Monday, July 18, 2011

Not Your Stick

Ernie about to be introduced to a
hitherto obscure Law of Nature

Cole has taken on our latest foster, young Ernie, as an interesting project.

There wasn't much for him to do in the first week Ernie was with us. The New Guy was living a very restricted life -- tied to me, on a long line on walks, kenneled, in a crate, or gated into a room with me where my eyeballs were always on him. This is how it normally starts with fosters here.

Ernie got opportunities to play outdoors a bit, after dark, when the poultry had gone to bed. He and Cole played keepaway in the front, running round the landscaping bed that is overgrown with mint. In our house, only fosters wear jingly tags -- helps me keep track of them.

Without a sound cue, Ernie appeared to believe that every time Cole disappeared around the other end of the mint island and froze, he had disappeared off the face of the earth. He'd stand and whine until Cole would sneak around into sight and recommence the game.

On Friday, I took the leash off during daylight for the first time. All the dogs were hanging around near the two big maple trees above the house. No poultry close by, so I was confident I would have time to intervene if Ernie forgot the chicken manners he'd been learning while on the long line.

After a short romp, Cole settled down to enjoy chewing a stick.

Or so it would appear to the casual observer.

What he was actually doing was writing and executing a lesson plan, conceptualized in the form a game.

The name of the game is Not Your Stick. The rules of Not Your Stick are simple: That stick? Not yours. That other stick over there? Also, not yours. The stick so small you think I can't see it? Nope, not yours. (Click the little speech-balloon icon lower left for captions.)

To a decontextualized observer, what this looks like is just Cole being a little shit. And he is certainly capable of being just that.

Since Ernie landed in foster largely due to his previous failure to appreciate the twin principles of Not Yours and Keep Your Mouth off of Not Yours, I was more interested in seeing where this would go. I'd had several opportunities to correct Ernie for putting his mouth on things that did not belong to him in the house, and he'd taken the correction well, seeming to contemplate this new information without being overly worried or sensitive. And Cole not only stopped short of overt bullying; he gave the impression of conscientiousness in his titration of timing, pressure, and display.

After Cole explained the Not Yours principles to Ernie using four or five sticks in order to achieve generalization, he allowed Ernie to pick up a stick and retired a short distance away, and benignly observed him enjoying a good chew.

This lasted only a few minutes. All the during the lesson, my flock of curious, friendly, and exceedingly naive turkey poults had been working their way towards the field of play. This would be Ernie's first off-leash encounter with poultry.

He took the bait.

Just as I opened my mouth to correct him, Cole ran forward, blocked him, and sent him in the other direction. Cole is my turkey hound -- he not only herds the turkeys, drives the turkeys away from forbidden areas, plays a silly game with the adult toms, and brings the turkeys home when they stray, he protects the turkeys from predators, cars, and their own suicidal stupidity. Turkeys are his special responsibility.

Cole decided that young turkeys needed to stay in the shrubberies and were not to come out and mingle with dogs in the mowed area. He trotted the boundary until the turkeys relented and moved back into the weeds.

Ernie did not challenge the rule that these were emphatically Not Your Turkeys. He came back towards me and fawned on Pip and Rosie while Cole moved the flock.

He not only absorbed the lesson, he passed the pop quiz at the end of class.


  1. This is why you need a working video camera.

  2. Have one. I disagree. A video of this would be more entertaining, but less illuminating than the still images of body language, whale eyes, etc.

    Also, YouTube doesn't enable one to slow down and go frame-by-frame, etc.

  3. Fabulous! Love the clear body language lessons.

  4. I just gots a new camera that dogs high-speed, 250 fps, but not at has to be it's own video file.

    That was an amazing little lesson, though. I love watching masters of communication at work, teaching those who might not be quite so astute about The Rules. They may not be "Sit" or "Come", but they're rules and manners according to whoever is making them.

    What's sad is the romping, galumphing four-leggers at the park who do not understand such subtle language. While my dog is not a Master at this, she definitely sends signals that are so blithely ignored that she needs to escalate to being That Little Shit (or, as some dog types call it, "She's AGGRESSIVE!") just to get her personal space back.

  5. How awesome to have a training assistant like Cole. And the pics are great - showing the body language just as you describe.

  6. Oh Heather --How exactly much Cole looks like Luke. Or vice versa.
    and what a great series of shots you got of him teaching your foster what he needed to know. It was Lukes body and the same looks out of his eyes, but a younger more confident dog.

    That makes me a little sad because it is so clear to me, comparing Luke's behavoir with Cole's, how damaged Luke really is - even though lots of good new things continue to show up - he will never be as free from the effects of what he went through as a pup and young adult -- as Cole is now.

    Luke is kind of like a puppy himself - trying new things he never did before - and SO smart underneath the fear based automatic reactions to some things.

    One other thought,(you'll know what I am referring to); I guess the pertinant question is, or should have been back then, but could she really still have had the ability to run down wolves - or what ever they were initially bred to do? Probably even when that dog was alive and that article was written - it was many many years since those dogs were needed to deal with wolves.

  7. I'm starting to want a stick.

    But I guess that's out of the question.

  8. I have just found your blog, and have so enjoyed what I have read so far. I must come back and see more soon. As a Cynologist this is food for my soul!

  9. Thanks for the story -- communication between animals, and especially dogs, is one of the most interesting things in the world.

  10. This always makes me smile. I sometimes come back to it several times a day, when things are rough, and dwell on the amusement and simplicity of animals. Thank you!


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