There is a dog version of Facebook. Probably anyone who has taken a dog on a potty walk can figure out where I’m going with this – Facebush. It’s a funny notion, but also one which is pretty amazing when you stop and think about it, which is exactly what I was doing last weekend… I was taking Packer for a walk and thinking about how dogs leave messages for each other. We were walking and suddenly Packer stopped – he got a message from his sister.
“Hey Packer, its Pierce. Just wanted you to know that I stopped by.”
“Cool,” nods Packer. “Good to know”.
Then we went a few more steps and Packer got another message.
“Packer, its. Pinto. I was looking for you. Last night I had the usual chicken kibble for dinner but I also had some cheese, drank some water, played with the tennis balls, and watched TV.”
“Ok, Bean. Got it,” responded Packer.
He looks at me. “Sisters!” As we continued walking, Packer seemed to be “logged in” to the dog social network in our neighborhood. He has only been to my neighborhood once before. I watch him look around and sniff. I am pretty sure that he recognizes the houses on our street but he also knows the smells. Then Packer stopped. He shoots out a message to our neighbor, Rosie, the Cocker Spaniel next door.
“Hey, Rosie. It’s Packer. Sorry I missed you on this visit. Catch you next time.”
Packer, Pierce, Rosie and Pinto are all on the same canine communication network. Without the advantage of the internet or cell phones, these dogs have managed to provide regular updates to each other – where they’ve been, who they’re with, what they’ve eaten.
They have managed to develop a pretty sophisticated way of communicating. So advanced, in fact, that it captures rich detail-who was there and when, whether they are friend or foe, and probably lots of other details received by their noses that we, as humans, can’t possibly even think about communicating without multiple media formats… let alone with one sniff. The dog can decide whether to “friend” someone and respond to their message, or just keep on walking.
Mark Zuckerberg claims he got the idea for Facebook while a student at Harvard. I think, perhaps, he got it when he was taking his dog for a walk. Dogs see a bush, they “post their message ” and it’s out on the dog version of a social bulletin board for all to see or, er, smell. Ok so maybe their network is not exactly like Facebook but theirs does have its advantages. You will never see embarrassing photos of Packer wearing a lampshade on his head at a St. Patrick’s Day party on Facebush. As for Facebook, well I think we know that is another matter all together.
We believe the best way to accomplish this is to create an atmosphere that provides the access to current knowledge and tools and encourages our staff and volunteers to continue their own personal development.
This year we have introduced Wednesday’s Lunch & Learn, a weekly opportunity to come together as a group and explore the many facets of the working dog.
Read how the Lunch & Learn has impacted trainer Julia Gentile.
“I am the trainer I am because of the mentors, gurus, and teachers that shaped my skill, and by the grace of the dogs in my life. The Working Dog Center is the launch pad for it all. It is as if somebody whispered an operant conditioning secret in my ear and granted me superpowers. Having natural skill and engagement with an animal will only get me so far, I needed the science. And it’s the science that makes it feel like magic.
As I learn dog theory and practice techniques, my “what I know for sure box” becomes smaller.
Thus far, I can include:
At times, dog training consumes me. I spend hours buried in books, observing animals, and asking questions. A question which stands unanswered most often for me, is where do emotion, behavior, and cognition converge?
A behavior that confounds me is the “out of sight down stay”. I have taught dogs to heel backwards, climb multiple ladders, search with vigor, and recall from a steak, but I cannot get a reliable down stay. Until I joined the WDC’s Wednesday’s Lunch & Learn. While I have the principles of positive reinforcement etched in my soul, I was doing it wrong. During the Lunch & Learn we watched a video where Dr. Sophia Yin use fixed interval reinforcement to calm fearful dogs, and change the emotion of behavior. Previously, I had rewarded and released by the incremental increase of behavior. For instance, the dog stays for 10 seconds, I return, release, and reward. Next step, 15 seconds. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat. This method left me without long term success, and my dog broke the stay without any predictability, sometimes at 4 minutes, others at 37 seconds. After watching the video, and discussing our observations, it dawned on me that I was using fixed and varied ratios based on behavior instead of behavior. Reward as a function of time, instead of as a function of behavior, especially for a dog which finds it almost impossible to remain still with their belly on the floor, let alone when emotion takes over and their human has disappeared. I can change the involuntary emotional response to the behavior through fixed interval reinforcement! What a difference it has made, even for our most stay challenged pups.
The profound, lasting change in my own behavior and understanding based on the experience of Wednesday’s Lunch & Learns fuels my brain. It’s those moments of joy due to unexpected results that create my brain high. None of which I would get without an open forum for learning. A free one, granted to me via my proximity to WDC Director Dr. Cindy Otto, Training Director Annemarie DeAngelo, and Training Manager Pat Kaynaroglu. The notion that all the humans are welcome to join, ask questions, share thoughts, and even make mistakes freely is one I do not take for granted. I know that when I can see it, hear it, touch it, and try it, I learn best. I am grateful for the opportunity to learn from great humans, give it a try, maybe get it wrong a few times, and then be rewarded handsomely when I get it right with delight and mutual respect.”]]>
We wish Logan, Quest, Felony, Pinto, Pacy, and Jake the best in their future careers.]]>
Recently the American Heart Association started a campaign called, “Know Your Numbers”. According to the AHA, knowing a few key numbers will help us figure out if we are developing risk factors that are associated with diseases like type 2 diabetes and some cardiovascular diseases. A few of those key numbers include blood sugar, blood pressure, cholesterol and body weight. A simple concept – know your numbers, know your health. The Working Dog Center wanted to know our numbers to assess our health but we weren’t taking a blood test. We were measuring something else equally important – the amount of support we get from volunteers. For a non-profit organization, volunteer support is a key indicator of health. Of course, unlike blood pressure and body weight, where lower is better, volunteer support needs to be high. After pouring through sign in sheets and spreadsheet trackers, we were astounded to learn our number… our volunteers have put in over 18,700 hours!
We would not be able to run our Center without the support of volunteers. This year, volunteers have done everything from taking our dogs on potty walks to escorting the dogs on their first helicopter ride. Everywhere we go – Home Depot, SEPTA subway, Pet Hotel Pool, Lithicum rubble pile and trips to the farm, we always need multiple volunteers to assist the training staff. Volunteers pass out lunches, sweep the floor, hide in barrels and paint agility equipment. They open their homes to the dogs as backup fosters for our foster parents when they have to go out of town. It is a constant source of inspiration to our staff that we have such dedicated volunteers, who will go anywhere and do anything to support the mission of the Working Dog Center. So we really have to say – we have the best volunteers ever!
Yes, 18,700 is our number. It’s a good one and we know it.
Did you ever pass by some good street art and wonder who drew it? One of the more famous British street artists goes by the name of Banksy. Although his works show up in public spaces, many experts in the art world do not considered it graffiti. The images Banksy paints are technically refined and have a point of view that is a social commentary on the specific location where the art appears. Critically acclaimed and a trend setter, Banksy’s works have sold for hundreds of thousands of dollars. But the genre of street art is both intensely public and intensely private. The artist tags walls that are as visible to as many people as possible. Often the goal can be to get people to stop and think about what is happening at that moment at that location. But as public as the art is, often the artist is unknown by the majority of people who are viewing the work. Other than his agent and probably some friends, no one knows the true identity of Banksy. Think about it – there could be a great artist in your midst and you would not even know about it.
Not to be outdone by the London street scene, the Working Dog Center has its own Banksy. Sometime in the fall, beautifully hand-drawn pictures of the Center’s dogs started showing up on our white boards, where trainers mark which activity each dog did that day. Next to Sirius’s name was a drawing of Sirius, artistically done with dry-erase marker. Then I came in right before Halloween and saw that our plain little pumpkin bore the image of a running dog. On the dry-erase board outside of Rookie’s crate, was a perfect replica of Rookie. Our secret artist was becoming more bold and the images were increasingly more detailed. And just this past week, several of the dogs had portraits done in charcoal, hanging on their individual update boards. I have an inkling who our Banksy is, but I won’t tell. It is more fun to embrace the element of surprise. And I thank our local Banksy for sharing her (or maybe his?) talents with us. Now, if we could only get one of those sketches to sell for thousands of dollars…
Last night most of the country was suffering from the effects of a polar vortex. The daytime temperature in Philadelphia did not get above freezing. But, surprisingly enough, I was going swimming. That is, me and a few pups. Last night was the night we decided to check out a local pet hotel that happens to have a swimming pool for dogs. Our trip was part exposure to new environments, part good exercise and part dog happiness.
Since none of us had been to this pet hotel before, it was going to be a novel experience for both the dogs and the people who were going. So we loaded up a few cars with some dogs, some trainers and some foster parents. It sounded like a good plan – 6 dogs, 2 trainers, 1 vet student, 8 foster parents and 1 sherpa (me) carrying an armload of beach towels. We had a good 2 people per dog ratio.
The pool was bigger than some human hotel pools and heated, happily, to 75 degrees. Although the pool was covered, the dome was not heated. The steam rising off the warm water and hitting the cool air, combined with some dim lighting, gave the room a spooky feeling. I wondered how the dogs would react to what could look a bit like walking into a patch of dense fog.
To be easy on ourselves, we started with one of the older dogs, who was a seasoned swimmer – Jesse P. Jesse P + water = happier than a pig in mud. Jesse entered the water using the ramp exactly once. After that – it was all running dives, fling through the air, paws outstretched, doing big belly flops. He reminded me of a teenaged boy trying to make the biggest splash possible to soak the most number of bystanders. Jesse also had a keen sense of who was “on land” trying to stay dry and inevitably stood next to that person to do his doggie body-shake-to-remove-excess-water-from-fur.
Three of Zzisa’s lab pups were next. Several had not been swimming before. A couple needed a little tennis ball encouragement, but all were soon swimming happily across the pool. The star of the show among the pups was Pierce. This little girl was a let your ears fly, no holds barred swimming machine! She even went so far as to push her fellow little mates off the ramp if they were moving too slow for her. Not very lady-like but she was determined to jump into the pool as many times as her little legs would carry her. I think there’s a future for her with the Coast Guard or perhaps the Navy?
When Trainer Pat called the end to swim time, it was an all hands on deck effort to keep the dogs, once out, from jumping back into the pool. Note to self – dogs are slippery when wet. So about 14 wet beach towels later, we were all dried off. Happy and tired, the crew drove home with the car heaters blasting. Take that polar vortex.
I have two sisters and although we have quite divergent opinions about almost everything, one thing we do agree on – we love to have our hair brushed. I don’t think you even have to have long hair to appreciate the sensations of hair brushing. It is soothing and tingly at the same time, a very relaxing experience. I would be hard pressed to find another G-rated activity that makes you say, “Ahhh”. And so I assumed this view point would hold true for everyone, at least for those who have hair, especially true if you have a lot of hair and quite possibly so if you have a lot of fur. But, as I learned, this is not the case.
Enter Quest. Quest is an exceptional, 11 month old German Shepherd. He is exceptional in every way… down to his fur. It’s beautiful and there is a lot of it. As it turned out, Quest, like a lot of teenaged boys, did not see the value in brushing one’s hair. Sometimes you can just tell by looking at a dog’s expression what they are thinking. And when brushing Quest, you could tell he was thinking, “Is this really necessary?”
With so much fur, regular hair brushings are inevitable. Over the summer, Quest learned to love the hair brush. First he was just treated for even looking at the brush. Then he was treated for touching the back of the brush with his nose. Next, a treat for letting the back of the brush touch his shoulder. Step by step, inch by inch, tuft by tuft. Slowly he was learning to like the brush. Over a couple of days this process was repeated until he worked up to a full brushing.
It was amazing to me to watch the trainers shape his behavior, from being tolerant and to outright enjoyment, from “Nah” to “Ahhh”.
Photo of Lorenzo Ramirez, WDCPostdoctoral Fellow, with Dargo, also learning to say “Ahhh”.]]>
Bretagne – Diabetes Alert
Morgan – Narcotics Detection
Thunder – Urban Search & Rescue)
Zzisa – Explosives Detection
CBS 3 Philly was on hand for the celebration.]]>
If you are a parent, you know how difficult it is to find a good babysitter. Make that, find ANY babysitter. For some reason, there never seems to be an available teenager, responsible or otherwise, when you need one.
Once, when my son was about two, we placed an ad for a sitter in the local church bulletin. A seemingly responsible 17 year old boy answered the ad and we decided to give him a try. We came home to find half of the glass halogen light fixture, which hung over our kitchen table, broken and on the floor; shards of glass strewn about and a dent in the kitchen wall. The babysitter was outside, with my son, talking to his girlfriend on his cell phone.
When asked about why half of our light was on the floor, where my two-year toddler could easily get to it, the sitter was unapologetic. “Oh yeah! He wanted to play with the light so I let him hit it. He was really entertained by it.” Needless to say, that was the end of that sitter. Through the next few years we patched together a network of friends until we found a neighborhood babysitting co-op.
My experience as a parent finding a babysitter has given me a great appreciation for the work done at the Center by Lindsey Hagan. Lindsey’s job is to find back up fosters (i.e. pet sitters) for our regular foster families when they go places and can’t take our dogs with them. Lindsey has gotten to know everyone’s family and everyone’s dog and all of the particular needs of each. No small feat with over twenty dogs. “This dog doesn’t like cats. This dog needs a big yard to run.” She treats each of our dogs like they are her own children for whom she needs a babysitter. She has recruited, interviewed and approved a small army of back up fosters, knowing each of their personalities and home situations and who to match up with who. Lindsey has been the person to arrange … the perfect sit.
Unfortunately today, we have to wave good-bye to Lindsey. She is moving out of the area and onto the next phase of her life. We wish you the best of luck, Lindsey. More importantly, we wish you a wealth of good pet sitters and babysitters if ever you should need them.]]>