Friday, March 27, 2009

Velociraptor: Teenage Confusion

If I work on my laptop upstairs in the mornings, my eye is constantly being drawn to the west-facing window as chickens and guineas walk by, flap around, scratch for bugs, and discuss their interpersonal issues on the front lawn.

Isn't that what lawns are for?

Later in the day they generally move further afield. I suspect they are hunting for earthworms in the more closely mowed lawn area. The first time I saw a hen pull one out, just like a robin does, I was quite surprised. Didn't know they did that. Once the sun is well up, the worms go below and the chooks go looking for other things to eat.

This morning the fog was so thick in our little cleft that, despite the dogs' early patrols, I didn't let the birds out until about 9. Was aware of the usual activity in my peripheral vision as I returned email, then did a quick whiplash when this walked by:

It was still quite foggy, so the picture quality (even with electronic enhancements) is not great.

He's a young jake, and he was checking out the two hen guineas. By the time I ran downstairs, got the camera, ran back up and threatened the dogs with lifelong enrollment at a PetsMart clicker class if they didn't keep their gobs shut, the hens had moved off a little, possibly having concluded that the New Guy was a boring geek.

But my largest guinea cock had not:

The guinea is mostly feathers, and is fluffed up in a threat display. The jake, though not a big turkey, is probably three or four times his body mass. The guinea is no older than, and probably several months younger than, the jake.

Nevertheless ...

A little mean guy on his home turf can trump a lot of muscle.

I can't wait to see what transpires as breeding season approaches for both species.

Not to mention, what happens when we get our domestic heritage-breed turkeys in.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Extreme Poultry Cuteness II: Mountain To Muhammed

It's too cold and wet for the duckies to play outside in the just-greening-up lawn.

But I believe in exposing them to natural forage as early as possible.

So since Muhammed could not come to the mountain ...

Two big spadefuls of just-sprouting hayfield sod -- grass, weeds, worms, the works -- makes a very fine ducky snak-pak and play structure.

A fine place from which to proclaim unto the heavens.

Or thoughtfully contemplate the Nature of Life and Orchardgrass.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Poultry Population: Extreme Cuteness Warning

Twenty-one Khaki Campbell ducks came from JM Hatchery this morning.

The photos do not do justice to their tiny adorableness. They look kind of shaggy in the photos, when in fact they are velvety-perfect in person.

After a bit of drama over missing car keys, they are safe at home. Everyone came out the box vigorous and cheeping -- and very thirsty!

They scarfed up water with a little sugar in it, and then set to work spreading mess.

Their job here, aside from laying eggs and keeping up with the water weeds, will be to work as stockdog training assistants. Ducks flock well, move relatively slowly, and do not fly as readily as other poultry, so they are often used to train young dogs. Khakis are a popular breed for dog trainers.

People who have never raised poultry are amazed that one can order chicks (and ducks and geese ...) through the mail.

This only works with day-old hatchlings of precocial fowl. These guys hatch out with a couple days supply of food from the egg yolk already stored in their bellies. They are designed to go 72 hours without eating or drinking.

Domestic poultry are almost all precocial birds; I think the only exception is pigeons. Altricial young are much more difficult to raise without their parents.

When a momma bird is hatching her clutch, this allows her to stay on the nest with the first hatchlings until the late-hatchers are all out and dry and ready to roll. Humans have exploited this window of self-sufficiency via the postal service. It's a much surer thing to ship day-old hatchlings, which are fairly sturdy little beasts, rather than eggs for the buyer to incubate. The postmaster keeps the box in the warm office, and calls you to come pick them up. These guys got here in less than 24 hours because the hatchery is not terribly far.

The chicks need to keep warm, so there is a minimum order so they can huddle. I ordered the minimum twenty duckies; #21 is an extra tossed in for mortality insurance.

It's normal to expect some mortality in the first couple days after hatching, whether the chicks are raised by the hen who brooded them, or boxed up and sent several hundred miles. Hatching is hard work, and not everybody recovers. Birds lay more eggs than they can typically raise to fledging.

I don't need this many ducks, so after I grow them out some, I'll sell or trade the extras.

Since I don't have a broody hen volunteer at the moment, I'm brooding the ducklings artificially, with a heat lamp:

They have room to get away from or into the heat, food and water, and the cardboard is a shield against drafts. The towels are down until they figure out the difference between food/not food. When they are all eating starter crumble well, I'll swap the towels out for wood shavings.

They grow shockingly fast, and will be making a (bigger) mess of our pond area before summer. We can't let them swim until they are feathered out. Ducklings who are artificially brooded, or raised by a chicken momma, don't get the feather oil from a duck mama that allows them to avoid chilling when they get wet.

I'm converting an old pumphouse for their ultimate housing. It has a stone foundation, and we'll be adding higher walls and a new roof.

Friday, March 20, 2009

Puppy Laundering

Best Friends Animal Sanctuary: Fatuous or calculating?

In an earlier post, I discussed the case of the inconvenient Katrina pit bulls that "went away" when BF paid a criminal posing as a dog trainer to tell them what their donors wanted to hear.

One of Don Chambers' ethical lapses was breeding "designer" mongrels and then offering them for adoption sale on Petfinder -- which makes a good faith effort to ensure that only legitimate shelters and rescues get listings.

Now Best Friends is back at it, endorsing the same scheme in its storefront manifestation.

Seems they've been picketing pet stores that sell puppies in Los Angeles, with the goal of shutting them down or persuading them to stop selling puppies. Well hoo-feckin-ray! A fine idea. Go to it. Drive 'em all out of business. A pet store is no place to buy a puppy, and a goal of everyone who cares about animal welfare should be to make the dealers for the puppymill industry dry up and blow away. Right?

From Best Friends' own press release:

Best Friends has been hard at work to find an alternative, and collaborated with Woof Worx (formerly Pets of Bel Air) on the idea to sell wonderful, healthy, purebred puppies that come from local shelters. For a mere fraction of what it would cost at a traditional pet store, people can adopt one (or more) of these dogs, support a business that’s doing the right thing, and save a life

We are meant to believe that this is a transparent account of a viable business model.

That in Los Angeles, there are so many "wonderful, healthy, purebred puppies" stacked in bulging cages at the shelters, that it is not only okay, but commendable, for a chichi for-profit pet store to somehow acquire them and sell them in its storefront?

Puppies mind you. Purebred puppies.

And we know they are wonderful and healthy how ...?

The usual way to verify the wonderfulness and health of a purebred puppy is to visit the home of the puppy's doting breeder, and meet her vigorous and exemplary parents.

Pups acquired from shelters are typically mixed breed, may not be in the best of health vis-a-vis parasites, nutrition, and infectious disease (almost all stuff that can be fixed, most of the time) and are much more of a gamble in terms of their potential for whatever wonderfulness the owner requires. All of which is fine, and no reason most people who are looking for a buddy and family pet can't get a great one at a shelter and justifiably feel that they are performing a mitzvah by doing so.

So where are these shelter-refugee purebred puppies coming from?

Are they individuals cherry-picked from shelter populations, hooked out of the adoption pool, declared "purebred," then marked up for sale?

Will a campaign of humane raids (and "humane" raids) on breeders provide a supply of puppies for sale?

Or are the "shelters" something else entirely -- maybe a breeder puppymiller who calls him or herself a "rescue?"

From the consumer's self-interested standpoint, doesn't matter. Any pups that end up in the "indoor dog park" at this boutique will have come from puppymills -- they'll have all the deficiencies of the same pup sold at Petland, plus maybe more time in a stressful, disease-ridden kennel environment.

Puppymill puppies go in one end, come out the other as politically correct "rescue."

Puppy laundering.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Jenna's Brain

So, our friends Laura and Douglas have this dog.

No, not Laura's CARDA mission-ready SAR dog. (Moe's half-uncle, as it happens.)

Not Douglas' top-ranked schutzhund dog.

The other one.

Cute, huh?

Jenna is an alumna of NESR. She's now nearly eleven years old, which is not all that old for an English shepherd, and was about two when they adopted her. She's their oldest dog, and also the one with seniority. The two working dogs came later, and were both acquired from good breeders as young puppies.

Jenna is, well ... not the brightest bulb on the ES family tree.

In and of itself, comparing unfavorably to a bag o' hammers in the ganglia department is not a deficiency when your job requirements are "family pet." I had a cat for seventeen years who was frightfully dim -- but also calm, good-natured, fearless and kind-hearted. He was a tremendous pet. Not clever enough to get into much trouble, and got along with everyone. No, that's not the problem.

In addition to not learning very well or retaining what she does manage to learn, Jenna is somewhat neurotic crazy as a sack of squirrels. A lot of things scare her a little bit. When she's a little bit scared, she commences barking. Loud, witless, pointless, can't-be-reasoned-with barking. The fact that she now hears barking is incontrovertible evidence that the scary thing is a terrible threat. What to do, what to do ... I know! Bark!

Jenna-logic in action.

Laura and Douglas had Jenna for a two years before she stopped machine-gun barking at Douglas at random intervals when he entered a room where she was, stood up, or otherwise ceased being a nonentity.

They are both pretty darned accomplished trainers; nothing they tried -- and this is one case where everything is a roughly accurate descriptor of what they tried -- had any effect on Jenna's outbursts.

I went to visit Laura and Douglas in 2004 -- we live on opposite ends of the country -- and got a disclaimer. Jenna will bark at you every time she sees you, even if you just leave the room and come back 30 seconds later, and she'll keep barking for several minutes every time.

And that was exactly what happened. For a week, I was a new and frightening ogre every time Jenna saw me or I moved around. And I don't think she approached me for attention once, though she is not an unsocial dog.

Jenna is not in any way dangerous. She wouldn't bite anyone. But she won't shut up and sit down, either. She is reactive, and her reactivity persists.

It does get wearisome. Pip had come with me to California, and she started to get pretty impatient about Jenna mouthing off at her Momma. Pip does not suffer fools.

As trying as Jenna's hysterics are for her owners, for their friends, for delivery persons, for the other dogs -- imagine how trying it is to be Jenna. The brain spins, starts the bark, and then the bark powers the continued whirling of the brain. A feedback loop. No way to live.

A year later I came back. This time I had Pip, and Mel, and Ken. Who is a Dude, therefore the sort of terrifying human that Jenna absolutely knows will most likely kill her in the morning.

We pulled into the driveway, the whole freakin' entourage. Rikki and Laura were outside. Inside the house (the door was open), Jenna commenced her signature hysterics.

Laura told her to be quiet in a normal tone of voice, pressed a button on a hand-held remote, and held it for a few seconds.

All was quiet.

That was the first miracle. Stopped the maladaptive, neurotic conduct before it got started. No more five minute barking jags.

A few minutes later, the second miracle. Jenna came outside and greeted us. Like a normal dog.

I should have been completely mystified, awestruck, well and truly smacked in the gob.

But as pleased and genuinely impressed as I was, I wasn't shocked. I'd seen the Magic Dog Brain work before. Laura and I had each been doing some experimenting with a new(ish) technology, and more or less independently discovered its unlooked-for power in the year between visits.

The gizmo is an electronic dog training collar that includes a "pager" feature.

Instead of (actually, in addition to) providing a light tickling electric stimulation -- or an eye-popping static shock at high levels -- the collar can be made to vibrate, much like a cell phone that is silenced.

It is not in any way painful or even unpleasant.

The collar manufacturers had incorporated this feature as a "neutral stimulus" -- one that the trainer could use for a variety of purposes, including a silent recall from a distance, a silent "look back" signal, a conditioned reinforcer or reward signal, or any command or commands one chose to attach to the sensation or different patterned sensations.

The collars are a godsend for the training and safe management of deaf dogs.

But here's the mystery. The vibration, which is neither painful nor pleasant, is emphatically not neutral when experienced by a dog in a non-neutral context.

What this means in practical terms is that the vibration is an astonishingly effective way of interrupting negative social behavior without also aborting the entire interaction.

Because the vibration is very intrusive, but never painful, it seems to get through to dogs who have lost their wits (to an extent, see below) without risking a strong negative reaction from the dog, as can happen at the level of a conventional electronic collar needed to overcome an excited dog's internal noise.

In other words, crank an electronic collar high enough to get the attention of a dog who is already over the top in some way, you run the risk of scaring the bejimmies out of him, or eliciting an aggressive reaction, or escalating aggression that is merely incipient. Or the dog's surprised yip, twitch, or jump may cause an untoward reaction in other dogs near him. Use the collar at the low "tickling" levels that can be so useful for teaching a dog who has his faculties, and a dog who is already pumping adrenaline simply cannot feel it. (I don't mean that metaphorically; I believe that the excited mind and primed-for-action body are literally insensate to such a small touch.)

While Laura and Douglas had been reprogramming Jenna, I'd been exploring the use of the buzzer as social inhibitor with my teammate Craig, who had been frustrated by his young SAR dog's incipient jackass behavior at both team training and in the park. Friday would appear to be soliciting a senior dog with "active submission" -- lots of chop licking and "groveling." What she was really doing was relentlessly provoking the higher-ranked animal, and searching out weaknesses for later or immediate reference. Social climbing aggression with what she imagined was plausible deniability.

The short version is, it worked. Friday did not stop being a social climber (later, when she matured and her social environment changed, she fell very smoothly into an alpha bitch/enforcer role), but she stopped being a pill. Craig used the collar for a number of months to remind her when she was starting to posture, allowing her to mature past this phase of adolescent testing without developing bad habits or getting into fights.

Over the next year, I started using the buzzer function of the collar on a number of dogs who were displaying social misbehavior, including mild aggression, territorial displays, neurotic learned "fear" behavior.

And so did a bunch of other trainers. Stories started coming in of similar results with this "neutral" stimulus that is not neutral, that is very disrupting to the dog who is misbehaving socially, that has almost no nuance (one cannot adjust the level of vibration on most collars, in contrast to the very nuanced adjustments one can make on a high-end collar's "shock" or electrical stimulus), that has no basis in natural canine behavior, no inherent "meaning" to a dog, yet seems to acquire meaning from the situation and the dog's own intentions.

I do not know why it works. I don't even have a developed speculation about why it works. It doesn't fit anyone's "quadrants," and it doesn't work quite the same as a conventional trainer's correction, either. I do know that it works a lot of the time, on a lot of dogs, for a lot of troublesome social habits and experiments that proved impossible to correct by other means.

When does it work?

• On about 80% of the dogs I've tried it on.

• Best on dogs of "sensitive" and reactive breeds that are not physically stoic -- such as herding breeds. Less well or not at all on "bully" types, hounds, and Labradorks. But mileage varies, and the individual temperament is, as always, more important than the breed.

• For social misbehavior such as territorial/defensive barking, pushiness, posturing with other dogs. This includes canine experiments with "fear" and "aggression" that are not really either of those things -- yet.

• When deployed with proper timing for both initiation and duration. No tool or technique works if the trainer doesn't have reasonable timing. The buzzer should reach the dog at the very beginning of whatever action it is the trainer wants to stop. The trainer must be able to distinguish the need for a brief tap vs. several seconds of buzzing.

When does it not work?

• On dogs that are truly terrified and/or truly committed to aggression. In the former case, the buzzing can trigger or exacerbate flight, and in the latter case, it appears to have no effect.

• When overused so it becomes part of the dog's background noise.

• For basic obedience. It does not work as a conventional "correction."

Now, about the definition of "work."

For Jenna -- genuinely reactive temperament, older dog with established habits, extremely poor learner -- the buzzer collar may prove to be a lifetime management device. While she may not need to wear it all the time, she will probably be using it in certain circumstances forever. And this is okay. It helps her to have a more normal life, and helps her owners enjoy her. It works.

For about a week, I used mine on Spike. Different case.

So, about Spike. He had a pretty rough start in life. May not have been handled at all for his first seven or eight weeks of life. Certainly never saw a new human. He was hungry, he was cold, he was parasitized. Then he spent a couple weeks living in a horse trailer. Then he was bounced around from overnight foster to foster to abortive adoptive home back to overnight foster to my place.

This is no way to raise a puppy. The result has been a pup who is hand-shy, shy of strangers, and has a learned response of witless hysterical barking at strangers -- and at Ken when he gets up and moves around or comes home. This is annoying now, and will be intolerable later. He is about 20% really scared and concerned, and about 80% experimenting with being a jerk.

Our goal here has been to show Spike that human beings are safe and very reliable, give him a routine, encourage boldness. Because he shows us in other ways that his basic genetic temperament is bold.

So I put the buzzer collar on him (I used a Dogtra 200 NCP for him; it's a reasonably priced model that is great for the little guys and works on the big guys too.)

Buzzed him when he barked at Ken.

Took a couple of days, but the barking essentially stopped. Yesterday I noticed him following Ken around outside while we did chores. He still believes, at times, that Ken will most likely eat him in the morning, but having given up the barking jags, he now has mental space to do something else. He even asked to come up into Ken's lap on the sofa yesterday.

Took him to SAR training. Spike has been coming to SAR training every weekend, for the socialization and to experience new places. (He likes new places, and new dogs. Not afraid of them at all.)

At this training, there were three new men he'd never met, plus other people in the park coming and going.

I buzzered him whenever he started a barking jag. This gave space for something else. By the end of the day, he was playing fetch with pine cones and his new buddies.

The buzzer collar has been off for a week now; no more barking jags. If he starts experimenting with barking again, or falls back to it under higher stresses, I'll put the collar back on and keep interrupting him. Maybe this will never happen. (Spike barks a lot for normal reasons too -- he's just a naturally vocal little guy. We don't correct the normal barking in play or when the other dogs are also barking, and we correct cheeky barking for attention or at the cat in ordinary ways. The buzzer is reserved for maladaptive social experiments in infant hysterics.)

In Spike's case -- good genetic temperament overlaid with no socialization and considerable traumatic disruption, caught very young -- the buzzer collar will likely prove a very short-term bridge tool. This also works. It's my favorite kind of works, because my highest goal is always a nekkid, sane, happy, trained dog.

In no case have I seen behavioral fallout from the buzzer collar, even in cases where it was not a satisfactory tool to implement a solution. Like nutraceuticals, it helps a lot of the time, and is apparently free of side-effects.

Blue Monday

Monday Updates:

Buffy the Orpington gave up on hatching eggs on Friday. She decided quite suddenly that she wanted nothing more to do with motherhood; none of the eggs appeared to be viable. I think it may have been too cold for her to incubate them. We'll try again if she goes broody later this year.

This left me with thirteen eggs that had been sitting under a warm chicken for two weeks.

I did not want to throw them in the regular trash. Pick-up day is Thursday.

I did not want to put them into my compost heap.

I did not want to dispose of them in the woods where the dogs would sneak off for a special treat.

But I did find a new groundhog hole last week.

They rolled down very nicely and disappeared from view and out of dog reach. I put about half in the front door and half in the back door.

If anyone is living there now, he has been served with his eviction notice.

* * *
Moe did not make the cut for the Bissell contest. Based on exit links, large numbers of this blog's readers did vote for him. I'm still puzzled about how, between this blog's readership, the kind help of other bloggers, volunteers in Montana, private email contacts, and over 700 members of the general English shepherd email list (there are other ES lists, but membership largely overlaps), Moe did not make the final cut.

I have no pressing need to see Moe's handsome puss on corporate packaging, and I don't need a new vacuum cleaner, but I'd hoped to raise some money for the Montana dogs. It's frustrating being here now, and unable to do much of anything.

* * *
Last week my buddy Bill and I did a full service on tractor-san -- replaced all fluids I hadn't already done, grease points, new filters, full cleanout. Sharpened the mower blades, cleaned and greased the mower, and installed the deck for the season. Spiffy.

I am now diligent about cleaning all air filters and screens and sweeping/blowing/vacuuming all chaff from the mower and tractor after every use.

Friday I somehow lost the lower right arm of the three-point hitch while clipping the hayfield and the field that was once planted in corn. Cannot find it out there.

Today the little bitch started to overheat, and I cannot figure out why. It has lost radiator fluid but I can't find a leak. I'd hoped to finish the clean-up clipping this week, before things start to grow.

* * *

On a happier note, young Spike the free-range foster puppy continues to do well. I'll post more on some of his training later this week. Mostly he's just learning to emulate the big dogs, and to trust human beings to be reliable and not eat him.

The last couple days he's whined in his crate in the morning, even after being let out for the morning pee. Turns out he wants to join everyone up on the big bed -- I've never allowed him up, but he sees the other guys enjoying the Good Life With Eiderdown.

He's still skinny, but is now passing away from the age of roly-poly puppy and into the skinny kid phase. His coat is shining up really nicely. He will never grow into his ears.

He's a neat pup, and I would like to see him in a secure position as a farm dog and best buddy

Sunday, March 8, 2009

Voting Ends Tuesday, March 10

Hypno-Toad says You will vote for Moe.

You will tell all your friends and family to vote for Moe.

You will spam all your co-workers and be fired from your job, but they will vote for Moe.

You will embed the vote for Moe button on every page of your website and blog.

You will do this no later than Tuesday, March 10.

All hail Hypno-Toad Moe.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Free Range

Spike, free-range foster puppy

Official Policy There Shall Be No Exceptions :

Puppy is never to be off a leash. Never to run free. Never to chase a stick into the ocean, run crazy Ivans through the park with a pack of homies, eat dust at the rear wheel of a mountain bike. Why, we don't even teach them to come when called, because this pup will never be far enough away to have anywhere to come from.

Puppy is too valuable to put him at such terrible risk, and anyway, running around without a leash will teach him incorrigible habits.

How The World Really Works, as candidly explained to me by the guy in charge of enforcing Official Policy There Shall Be No Exceptions:

The ones whose puppy-raisers don't ignore this edict never make guide dogs. If they don't run free as puppies, they invariably fail the training.

Now didn't that tidbit prick up my ears? Oh, do tell!

We were sitting in folding chairs at an undisclosed location, watching as an undisclosed teenage Labrador ran amok in a pack of undisclosed other dogs, dove into an undisclosed body of water, rolled in the undisclosed unspeakable, and got his undisclosed adolescent butt kicked by the adult males in the group.

My Informant -- hereafter "MI" -- a volunteer regional coordinator for Nameless Guide Dog School (NGDS), had repo'd the pup a week or so previous. A high-strung and increasingly distraught first-time puppy-raiser had complained of multiple serious behavior issues, and when these could not be resolved by giving her advice and some tutorials, the coordinator had taken the pup in to see if he could be salvaged.

Of course, once the pup was in his hands, he never saw any of these "behavior problems." They just melted away. Dissolved in the cold, clean depths of Undisclosed Body of Water.

The only issue that remained was some moderate traffic-shyness, which MI was working on by taking the pup into town every other day. I'll give him another week or two to get over it, but if he doesn't, we'll wash him out. Fair enough -- any kind of traffic-shyness is anathema in a guide dog, and a fear that is patched over with months of training, rather than resolved with self-confidence, is still there under the surface, waiting to get a blind person killed.

The fate of the washed-out guide dog prospect is enviable in dog terms: a long waiting list of carefully-vetted families eager to adopt, and no more Official Policy about never stretching one's limbs.

I pressed MI. He told me about a woman who had fostered over a dozen puppies for NGDS, and every one of them had trained up like butter, and gone on to become a successful guide. We'll call her FM, for Foster Mom.

NGDS was clocking a miserable success rate in their purpose-bred retriever pups. Fewer than half -- closer to a third -- were succeeding in training.*

A fine thing for those carefully-vetted adopters (and frequently generous donors) who lined up for a well-bred pet/conversation starter, but not so great for all those blind people who just need to get to work.

After three or four pups came back from FM and bucked the odds, after they started sending her multiple (staggered age) foster pups at a time, after she became the Go-To person for pups that tested borderline or were failing in other foster homes, after an institutional legend started to form itself about the woman with Majickal Puppy Powers, MI decided to conduct a fact-finding mission. By this time, FM was emboldened by her track record, and concealed nothing.

At her farm, the puppies ran loose on a large acreage amid livestock, horses, and a constant hum of activity. Puppies that were in the way or starting to make trouble got corrected, mostly by her older dogs. Otherwise they were mostly ignored and allowed to hang out and participate in the life of the place. Once every week, or maybe a couple times a month, she'd toss a pup into the truck and take it with her to town, where it would learn to tolerate a leash. She was too far out in the sticks to take any of the puppies to the NGDS-approved classes, and too busy to mess with the regimen spelled out in the foster manual.

That's it.

My Informant did not fink on her. His experience with the bureaucrats at NGDS suggested the strong possibility that they would attempt to crack down to "fix" FM's practices, and fire her as a volunteer if she didn't get with the program whose results she was trumping.

I don't understand why FM's method of free-range puppy-raising works, but it does, so I'm not going to mess with it.

I loved that phrase. Free-range puppy-raising.

Anyway, that sparked MI to start paying attention to the outcomes of the pups raised by the volunteers under his aegis.

And sure enough, he found what he later revealed to me: The ones who didn't "cheat" the always-on-a-leash rule consistently produced puppies who failed in training.

The cheaters produced some failures, too, but also all the successes.

I should have asked him how he finessed this information when supervising foster families. How he encouraged guerrilla puppy-raising without getting fired.

I threw another stick for the Lab pup.


* Ah, progress. In the 1950's and 60's, Clarence Pfaffenberger reported that improvements in the breeding program and puppy-raising protocols at the Seeing Eye and Guide Dogs for the Blind had raised their success rate to 80-90% among their purpose-bred pups.

My conversation with MI took place quite a bit more recently than Pfaffenberger's reports. I'm now told that a guide dog graduation rate of 50% is considered good by "industry standards."

A shocking number of people who are employed full-time by the service dog industry have never heard of Pfaffenberger or his work, or the foundational work of Scott & Fuller.

What is worse, they are unfamiliar with the concepts in either work.

Pfaffenberger's book has been in print and widely available since it's original publication.

Back in the 90's, I carefully xeroxed the only copy of the Scott & Fuller book still alive in the Harvard Library system. It was too precious not to have it, too hard to find.

But a few years later, it was reissued, and remains in print. There's no excuse for every dog trainer, breeder, and working dog handler not to own his own copy and read it thoroughly.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Vote for Moe: Help His Relatives

With your help, Bailey has made it into the finals in the Bissell pet photo contest.

Bailey's owner has pledged the potential prize money (for an animal charity of the winner's choice) to NESR to help the Montana English shepherds.

Each week there is a new round of voting; the top three vote-getters go into the pool from which the Bissell people will choose three models for their vacuum-cleaner packaging.

We hope to get an English shepherd (whose owner has pledged the potential prize money to NESR) into the final round with each week of voting, maximizing the chances that the fabulous cash prize will go to help out the Montana dogs.

This week, it's our own Moe:

It's simple to add your vote to help the Montana ES. Just go straight to Moe's voting page.

They do require name and email (and swear they don't put you on any lists) and they do limit you to one IP address, one vote per voting period.

Which means, since you can't vote early and often -- please spam all of your friends, relatives, co-workers and ask them to VOTE FOR MOE. Be sure to send them the direct link, as there is more than one Moe in this voting period. (Ours is the handsome one.)

If you have a blog or a webpage -- ask your readers to VOTE FOR MOE.

The $10,000 grand prize could buy the lives of 30-50 of the Montana dogs.

Besides, Moe is one handsome Devil. And he could sell a lot of vacuum cleaners.

Monday, March 2, 2009


Just got a thousand-times forwarded garbled message in my inbox about the Montana English shepherds. It reads:


Any rescues out there that can help please contact Erin at [redacted] or email [redacted]

I got this information off of the ASPCA Group. It was a cry for help from Erin. She is located in Montana and she is part of the National English Shepard Rescue. Please - Just because this is not your breed - do not delete this message. My contacts are very, very limited in Montana and I am in need of much crossposting in that area.

300 English Shepards were seized and are being held in a barn. The local shelter want all of them turned over to them but as in the past they will put them down. Erin NEEDS some help.

Please, please help with crossposting. To anyone you think might be able to help in this area. Spread the word or these 300 souls will be put to death. The woman has been arrested but you know as well as I that it is not these 300 souls fault. And as you are probably aware, puppies are probably coming. Help save these prescious souls. Do anything you can. Thank you. Kathi Rich

PS. Please do not respond to me as I have no info on this other than what I have typed above. Please call Erin.

I do not know who Kathi Rich is, but none of the above is true.

What was correct was the phone number and email address for NESR's current representative in Montana, who most certainly did not ask for her private information to be published and forwarded to what looks like hundreds of Yahoo lists. I have removed it.

This hit the inboxes of a lot of ES people at about 11:30 this morning, all from different sources.

It makes me suspicious that someone is trying to sabotage the rescue and rehabilitation efforts.

Please, if you have received this email, especially if it came via a Yahoo or Google list or a listserv, post a correction referring recipients to the NESR page on the Montana rescue and this blog.

And please -- check facts before you forward. This one may not make the Snopes parade, but there are ways to use the Googles when someone sends you something that is both alarmist and vague.

Sunday, March 1, 2009


One of the girls is brooding.

She sat on a couple of golf balls in one of the metal nest boxes for three days, never leaving the box, and growling softly when I checked under her for eggs. This is chicken language for "I want to be a Mommy now."

She also has a rather intent and driven expression, to the extent that one can appear intent and driven about sitting around for several weeks.

So last week, after I dispatched the three supernumary cock guineas to new quarters in the humming white coop in the kitchen, I fixed up the wire rabbit cage in which they'd been staged for the previous day, and moved the wannabe Mommy into a "broody box." She has food and water near at hand, a nest box made out of an old milk crate, soft home-grown hay, and thirteen eggs to try to nurture into peeps. She's a big fluffy buff Orpington, so a baker's dozen fits easily under her. If she proves capable at this job, I'll give her twenty next time.

Since I wasn't expecting anyone to go broody so early in the year, I haven't been trying to keep track of who lays what eggs -- I just picked a mix of good-looking eggs from the last couple days' production. The chicks will all be mutts; my rooster, Henery Hawk, is a silver-spangled Hamburg, and my pullets are of five other breeds. All are good egg layers, and the Hamburgs are known as good egg layers, so I predict a clutch of future ... good egg layers.

I'm not planning to try to win ribbons at a chicken show, and I haven't started any conservation breeding of poultry yet, so this is more than satisfactory to me. I imagine they will be attractive birds. Most of the mutt chickens I've seen are quite beautiful. Practically no domestic chicken is as gorgeous as a wild jungle fowl, but mongrels tend to eventually revert to type, as is true of so many domesticated creatures.

I do love the green and blue eggs from my four hatchery Americaunas (aka "Easter Eggers"), who are, according to the fancy poultry people, already mutts themselves. So I stacked the broody nest with more of the colored eggs than brown ones. My understanding of eggshell genetics leads me to believe that at least half of the pullets from the colored eggs will also lay colored eggs -- possibly all of them.

Excess cockerels will join the guineas. I've got quiet shoes and I'm willing to do it.

This is all, of course, literally counting my chickens before they are hatched. I think I heard once that this is unsound financial planning.

Unscientific survey conducted in a pretentious Pittsburgh bar on Friday. Five out of five graduates of a Certain Midwestern University Afflicted With Ivy Inferiority Complex expressed sincere astonishment at the breaking news that the word "brood" has something to do with avian reproductive behavior.

At least four of these individuals have acquired or are acquiring doctoral degrees in a biological science or the trade-school equivalent.

One of them asked for an explanation about the role of the rooster in egg and chick production. Is this the fruit of abstinence-only "sex education?"

I was afraid to ask them what they knew about words such as "ruminate," "reap," and "draught." This is how far we have come from the roots of our language in a daily life shared with familiar -- and indispensible -- animals and plants. The abstracted metaphor has entirely replaced the concrete description as the "meaning" of such a venerable word.

Venerable indeed. My OED traces brood to Old English, Old High German, and Dutch roots having to do with heat and warmth. The oldest written English noun form (referring to the offspring, those that are brooded) dates back over a thousand years. The verb form, over 500.

But "To meditate (esp. in a moody or morbid way)" -- a mere chick, a just-hatched peep -- a metaphor deployed by Benjamin Disraeli in 1826.

Not that my broody doesn't seem to be meditative and serious, compared to her otherwise cheerful and unselfconscious mien. Whether she's anticipating caring for chicks, or just wholly committed to the project of incubating the eggs, I can't see any tinge of "morbid" sticking. What could be less morbid?

It's not just animal-estranged degreed young urbanites for whom a broody hen is an alien mystery. A commercial egg farmer who maintains hundreds of thousands of hens has never seen one either.

Most modern commercial and purebred poultry have had the broodiness bred right out of them.

It's convenient for commerce to incubate hatching eggs artificially; the "brooder" is the warm enclosure where the chicks are raised, sans maternal guidance, until they feather out and become slightly less suicidal in their habits. Our own flock came from a large commercial hatchery, and arrived by US mail in a little cardboard box when they were less than 72 hours old.

But broodiness didn't just atrophy with disuse. Such basic instincts don't go out without a fight. The tendency to brood has been ruthlessly culled out of industrial and utility stocks, for the simple reason that a broody hen stops laying eggs, whether or not the flock owner wants her to raise a clutch.

The industrial leghorn that most likely laid your breakfast is scores of generations removed from any ancestor that fluffed her feathers over a nest and pecked the hand that came to gather eggs. Since she also lives in a wire-bottomed cage from which every egg simply rolls away instantly, she has no opportunity to go broody, even if she was so inclined.

When a small flock-keeper has no eggs to hatch or chicks to raise and needs to "break up a broody," she will put the hen in a small wire-bottomed cage with no nesting material at all. This is generally considered a distasteful, harsh, short-term necessity, undertaken as much for the welfare of the bird as for the flock-keeper's interests. It is similar to, if less crowded than, the confinement endured by an industrial egg-layer for her entire productive life.

Sort of the difference between crate-training a puppy for housebreaking and protective custody -- or crate rest for an injured dog -- and keeping a puppy-mill production unit caged like this for her entire life.

Ironically, natural mothering instinct has been retained most in some "fancy" breeds that are commonly kept for neither eggs nor meat, such as these. And it is also strong in these guys; some poultry-keepers believe that aggression in male birds is genetically related to good mothering in the hens.

One of the reasons I included the buff Orpingtons in last year's chick order was the rumor that this breed was more likely to go broody, while remaining solid egg producers and agreeable flock members under the kind of casual husbandry I planned. I have no inclination to coddle the weather-susceptible, predator-magnet silkies or manage the snark of game hens.

Most of my adult life has been spent figuring out how to exploit animals' inborn abilities to do jobs extremely well, instead of putting in a lot of effort to do the same job poorly myself. That's been the same whether it's Pip using the $60,000 nose to outperform scores of human searchers, Moe running off varmints in the night, or Rosie putting the petulant chickens to bed. About half of that figuring out has been devoted to choosing an animal whose genetics are intact, whose desire to do a job is inherent and maybe unstoppable.

If my Orp pullet proves to be good at her job, outperforming an electric incubator and a brooder with a heat lamp, plus untold hours of clumsy human "mothering," she has a sinecure here.