just wet and slightly soft enough on the outside that it sticks together when frozen. At mealtime I take out the Kongs, one at a time, and my lad Piper spends some quality time "singing for his supper", whether it is by licking or chewing or rolling or dropping the Kong on the floor. I can tell this Get-the-kibble-out-of-the-Kong game is very satisfying for him and a great way to expend some of his restless puppy energy. As an added benefit, because Piper is growing in his new set of teeth, the cold probably feels good on his gums.

Looking at the Kong photos above, it is interesting to note how many positions the dog gets into, how he grasps the Kong with his paws and the various ways he tries to manipulate the toy to get the chow out. He is totally engaged and working quite hard the entire time.

The leftover dry kibble I use to work young Master Piper thru some obedience. Right now we are working on good sits, with his back legs tucked directly under him, not flopped to one side (my lad can be rather a slouchy sitter). When Piper does it correctly, he gets a few kibble. Then I release him or make him settle, give him a few more kibble, ask him to sit again, give him more kibble, tell him to wait, release, give him more kibble, and so on till the kibble is gone. This can take about 5-7 minutes and really engages both Piper's brain and body.

The whole time Piper is "singing for his supper" he wears his Gentle Leader. He really does not like wearing the head halter, but all St Francis service dogs need to be accustomed to it. When he wears it while eating, the exercise serves a dual purpose. First, his mind is not on the Gentle Leader but on the chow so there is a positive association:  halter = chow = good! That is the idea anyway. Also it prolongs the amount of time he is wearing the Gentle Leader while not trying to rub it off - close to an hour.

Piper chews on a twig in a hay bale.

Some dog aficionados may think me a hard taskmaster, making poor little Piper sing for his supper. But I believe a higher drive puppy like Piper enjoys, actually needs, the challenge and interest of working for his meals. When the young master has finished the job he appears calm and relaxed. As they would say in jolly old England, "Well done, Piper, me lad!"

**Added to post 8-27-13:  I just realized that in the two weeks since Piper has started working for his meals, he has completely quit jumping on the furniture, going in my closet and stealing/chewing on shoes, chewing on the toilet brush in the bathroom (yuk!), bothering the cat as much, etc. In general his house manners have greatly improved. Coincidence? Maybe, but I don't think so.

Saturday, August 17, 2013

Patricia McConnell; Update on Dorian at Guide Dog U

Speakers Steve White and Patricia McConnell (rather blurry).
Last weekend I got to meet one of Dog-dom's greatest - Patricia McConnell - PhD and author of numerous books on canine behavior and training, including "The Other End of the Leash." She spoke for most of Saturday and I was totally riveted by her charm, wit and scientific knowledge based on dog and animal behavior research. The seminar was attended by a broad mix of dog trainers, shelter and rescue workers, pet owners and surprisingly, a few zookeepers!

The second day Steve White, a K-9 police officer of 25+ years and founder of Proactive K9 Dog Training, spoke on problem-solving. He was amazing as well. Patricia McConnell introduced him as the police officer "you want to have show up at your door." As he looked across the room of several 100 people, he remarked that the majority were women. Twenty years ago, he said, the room would have been full of men instead. His reasoning for the gender-shift is that there has been a fundamental shift in dog training from the use of power to control a dog, to the use of positive reinforcement instead. Interesting!

The seminar was a huge hit. I got three cherished books signed by Trisha, came home and immediately applied some of the principles I learned. In the midst of all the travels and the seminar, I also received Dorian's third training report. In mid-April he had gone back to the school at Southeastern Guide Dogs, Florida to start his final round of training. He has now been there four months and below is shown some of his recent progress.

First, a month ago I received his June training report (#2).
Dorian with SEGD trainer Joe Menendez.
Here are the school's comments:
COMMENTS- Dori is an exceptional dog; he is a quick learner and easy to handle. I hope he was as easy on leash for you as he is being for the trainer! He is still enjoying life with his buddies in the kennel, although he can get loud at times when he wants to get out training!  

I had to laugh at the trainer's remark about their hoping Dorian was easy on leash for me. Actually, my New Year's resolution when Dorian was almost one year old, was to get him to walk nice on a leash and quit repeatedly stopping and sniffing. The school trainers gave me suggestions on this, but it still took about six weeks of walking him every morning to work him through it. Still I am pleased to see the hard work has paid off!

Next, in mid-July, a group of puppies was called back to start their training, known at the school as In For Training Day. Touching pictures of the puppies saying good-bye to their raisers were posted on the school's Facebook page. In amongst the photos are two pictures of Dorian, and I was surprised to discover he was one of the dogs chosen from the training kennel to do blindfold walks with visitors and raisers.

The photo to the left shows Dorian doing a blindfold walk on July IFT Day. Dorian's trainer Joe is on the right. Dorian is guiding Paul Wilson of Wilson Van Band, who has done benefit concerts for Southeastern Guide Dogs. This photo and the one above were posted on the school's Facebook page.

 Finally, his recent training report (#3) for July included this comment from the school:
COMMENTS- Dori is now onto the freelance stage of training. He is still progressing well as we have hoped. As I said before he is a quick learner, and VERY easy to handle on leash! I look forward to pushing him to be the best guide he can be and try to keep him on his toes during training. 

I was not exactly sure what freelance training was, so I asked and got this answer back from the school:
 "Freelance" means they are not doing specified, protocol routes; Dori is learning to generalize his training to different areas. It's "trainer's choice" basically and it means that Dori understands the concepts well enough to take his training to different venues. :)   
So in other words Dorian has completed his basic guide dog training and is now working on refining and gaining more experience. It's up to the trainer where that training takes place and what he wants to work the dog on - a more individualized program, so to speak. 

Meanwhile, life goes on with Piper. This week we are working on good sits, where he tucks his butt in when he sits, keeping his front paws stationary, rather than rocking backwards. This is so he can stay in very close range to his future partner. He is a busy boy, so...I am busy too!

Summer hay fields in Virginia. From left:  Piper, Hazel and Wrangell. I love that I captured Wrangell's yawn!

Sunday, August 4, 2013

Of Puppies and Preschoolers

Piper the Ivy Gnome.
Preschoolers are fascinating creatures - and a little intimidating if you don't understand them. This past week I was thrown into a swimming pool of preschoolers. In other words I led a class of squirmy 3, 4 and 5 year olds at our church's Vacation Bible School. It was there I discovered that preschoolers and puppies have quite a bit in common.

Day One:  My two good helpers and I greet the kids in the preschool room. Like any good teacher, I am armed with a sheet of carefully prepared activities:  stories, crafts, songs and games meant to teach the little guys about God and His love for them. Within 10 minutes, no, five minutes, I throw my lesson plan away. Waist-high children mill and babble. One crying, a couple whining, some squealing, toys being dragged off shelves. Chaos, a teacher's mortal enemy, has reared its ugly head. This is not about teaching, I say to myself, this is about keeping miniature people from a pint-size riot. What was I thinking when I agreed to do this?

Inside me panic is rising. Until now my teaching has been limited to older children, teens, young adults, adults and...puppies. Wait a minute....puppies! Tiny little flash bulbs go off in my brain. Even as I watch the preschoolers I can recognize uncanny similarities between them and my puppies. Yes, I will approach the problem as a puppy raiser would, maybe it will solve this dilemma. Hmm, harnesses and leashes are out of the question. Too bad for that! 

Days One - Four:  These were the observations, skills and tools in my PR repertoire that I used to make our class of preschoolers roll along and keep our time together enjoyable:
  • Keep commands short and simple.  SIT and STAY (with a hand signal) work great on preschoolers.
  • Let them get their wiggles out.  Just like puppies, little people need to move and play.
Piper retrieves the Wubba on a long line.
  • Read facial expression and body language.  If a child's face is open, learning will happen. If her face is closed, she doesn't hear you and doesn't care. Dogs will show similar expressions.
    Piper's open expression means he's ready to listen and learn.
  • Blocking stops them in their tracks.  One little girl was getting ready to do a feet-first cowabunga onto a cardboard building. Without thinking I automatically blocked her, and saved the building. The same method works when Piper dives for dropped food.
  • Your focus has to be stronger than their focus.  If you want the kids (or puppy) to do something, you have to patiently keep at it and eventually they will do it. Later they will be glad they did! 
  • Though you can't use leashes, ropes work great.  To take the kiddies through the hall and downstairs to the snack area without scattering, we had them hold on to a long climbing rope with knots.
  • Short attention spans = short teaching sessions.  Obedience training puppies is all about this. 10 minutes is too long.
  • If a preschooler or puppy can't leave others alone, distance them.
  • A slow voice and slow movements help calm excited little guys.
  • Their vocabulary is very limited.  I spent the longest time getting the preschool group to form a line, only to realize later many of them didn't know what a "line" is! Remember these are PREschoolers. In the same light how many times have I repeatedly said a word or asked for an action my puppy didn't understand?
  • Reward good behavior instead of correcting bad.  When a child was quiet and listening I paid attention to them, let them go first, etc. The others pick up on this rewarding fast! When Piper stops barking, I tell him he's a good boy and keep telling him as he remains quiet.
  • Set boundaries and follow through.  Important rules (like no hitting) need to be enforced. Although I couldn't crate a child, one child did go in time out and another was sent to his parent/guardian. Crating is my last resort when Piper refuses to listen and gets rowdy.
  • Puppies and preschoolers like routines.  Routines are comfortable. I like them too!
  • The less distractions the better.  A room with no toys, a play field without other kids, a darkened room where each child has a tiny flashlight candle to bring them close together - all these helped. Puppies focus better in low-key environments too.
The preschoolers, my two great helpers and I all stayed VERY busy, had fun, and yes, we even did some learning. Some of you are probably wondering if I brought 4-month Piper along to the preschool room. Uh - no! If he had been older I would have tried, but Piper was a preschooler himself just a few short weeks ago. Mixing young puppies with preschoolers could have led to a Mt. St. Helens-type eruption. Instead Piper stayed home in his crate or was puppy sat and was all the better for it. But I am grateful that Piper and all my pups helped me unlock the door to that amazing stage in a kid's life - the preschool stage.
Visiting Ohio State University.