Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Choosing and Raising a Small Farm Dog: Short Form

By request from many of the wonderful participants at my farm dog presentations at the Mother Earth News Fair on Saturday, I have uploaded my powerpoint slides to the web. You can find the presentation here.

I added notes to the presentation, since the slides are mostly just mnemonic cues for me while I'm gabbling and a chance to put in some pretty pictures . The notes don't show up when you view the powerpoint online, but should if you download it. The urls for further resources are there on the slides.

After the Roseannadannas are all launched (I'm at three today, it will be two by Thursday) and I'm done feeling sorry for myself and moping around, I'll have more to say on this, concentrating more specifically on English shepherds, with in-depth information about health concerns, intelligence-gathering before purchase, and how to find an ES whose specific temperament is right for your farm and home.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Snapshots Saturday: Kid Gene

I only want to produce English shepherds who have the kid gene.

That means they don't just tolerate whatever damn fool thing a kid does to them, they generally like it.

I want to see the pups become one big wiggle when they see a human child. I want them to leave their masters' sides to snuggle a toddler.

Pip and her sister Roz came with it. On the ride home with them from their breeder's, we stopped at a rest stop. The girlpuppies saw some children at a distance, and were overcome with joy. With careful selection of males, all of Pip's descendants have retained this magnetic pull to children, and a gentle and indulgent nature with them.

Today I gave a presentation on choosing and raising a small farm dog at the Mother Earth News Fair, courtesy of the nice folks at PASA.

Actually, I gave it twice.

The pups (the five who are still here; Gilda went home Thursday) were supposed to be part of a friend's stockdog demo, scheduled back-to-back with the presentation. Rachel never made it, apparently thwarted by the ebil power of PennDOT. So neither did the slow, fat ducks we hoped to "start" the pups on today.

Instead, at the command of a torch and pitchfork brigade, I did a repeat of the lecture, and the pups, Gramma Pip, and Uncle Cole then became the main attraction in the livestock pen. It was large enough that they could retreat from attention if they chose (they didn't, except to play briefly; naptime in the small puppy pen was enforced). The stock panels allowed petting access but not picking up. Also allowed Jane, who is an X-dog with the power to walk through walls, to slide out several times, but we retrieved her with the help of her admirers on the other side.

The awesome puppy-wrangler Rebecca Hostetter and I got pretty fatigued counting, counting, counting puppies. We each got to briefly visit the rest of the Fair when we rounded them up for naptime. Not enough time. Too many things to see. I cannot return tomorrow, but next year ...

For the participants at the Fair who have asked for my Powerpoint, I will have it online this week some time, and will post a link here when it is up.

Friday, September 16, 2011

The Pupdorf School

Conquer Mount Mulcherest or memorize the state capitals?

In face of the -- pardon me -- frakking absurd claim from a throne of authority* that puppies of eight weeks of age ought to be "error-free" housebroken, and trained to sit, down, and roll over, we here at Brandywine Bone 'n' Breakfast opt out of the Puppy Einstein / No Pup Left Behind hype. We are not in favor of eliminating recess from the puppy curriculum so that we can cram in another half-hour of multiplication tables and maybe up our scores on the next round of standardized tests.

Think of it as a Steiner preschool for puppies. Plenty of outdoor play time, access to natural materials in preference to plastics, simple toys (a knotted flannel rag is a favorite), opportunities to learn by imitation, and inclusion in adult activities, such as tagging along to help feed the goats.

I like how fluidly the pups segue their interactions -- amongst themselves, with their mother, with the other adult dogs, the human visitor, and their physical environment. (Including the truly impressive tunnel project they are collectively executing under that landscape boulder.)

When I raised litters at our former home -- a suburban tract house with a large fenced yard -- I put out lots of interesting obstacles for the pups to explore.

Notsomuch here. The topography, landscaping, livestock, shrubberies both domestic and freelance -- all fill that developmental niche much more organically than my old tires and wicket walks and ramps and puppy teeters. Bonus, there are periodic appearances by chickens. Very fast chickens.

There are some play objects on what is now known as the poopdeck -- a ramp, wobble disk, cardboard boxes, tug toys -- but now that they have unrestricted access to the outdoors most of the day, they spend little time there.

In a little over a week they'll be starting off in their new homes, perfectly ready to learn sit, down, and I before E except after C in a matter of minutes.

What they can learn best now is how to be happy, relaxed, bold, curious baby dogs in a world where the affairs of big dogs and big humans continue in their presence.

*NB: An "authority" who, as near as I can determine, has neither bred nor raised a single litter of puppies. Ever.

Friday, September 9, 2011

Photo Phriday: Fun Uncle, #2

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Ernesto is still a puppy himself. It's like having a teenage babysitter who still likes to play Legos with the kids.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Base Seven

One of the gospels of dog breeders who make a good-faith effort to do right by their puppies is the popular "Rule of Sevens."

Not a bad floor. If someone pays enough attention to a litter to meet this criteria, it's likely that the pups will go to their homes well-socialized and fairly resilient, ready to be well-adjusted pets or show dogs.

But if one is aiming to develop the most confident, flexible, intelligent, unflappable working companion allowed by each pups' genetics, one should be aiming higher and thinking more about process than checklists.

When I learned to do bodywork on animals, my witch doctor friend Maryna taught us a low-velocity, deep-penetrating pulse in-hold-pulse out pattern. One's fingers "intrude" on the muscles, ligaments, and tendons, remain at the point of deepest intrusion until they detect the desired change (a release of tension, or of some of it) and then gradually retreat, allowing the animal's mind and body to register the change and assimilate it into the whole.

This principle of pressure and release works in behavioral rehab, too -- you push your student/patient/subject to the point of discomfort, hold that degree of pressure while the mind copes with the challenge and achieves some incremental change, and then gradually take the pressure off, allowing a period of rest while the change assimilates into the whole animal.

Without pressure -- challenge -- there is no forward momentum. Without pausing and holding the pressure, there is no change. And without retreat and rest, there is no processing of what just happened, no long-term application.

The Roseannadannas don't need rehab. They are clean and shiny and new; they are perfect, and so is their world. But their world will expand, and they will expand to meet it, through the same process of pressure, hold, release.

Much of the "pressure" comes from inside the puppies. They are bursting to grow. They push their own comfort levels in order to satisfy their intense curiosity. This is the pressure to expand that is natural to every intelligent creature, and all we need to do is support it.

Monday they were enjoying their free-range time. Now, whenever I can, I close the gates and open the doors so that they have access to the puppy-proofed kitchen and living room, the deck, and the whole outdoors via the front door (which opens from the kitchen). They are lightly supervised as we go about our business. The big dogs can mingle with them, or go in the back door to the parts of the house that are gated off -- pups can't get there yet. There's nothing between pups and poultry other than the poultry's good judgement and speed.

In general, they move in groups -- this is their time to learn about dog society with one another. They spend a lot of time playing and contending, and a lot of time sleeping. They play with Cole or Ernie or mob their mother. They play with any humans who are among them. The social world takes precedence.

But some of the time, they are pulsing out -- pushing the physical boundaries of their world. On
Sunday, the theme was to climb the landscaping boulders in the front yard, push leads into their crevices, and generally work in three dimensions. Monday we were all about getting into the mint patch for a little aromatic puppy caving. (Few photo ops in that endeavor.)

Generally, when I walk a hundred feet from the front door, the pups fall back. But not always. On Sunday, Garrett followed me all the way to the barnyard for night chores, then found his way back without drama. This meant negotiating some stone steps, down and then up. Monday, tiny Gilda followed me to the pole barn, hung out while I assembled tools, and then followed me back. These are long treks for little puppies, precursors of the pack walks that will start in a few days.

As they develop, we also provide some pressure -- not often to push them further outwards, but to direct their expanding psyches.

Chevy roo-roos and wants to be picked up. I love his drive to engage a person, but he's a bit pushy and full of swagger. I pick him up and cradle him, and he becomes slightly stiff -- he did not want to be cradled on his back, he wanted to come into my lap and nibble my chin and generally have me enable his agenda. I keep him cradled and he pitches a minor tantrum. Alas, it does not succeed in granting him his wish. When the tantrum abates, not before, I set him upright in my lap for stroking and kissies. Pressure ... hold ... hold ... hold ... hold ... releeeease. We will repeat this many times.

Gilda is playing with a bit of cotton rope. I take the end and apply gentle traction. We play "tug" while I stroke her whole body with long, firm, calming strokes, the way I've seen the best schutzhund trainers work with a young puppy. Nothing exciting, no thrashing around, no proving I'm stronger than a five-pound furball. Her grip stays firm. I let the rope slide out of my hand (gradual release). We will teach her to release a toy in a few weeks. To my delight, when she finds she has full possession of the rope, she cheerfully brings it back to me and asks me to re-engage. Playing with someone is more fun than having something. A lesson she will learn many times, in many contexts, until one day she is teaching it to some pup in the dog park or some toddler who is learning about grabbiness.

The pups have the routine and the familiar, and they have challenges to the routine and familiar. I put a new obstacle onto the deck -- it is a challenge and a diversion. Can I climb on it? Under it? Does it move if I hit it? Is it shreddable? This is exciting! But other things stay the same. If I get too stimulated, I can always go sleep on my same pillow with my same brother. Mother changes -- now she says no to me, and sometimes she plays with me -- but she is also the same -- she smells the same and the milk still tastes so good and she still cleans me like she did the minute I was born. With every pulse of pressure to grow and change, there's a corresponding path back to the familiar, a physical or emotional space to rest and contemplate that becomes the springboard to dive back into the unfamiliar. Each pulse-hold-release strengthens the whole pattern, until the familiar becomes the puppy's own sense of herself, and to the degree that her genetics permit, nothing can faze her.

Monday, September 5, 2011

Macro Monday: Hornworms' Lament

Fish gotta swim and birds gotta fly. Insects, it seems, gotta do one horrible thing after another.

-- Annie Dillard, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek

Our friend Andy spotted these two critters on the currant tomato that is growing rampantly in the washtub by the grape arbor.

They are larvae of Manduca quinquemaculata -- the five-spotted hawk moth -- aka tomato hornworms.

And they have munched their last nightshade leaves.

The stuff that looks like a a threadbare white shag carpet are parasitoids -- the pupae of a braconid wasp. As larvae, they already ate most of the insides of the hornworms, which maintain just enough life to cling to the branch where they stopped. (I took these photos on Saturday, and the worms are still where we left them.) Soon they will hatch out into adults and go hunting other hornworms on which to lay their eggs. I've never seen a hornworm with this heavy a parasitoid infestation. I guess they aren't any more doomed / dead than one with a few pupae.

I'm ambivalent about this particular horrible thing. The hornworms can really play hell with the tomatoes, and the little wasps are very effective at controlling them. But the adult moths are magnificent -- easy to mistake for hummingbirds when one first sees one -- and we have lots of tomato foliage. When I find a healthy hornworm, I tend to just stick it on a robust volunteer tomato somewhere away from the garden, or else on some wild nightshade.

The life cycle of parasitic wasps is the stuff of nightmares and the inspiration for some viscerally horrifying speculative fiction.