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November 18, 2013: Praise Dog

Praise dog, who comes when you call her.
Praise dog, who licks her bowl clean.
Praise dog, who when on walks, waves the white plume on her tail.
Praise dog, who sleeps on her bed when I write.
Praise dog, who now dreams of sheep when she sleeps.
Praise dog, who eats the crumbs off the floor.
Praise dog, who pees on command, outside. Not inside.
Praise dog, who give me something to talk about when I am at a loss for words.
Praise dog, for whom all blessings flow.

It’s gotten progressively colder outside. The temperature has now dropped below 0°F a few times. I’ve been dressing for it, again wearing The Suit, along with a wool hat, Steger Mukluks, and fleece gloves. I can now stay outside of 4-5 hours at a stretch.

The first thing I now do after writing is to get the dogs outside. Lately, I’ve also been working with Ryder on recalls. Last week, in class, Claudia gave us students a brief lecture on how to get our dogs to come, saying first that we need to up the treat ante, so that the dog has a reason for venturing back into our space. A few seconds later, she said to praise our dogs the minute they look in our direction or directly at us. (This, I understood to mean before the dog says fuck you and takes off.) Claudia also said that the dog in question also needs to be in sight. I understood this to mean that there is no sense repeatedly yelling for the dog that is on to other things because a dog onto better things is a dog onto better things. And there’s no sense getting one’s knickers in a twist because this will defeat your purpose, which is to have you be the dog’s better thing.

So the dog in sight comes (in my case when I crouch down). You are to then first grab the dog by the collar, and then give it a handful of the Very Good Treat. A dead, smelly something or other is probably best. I recently chose to go with second best, some Tillamook Cheddar Cheese.

I’ve learned (in reading up on the subject), that in studies on dogs and brain science, that praise activates the amygdala, the dog’s emotion center. This emotionally-based information is then relayed to the cerebral cortex, where the dog then decides to take action, in this case, approach the one doing the praising. Sure enough, the dog gets the treat. And the dog, thinking that there will be another treat, comes again.

I have learned from both Claudia and Patricia McDonnell, the author of For the Love of a Dog, to think in terms of positive reinforcement, in this and other instances. For example, today I got Ryder to come when, quite clearly, she wanted to continue to bark at the horses. (She was on the line near the pen.) This worked, in part because I upped the treat ante and gave her cheese. Cheese: it was (in her mind at least) a better reinforcer than was being allowed to chase Hrimmi.

I learned at the Icelandic Horse Farm that giving an animal a treat also relaxes them. What happens is that the process of chewing activates the limbic system, the same way praise does. Pete and I both saw this work with the horses on the day’s second outing. Pete had gotten off Signy, and handed me the reins. I was up on Tinni. He had to go and retrieve Jenna, who’d made it clear to us that she was done with being out, and had decided to go back home. Both Signy and Tinni had been energized by the good weather, and were antsy. So I gave them both a packer pellet. Both then stood quietly, chewing, while Pete got Jenna. Their being quiet also gave us time to regroup before again resuming riding. Of course, I praised all three horses (Hrimmi was also with us) and dog before we again took off.

Ryder is doing well because of our use of positive reinforcement. She now spends considerable time on her bed in the kitchen, sleeping or chewing on her antler. And she now knows what sit, stay, down, and come mean. All this (I think) is going to serve us all in good stead, because even simple commands are a necessary form of animal-human communication. And they will serve Ryder in good stead when she’s working sheep. This is because she’s going to both be able to take in, and act upon given directives. It would be unfair to hope that she might figure this out on her own, because after all, she is just a dog and not a god.

Next: 238: 11/19/13: Get ‘er Done, Part I