Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Montana English Shepherd Update

The English shepherd hoarder/puppymiller in Ballantine, MT has been raided:


Billings Gazette

NESR is getting updates several times a day from the authorities.

We hope to have a team on the ground in Montana shortly. NESR hopes to cover the costs of sending our volunteers into the Great White North. (Full disclosure: the intention is that I will be one of them.) So show some love.

The pugs are AWOL since the first raid a few weeks ago. An accurate body count on the deceased animals will probably have to wait until thaw.

Guys, I wish I could tell you more, but if I did, I'd have to kill you. Sorry.

So let's talk about rescuing neglected English shepherds, in general terms.
Here's a picture of Zippy, who I fostered in 2005, taken the day I went to evaluate six dogs, and bring one back to foster:

Zippy was seven months old and weighed 13.5 pounds.

That is not a typo. Thirteen pounds, eight ounces. Seven months old.

The vet estimated her "normal" weight for that age to be about 35 pounds. Of course it wasn't just that she was skeletal -- she and her littermates were stunted. Basically, even their skeletons were emaciated. The emaciated adult dogs dumped with them showed how weird that would eventually look.

Zippy and five relatives came from the same kind of festering hole as the Montana dogs. An ersatz "breeder" who thought she would make a profit, but ended up a hoarder of sorts, with stunted, sick, starving animals running semi-feral and somehow reproducing more of the same.

Six of them ended up at a rural dog pound. Their loving owner was in the habit of periodically dropping off the worst, most unsellable dogs.* She knew what morning each week they cranked up the gas chamber, and always brought in dogs just before closing the night before. Owner turn-ins don't get three days of legally-mandated grace.

See, she didn't want them to get adopted. Figured it might cut into her sales of English shepherds -- done mostly out the back of a truck at the local livestock auction -- if the pound adopted any of them out. Certainly wasn't going to pay a vet to kill them for her, and was too cowardly to kill them herself.

Fortunately for Zippy and her relatives, the pound staff had had it with that crap. They contacted NESR, and held the dogs over, giving us a week to get them out.

All of them walked out alive. All of them thrived in foster. All of them were adopted. All of the adoptions were successful.

Thing about Zippy -- unhandled, unsocialized, unfed, and product of probably five generations of first-degree incestuous unions (first degree = parent/offspring and brother/sister) -- thing about Zippy is, she has one of the best temperaments of any dog I've ever known. Can you say bounce back?

Bombproof. Fantastic dog social skills. Outgoing. And cheerful. OhmyDog, Zippy is cheerful. There's always a pony under there in Zippy-world.

I guess when you were born in Hell, normal life is Heaven every day.

I had Zippy only a couple of months -- fed her, vetted her, trained and socialized her. She slid into my pack like they'd been holding a slot for her. Unlike some of the real rehab projects I take in, Zippy didn't need much specialized work -- Zippy didn't need a trainer. She needed to get on with her life.

One day I had an epiphany. Thought of a client who was broken up over a failed adoption -- a local shelter let this family take a dog who they were totally unprepared to deal with, and then acted affronted when they admitted they were out of their depth and returned her. (If you must know -- adolescent American bulldog, stone deaf, who had been taught exactly one skill in her year and a half on earth -- to seriously bite feet as a "game." The highest level of "project dog" for a professional or serious hobbyist looking for a challenge. Adopted to a family of warm nurturer-types with no large-dog experience, no training experience, a fragile elderly small terrier, a young child, and a couple older cats.)

So I brought Zippy by, and that was it. Here was a dog that my clients could "save," who required nothing more than good food, good medical care, love, exercise, a little training.

Here's Zippy a few weeks after she settled in to her forever home:

She's playing with her foster-brother, Moe. He loves to go visit Zippy. She gets him.

Zippy is damned funny-looking. Has several health problems that stem from her genetics and her early neglect. But she is a survivor. And she brings joy to her family every day.

If the authorities are as good as their word, if the prosecution succeeds in its quest, if the threat of parvo can be contained, if, if, IF ... then there will be hundreds of English shepherds vying for the Zippy role. Dogs who can be stellar pets, loyal farm dogs, stolid working partners -- who knows?

(Update on Gary, my current neglect-case foster: We've suddenly got four applications in to adopt him. I'm doing phone interviews on those, and hope to have him in a forever home soon. But we will sure miss him. He's a pleasant, low-key, amiable fellow who is just going to bloom given half a chance.)

* It's for this reason I put "hoarder" in scare quotes. Classically, the obsessive-compulsive hoarder never willingly gives anything up. It's the same for the person who hoards magazines as it is for the one who has 112 cats. But there's this weird nexus between puppymiller and hoarder that I've seen in several situations. These individuals continue to try to sell pups, but they are, well, less organized than a functional puppymiller. There is more desperation and less cost/benefit calculation at work in the neglect of the animals.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

When "Obedience" is Right There in the Damned Name

I'm being stalked by Stanley Milgram.

His experiments in the nature of obedience and resistance keep coming up in conversation these last few months. Each time, I'm not the one who introduces the idea. It comes after me. I'm often the one in any given group who ends up explaining the experiments and clarifying the results, because in a former life I actually read Milgram's book, and more recently, Lauren Slater's jaw-dropping account of the lives of two of Milgram's human subjects.

One of the things I have confidently "explained" in these exchanges is that, of course, these experiments would be impossible to duplicate today.


I really believed that a combination of university human-subject review committees and the ubiquity of the meme -- the near-universal vague awareness of the set-up, embedded in Western culture for half a century -- made Milgram's results unrepeatable.

Perhaps at one time, I even held out the hope that the incorporation of this knowledge into the collective semi-conscious could prod human beings towards greater resistance, a self-awareness of what it is to become a tool of atrocity.

Foolish mortal.

Just a helpful bit of advice gleaned during the composition of this entry. If all you have seen are the five or six pixelated "family-friendly" photos of the prison atrocities at Abu Ghraib that have been reprinted by the major news outlets, and if you have any delicacy of sensibility, do not view the results of a Google image search on the topic.

And what has this to do with dogs?

The Terrierman has one take on it.
Absolutely. Oh Hell yes.

My slightly-less-ornery-half over at Did a Cat Shit in Here? takes it on more generally, here, and here.

But I want to talk about training. Specifically, the responsibilities that trainers -- instructors -- have when they are teaching dog owners how to train their dogs, and in a wider sense, providing models for how one lives one's life with a dog.

Because isn't that exactly what Milgram told his subjects -- that they were taking part in an experiment on learning, and that the other guy was the subject? We tell people they will change their dogs, that their dogs will learn, through training.

Yet in a dog-training class, or in private sessions, it is the human, not the dog, who is being trained. It is the human's actions that we seek to alter. Dogs is easy.

So, funny story.

First week of class -- which is conducted without student dogs present -- my students get a homework assignment that is titled "Sit on the Dog."

In the handout, it very clearly states, in italics, at the beginning, that the owner is not to actually sit on the dog. The procedure for sitting in a chair with the dog's leash under one's buttocks for a half-hour a day is clearly described.

In class, I demonstrate the exercise while explaining it. It looks like this:

So, like any good teacher of a skill, I engaged several different modes of learning: visual, aural, and the written word.

Nevertheless ...

One lady came in with a question at week two; her dog simply would not hold still for a half-hour.

(You know what's coming, don't you?)

So I explain, again, for the class that the goal isn't for the dog to hold a (not yet taught) formal down-stay for a half-hour, and to ignore any wiggling and pacing, let him settle on his own.

But how do you stay sitting if he won't stay down?

The faces of the other students showed comprehension and horror well before I caught up. My brain resisted the image the student was conveying. It can't be ...

Fortunately, this substantial lady had an equally substantial dog. He was strong enough to escape injury and asphyxiation, and assertive enough to discourage her from trying every day. Unfortunately for the dog, his first experience of "training" was a series of weird and desperate wrestling matches with an owner for whom oral instructions, an in-person demonstration, and clear written instructions were insufficient to combat her reflexive action on hearing the tongue-in-cheek name of the exercise.

But it's not the student's cognitive block -- the part that makes it a "funny" story, given that the dog was unharmed, or at least, no worse off than he was every day -- that concerns me here. It's the student's determination to follow instructions she believed had been given by an authority figure whom she had just met, and who was not even present while she was attempting to carry them out.

It is absolutely the instructor's responsibility to be clear in his or her instructions. After this one astonishing miscue, I now have each student practice the exercise on one of the stooge dogs that I bring to the first night orientation. And the handout has the picture above.

But the burden of clarity is beside the point when the instructor is actually giving bad advice, issuing instructions that will harm the dog.

There are many ways to harm a dog with attempts at training. Physically abusive training, to be sure. Techniques and tools that are inappropriate to a given dog -- food training for the thyroid patient and food rationing for the hypoglycemic min pin , excessive confinement to "housebreak" the Dalmatian with stones, a head-halter fitted on a Doberman with Wobbler syndrome.

Students will do them all at the instructor's behest. Two thirds of them will do something that they feel (whether correctly or not) is wrong at the instructor's behest.

Students will go so far as to refrain from disciplining a dog who needs it, if sufficient pressure comes from an "authority" who claims -- fraudulently -- both the white coat of "science" and the shimmering vestment of "kindness." They frequently require another authority figure to later give them "permission" to be normal with their dog again.

And the result is best expressed by the owner of a dog who is now in rehab (not with me) after at least two bites:

When F. was six months, he was impish, but when that spilled over into teenage cockiness, and I was trained that I didn't know anything about dogs and that I should be able to control this dog with a clicker and a bait bag. This is the prevailing attitude of the training community in my area. I've read most of the books mentioned on this list, not many of them recommend anything other than redirection and outsmarting your dog...

It was a miserable realization that for ALL of the training, and classes, and reading, and NILFing, WHICH I INCREASED AS HIS BEHAVIOR GOT WORSE, I had still become nothing more than a human buster-cube, randomly handing out treats when F. decided to be compliant...

In the absence of balanced training, my family lost our dog. He was very nearly put down because no one wants to work with a biter.

So, trainers, when you are telling a student to press the button, click the clicker, pop the leash, turn your back and ignore it, alpha roll, become a slot machine -- you are taking on the responsibility of the experimenter. You are the white coat -- The experiment requires that you continue. It is absolutely essential that you continue -- and it is your student and his dog who will live with the results. Or not.

Choose your instructions carefully.

Crate, Sweet Crate

I've had a run of questions about dogs who could not be contained in a crate in the house lately. As near as I can tell, these aversions are mostly due to owners using the crate as an all-day dog-storage device in the past. So the first thing that needs fixing is the owners' perception of how long it is "reasonable" for a dog to kept in a box with no exercise, no stimulation, no companionship, and no opportunity to pee. (We're talking on a five-day-a-week basis here, not one long day or an epic car ride.)

The second thing that we fix is the dog's perception of the crate as a place he is forced to go. There's a fairly simple training progression that leaves the dog convinced that it is his fondest wish to go to his crate as fast as possible.

The "Go to Your Room" command is easy to teach and normally requires
nothing special aside from a crate and the dog's regular kibble, or
better treats if the dog is not very food-motivated (cheese, dried
liver, dog jerky, whatever floats him). Do not use a fabric soft crate
to teach this command, as the door doesn't swing and shut properly, and
some dogs can be very bothered by the way that they tip and sway. I
prefer plastic crates because the kibbles don't bounce out of them when
tossed in. If you are using a wire crate, you can use cardboard on the
outside to make a solid ring around the bottom part, which will help
contain the bounce. I generally put a rubber-backed bath mat on the
floor of the crate to reduce bounce and eliminate any aversion to the
slippery surface.

Dogs who are absolutely not food-motivated or toy-motivated at all can
still learn this, but it takes a lot of reps to get there, and is done
with mild compulsion (usually mostly body-language) and petting/praise.
One could use a toy with a very toy-motivated dog, but I haven't found
one that is really drivey towards toys who won't do it for food, and
food is easier to use in this particular circumstance. A very
toy-driven dog will typically get very amped up when using the toy to
lure this way, and we want the dog to move towards quiet compliance and

This protocol assumes a dog who is neither crate-trained nor obedience
trained beyond a marginal glimmer of a sit-stay. (This protocol will
also improve the dog's sit-stay, and a good trainer can teach both
skills at once to a totally naive dog; a novice would do better to work
a bit on sit-stay in separate sessions while starting this process as
well.) The dog should be able to take a treat from your fingers without
annexing any fingers. If the dog is averse to the crate, you will have
to go much more slowly, sometimes baiting the dog just to approach the
crate at first. No cooing or "comforting" such a dog! It's crucial that you remain matter-of-fact about this process. If the dog is
already accustomed to the crate, but just doesn't go into it on his own,
you can generally speed the process up quite a bit.

The basic premise is, you are convincing the dog that going into his
crate is his idea. Later it becomes mandatory but initially it's
about getting willing self-crating.

It takes longer to read this than it often does to do it! I've
accomplished the entire protocol, including fading the bait, in one
moderate-length session when it was imperative to "Git 'er done" right away.

Phase 1:

Start with a hungry dog and a crate. Hungry is not optional here,
because you do a lot of reps, and the dog may become quickly sated.
If the dog is fast, bullheaded, impulsive, it's useful to have a tab or
drag-line on his collar. Secure the crate door open at first so that it
is out of your way. Get the dog excited about the kibble (or better
stuff if you need it) and let him get a few pieces from your hand to
ensure that he will "take the money" and is engaged.

Now, walk up to the crate with the dog focused on the bribes, toss a
kibble just inside the door, and when the dog sticks his head in to take
it, tell him "Go to Your Room." Then call him away from the crate (a
few feet) and fuss on him.

Repeat three times with the bait right inside the the crate door. Then
start tossing further into the crate. Repeat "Go to Your Room" as the
dog now enters the crate, and praise him as he picks up the treat.
Make no effort to keep the dog in the crate. This is about going in,
not staying there. The quicker he comes back out, the faster you can
get in more reps.

Repeat until the dog is running into the crate on his own with the
treat all the way at the back wall.

This can be a good time to break and end the session, but if the dog is
staying really engaged, I keep going. If you break and start a new
session later (an hour or so minimum, next day is good), repeat a few
iterations of the dog running into the back of the crate for the treat
to get warmed up. That's true whenever you move on to a new phase after
a break -- reprise the previous session for a couple reps.

Phase 2:

Hold the dog by the collar (FLAT collar) about 3' from the crate door
and toss the treat into the crate. He should be pulling towards the
treat. Keep holding him back (no verbal corrections, no tugging -- just
hold). When he's really excited about getting the treat, let him go and
simultaneously command "Go to your room."

(Those who are familiar with puppy runaways in SAR training will see
where this comes from, and where it is going.)

The dog should shoot into the crate with a great deal more energy and
eagerness than before.

Continue with these reps, tossing the treat into the crate from further
and further away, and holding the dog back until he peaks in excitement,
then releasing him with the simultaneous command. Do this from as far
away as you can toss a treat accurately into the crate. (I find that
cut-up hotdogs are good for distance tossing.) If you have an
assistant, the assistant can stand by the crate and be the treat-weenie
and you can hold the dog from even further away.

At this phase is a good time to start closing the crate door (but not
latching it) some of the time, so that the dog has to use his paw or
nose to open the door. Leave a couple inches for a nose or paw to get
in at first. You want him to be extremely eager to get in before you
throw this roadblock in his way. If you encourage him to open the crate
door for himself at this phase, he will be able to do it later when the
door has swung closed and you aren't there.

In some cases, I will use reverse psychology and actually latch the
door closed when I want to build a strong drive to get into the crate.
I'll unlatch the door and let the dog in when he's pretty much frenzied
to get in there. I generally only do this when we are dealing with a
prior strong learned aversion to the crate. It's a strategy that
carries some risk of the dog generalizing to struggling at the door
while inside, though, so I have to make a call about doing this in any
given case.

Remember to praise each time he enters the crate, and to stop praising
when he exits it.

When he's dashing into the crate from as far away as is practical, and
popping the door open on his own without hesitation or difficulty, go on
to the next phase.

Phase 3:

Have the dog sit-stay about 3' in front of the crate. Toss a treat into
the crate. If the dog breaks, correct him verbally and block him. (Try
to avoid using a leash, but if you have to, do it.) When he's holding
the sit-stay well, release him with your release word and "go to your
room." Start moving him back away from the crate, so that you are
putting him in a sit-stay, walking to the crate, tossing in the treat,
walking back to him, and then releasing him to "Go to your room."

Again, praise as he enters the crate, stop praising as he exits it.

Alternate door open, door closed.

As you can see, this exercise is a good one for improving a sit-stay.

If your sit-stay is pretty good, you can even advance to working from
out of sight/a different room in the house. You ultimately want to be
able to send the dog to his room from anywhere in the house, right?

Begin sending the dog to the crate while you are in a sitting position
-- relaxing in your chair.

Phase 4:

Move back a little closer to the crate. Command the dog to "Go to your
room." When he gets there, close (but do not latch) the crate door, and
offer him a treat from your hand through the bars, while holding the
door closed with your foot. I like to do this from holes in the side or
back, or from the top in a wire crate. I generally switch to some sort
of treat that I can hold while the dog nibbles at this point -- like a
nylabone with some peanut butter on the end. Then I withdraw the treat
(if applicable), and tell the dog to WAIT when he turns his attention to
the door. I keep the door closed with my foot. If the dog scratches at
it, I verbally correct "AAHH AAHH." As soon as he is quiet, I open the
door, but continue to block with my body and verbally correct him for
busting out. Remember, the dog has just had quite a few "jack in the
box" reps, so he's going to try this, and there's no point getting
impatient with him over it. When he's sitting, standing, or lying
quietly in the crate with the door wide open and me about 2' back from
the door, I will release with the OKAY and step aside -- in that order.

I'll do about ten reps this way, not a lot. The goal is to have the dog
enter the crate from some distance, wait for you to give him a treat,
and then wait behind both a closed and an open door for permission to leave.

I do not give the dog positional commands while he's in the crate. He
can sit, stand, or lie down -- I don't care, and I can't effectively
enforce them when he's in there anyway. I'm looking for him to choose
to restrain himself behind both the open and the closed door

Phase 5:

Send dog to crate from some distance. When he gets in there, command
WAIT or STAY. Periodically toss a treat into the open door.

Advance rather quickly to the dog staying in the crate while you are
sitting about 10' or so away. These stays can vary from 1 minute to 30
minutes. In the course of a ten minute in-crate stay (again, no
positional commands, so I use WAIT) I might toss a treat to the dog
twice, when he is at maximum relaxation short of being asleep.
Phase 6:

Send dog to crate from anywhere in the house. Give stuffed Kong or
other ritual treat. Close and latch the door. Correct any whining or barking
with verbal, tossed object (shoe or throw-chain against the crate door)
or a water bottle spray -- whatever it takes.

Continue to send dog to his crate 5-10 times a day and having him wait
there with the door open. Follow up by bringing him a treat one time
out of those 5-10, always when he is most relaxed. Go in and out of the
room randomly while he waits in his crate.

You must make it clear, once your dog well understands what the command
means, that you will require the dog to go to his room on command -- it
is not a suggestion. I generally accomplish this with nothing more than
voice and body language, but some stubborn dogs may require a physical
correction (collar correction using a tab, e-collar tap, or light swat
on the butt or poke to the shoulder) when they don't wanna go. Do not
start using compulsion too early in the training, or your dog will
become dependent on it and will not crate willingly, but as an escape
tactic-- this is particularly true of "threatening" pointing to the
crate and gruff/angry commands.

Proof with children and other animals running around (whatever kind of
chaos your house has). Practice when traveling -- at a relative's
house, in a motel.

Set your dog up for doorbell rings, and send him to his room when your
stooge rings the bell. Reward him mightily when he gets there, close
the crate door, answer the bell. Advance to answering the bell with the
crate door open, correcting any breaks from the crate. You must do
this with planned setups -- you can't proof your dog's training and sign
for the Fedex man effectively at the same time.

Some of my clients have made the doorbell ringing a signal for their
dogs to run to their crates and wait. Very handy, and easily done. I
prefer my guys to be visible at the door when I open it, so I don't do this.

So that's how you get your dog to run to his crate on command, willingly, from anywhere in the house. The training can take a few days or several weeks, depending on the dog and the work ethic of the owner.

Young Wylie, nee Ace, is awaiting a long flight to his forever home here. Three weeks before this photo was taken, he was in a rural dog pound, and had almost certainly never seen a dog crate. Here he is relaxed and secure; he hopped into this airline kennel quite cheerfully when asked, and later repeated the feat for airline employees who one must assume are not hired for the their dog-handling chops. Some simple training made it possible for him to travel without undue stress.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

New Year's Gifts

It's seven degrees outside, and the house is crackling in the wind. Actually, the last blast just made a noise much like a bugle as it blew through or past something or other.

Got home from a cold day of SAR training and hustled down to the barn to give Henery and The Girls a New Year's Treat of hot mash and greens, and to give all the birds hot water to hold them overnight.

Only to find that they have, at long last, started paying rent:

This bodes well for a fruitful year, as we welcome the light back.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Such a Thing as Bad Publicity

My well-kept secret of a breed is on the verge of notoriety, through no fault of its own:

Puppymill Raid In Ballantine, MT


Video, Maps, and the search warrant

There is not much that I can say at this point.

Read that exactly as written. There is not much I can say.

Occasionally I fall to weeping, though.

But this individual has been well-known to the English shepherd community for several years.

As it becomes possible to publish updates, I'll add them here.

Please visit National English Shepherd Rescue for updates, or to donate.

Best breed rescue organization on the damned planet. I mean it. I'd walk through fire for these guys, because they'll walk through fire to do right by these dogs.

Are we now about to become the busiest breed rescue organization on the damned planet?

It's going to be a long, cold winter.

Pictured above is Gary, my current foster. He is also a purebred English shepherd. He apparently lived a life not unlike the one led by the Montana dogs. In six weeks here he's had a broken tooth removed, lived in lockdown while Rosie was in estrus, said goodbye to his testicles, learned how to live in a house and not pee therein, started his obedience training (he's a genius), been schooled on interspecies etiquette by my cat, mastered the mystery of the staircase -- and shown us just what an all-round cool guy he is.

If it's worth saving one, it's worth saving two hundred.

Oh. My. DoG. Two hundred.

And if you are interested in adopting Gary right away, let me know. He'd look great under someone's Christmas tree. He's a relative rarity: an English shepherd with a great pet temperament.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

I really AM trying to sell them

Imagine my surprise this morning, finding this ad on "The Best of Craig's List."

I am really just trying to sell these birds. I believe in truth in advertising.

So far, several nibbles, but there are still seven guineas in Guinea Alcatraz. I'd like to get that stall ready for floor-brooding of meat birds in the spring.

It's time for a few small repairs she said ...

For those of us lucky enough to live near an Ikea store, cool ideas here:

Ikea Hacker

I was first interested in the pet furniture hacks, but noodling around, I got some other great ideas.

If you don't know a Billy from a Hemne, it's all 'splained in this song by geek alt rocker Jonathan Coulton.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Whitney on Pip's Ancestors

The army jeep of farm dogs: cheap, compact, low-maintenance, versatile, no-frills. It will not be improved by morphing it into a Lincoln Navigator.

Ah, Leon F. Whitney, prolific bloviator on all things dog (and, disturbingly, other stuff) for much of the 20th century. Love 'im or hate 'im. Mostly I hate 'im. He had a habit of indulging his half-considered prejudices and presenting them to his readers as the epitome of scientifical fact. This is gratifying when his prejudices reinforce one's own, infuriating when they are, you know, just plain wrong.

However, Whitney is one of the few general writers on dogs who acknowledged the corporeal reality of Pip's ancestors in the early-to-mid 20th century. He also had a high opinion of their virtues.

Pity he never bothered to discover that they were a breed -- or breeds -- with pedigrees, a couple-three registries, and thoughtful selection. The English shepherd is virtually unchanged from before Whitney's day, and has a registration history that goes back to the 1930's. The Australian shepherd is closely related, and the gene pools did not definitively diverge until mid-century.

Granted, most ES were not registered in Whitney's day; there are still good family lines of unregistered ES today, maintained by farmers who cannot see the logic in exchanging money for a paper that tells them what they already know.

Here's my latest discovery, from How to Select, Train, and Breed Your Dog, first published in 1950:

American Shepherd

Back in the colonial days, the settlers brought with them many fine dogs, most of them of the collie or shepherd type. Some refuse to call these dogs a breed, yet they have been, as a type, the American dog. As shepherd dogs they are not quite the equal of the marvelous border collie because the latter is the product of the most stringent selection for sheep herding without too much consideration of temperament. The border collies live away from human habitation much of the time and have not been bred for general farm use.

But the American dog has been a constant human companion as well as the farm shepherd and guard dog. Many have been used as hunters. In an illuminating article in Field and Stream, B.B. Titus describes how he used to train these general purpose dogs to hunt raccoons at night and squirrels in the day as well as to herd cows. Many of the dogs were real shepherds.

If you travel anywhere in the U.S.A. you will find, when you get away from the cities, so many more shepherds than any other breed. You'll wonder why they aren't registered in the A.K.C. Can you imagine what would have happened if as many of these dogs were observed by Americans traveling in, let us say, Argentina? Why they would have "given it a breed" long ago, formed a great club, and imported them by the thousand.

We've got the story, the breed -- a marvelous breed it is -- and we have the uses for it. In ability, it stood at the top of American war dogs. It is one of the few breeds bred for general intelligence. No exaggeration is needed.

This is the dog that can be trusted to guard children day or night. He will bark when the horse has colic or one of the cows calves. He can herd the cows home, let his master know if one is missing, and with some power hard to explain, even force a ew whose lamb has died to adopt an orphan. He is often the farm boy's hunting companion, and when "Old Shep" passes on, the family often holds a funeral. You'll find many a wooden slab in a field near a farmhouse with "Old Shep" scrawled on it, and you'll know his family was all choked up at the loss.

Yet, while a so-called sheep-herding dog named the Komondor from Hungary is registered in the A.K.C. the American shepherd hasn't even an official breed name.

Thank doG for small favors. In the same text, Whitney decries the ruination of the cocker spaniel by "a clique of breeders who, with the sanction of the A.K.C., arranged it so that only cockers with huge, woolly clipped coats had a Chinaman's chance of winning. That did it. Down went the breed in popularity because so few persons wanted such a dog."

"What was the real American cocker like? ... The proper cocker didn't know its teeth were made to bite ... The dog hungered for human companionship, was never shy, and did not piddle when surprised or happy."

But, you know, it was a sad thing that fanciers had not "recognized" the "American shepherd" and sought to similarly improve it by 1950.

58 years later, and still dodging fancier bullets.

The Aussie -- that western branch of the farm shepherd/farm collie family tree -- was the subject of a hostile takeover by the AKC in 1993. It was soon joined by other kidnapped gene pools -- the border collie, JRT, Beauceron, Cavalier King Charles spaniel, Havanese, Leonberger -- am I forgetting anyone? Only fifteen years later, the massive, fluffy, merle show dogs are utterly unable to work livestock -- and their fanciers sniff dismissively at the increasingly hard-to-find wiry, keen little cattle-workers, who are, you know, probably crossbreds.

Monday, December 1, 2008

Mystery Tree

It's planted about 40' from our front door.

It is about as tall as our two-story house.

It has the pleasing shape you see here. (Photo taken from upstairs window.)

As of December 1, it has still not dropped its leaves.

Color was medium green all summer, now is green shading to burgundy/brown.

The leaves are sturdy, waxy/leathery, and the buds for next year are slightly fuzzy and already well-developed. They alternate on the branch. They are very slightly serrated at the margins.

I do not know about flowers and fruits.

Something in the poplar family?

Online tree ID tools and traditional field guides have not yielded an answer.

I assume it is not native, was planted as an ornamental.


Monday, November 24, 2008

Director of Homeland Security

There are dogs you'd want with you in a foxhole.

Dogs that have your back.

Dogs that wish they lived in more dangerous times, so they would have more to do.

And the astonishing thing, to me, is the degree to which these qualities are heritable. Introduce two Danger Dogs at the right time, and in the resulting litter, you are going to get some more of the same.

Fail to select for it, it goes away.

I knew Moe was going to become the dog he was always meant to be when we were only a week or so on our farm.

I was on the lawn tractor, mowing out a new garden spot, with iPod and shooting muffs on, when my dog-loving insurance agent's car started down the driveway.

I couldn't hear a thing, and kept happily mowing away and singing along with Fountains of Wayne until I turned a corner and saw Moe doing a dog-style impression of this tableau:

Frank just wasn't going to come any further down the driveway. No excitement, no nastiness. Just a very clear, very authoritative, very unequivocal: None Shall Pass.

I shut off the tractor and called Moe to heel. He was content to trot over to me and sit, watching while Frank parked. I told him "That's Frank, he's supposed to be here. Okay." Moe gallumphed over and greeted him with his signature butt-first full-body wiggle and squeak.

And that's how it has been here.

There has been little enough for Moe to handle -- at least, little enough that I am aware of. He does go on patrol, so there's no way of knowing what he's heading off before it becomes a problem.

The feral cats that menaced our kittens in September have not returned after Moe showed them to the trees at the end of the lane.

There was his Secret Service style takedown of Eddie in defense of my father, a long story for another day.

There are many fox tracks and sign in the woods and further pastures, but nothing has bothered the poultry. When I have to coop the poultry before they are ready to go in at night, it is Moe who hunts each chook out of the brush and scoots her into the pop-hole with gentle authority.

He assists his mother in groundhog control.

He is rather emphatic in his efforts to drive off aerial invaders, whether low-flying geese, raptors, (dogs apparently believe in the ubiquity of chicken hawks) or this rather surprising, and surprisingly frequent, summer interloper in our air space:

He does not bark or alert to activity in the township park, which bounds our property to the west. Pays no mind to the neighbors to the north and east, who are over a hill and off the radar. The farmland to the south is seldom traveled, and he lets me know when someone is out there working or hunting -- reports unusual activity.

Today the furnace guy* arrived while I was outside with Pip and Rosie. I let him in through the basement door; Moe was upstairs.

Quite some time later, I came downstairs and left the door at the top of the stairs open. Moe followed a minute later, and, mid-stairs, perceived the stranger in the furnace room.

Tail up, head forward, he darted into the space between me and the technician. No barking, no growling, no "threat" -- just presence, and a claim on the space. Nobody was coming out of that furnace room until further intelligence was forthcoming.

"Moe, he's supposed to be in there. I let him in. It's allowed."

Wag wag wag wag. Squeak. Scratch my butt, man.

Judgment, restraint, eagerness to confront a threat without any tendency to invent it where it does not exist. Trust in legitimate authority, and good will towards men.

Maybe our country can now rediscover these virtues in our public servants and guardians.

They would do well to emulate Moe.

*We just spent four days during an unseasonable cold snap without heat, turning the living-room stove insert into the little fireplace that could (sort of) and winter camping in our house. The kitchen floor is still not replaced, since the adhesive and leveling compound could not set up at forty degrees. And may I broadcast to the world -- as I promised I would -- that we froze solely because HSA home warranty (which came with the house, not our choice to buy it) is owned, managed, and staffed by pathological liars, mental defectives, incompetents, cheats, and thieves.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

At Least, Don't Buy This

Friday is Buy Nothing Day.

We will be, depending on weather, cutting firewood, sighting in rifles, walking the dogs. Probably restocking our SAR packs against the likely rifle-season lost hunter deployment(s). Certainly eating leftovers.

I'd intended to leave this topic until then, but oh the bitter irony if you all read it on Saturday, still hung-over from a frenzied mall binge that included the worst possible impulse purchase that does not leave you with a case of the clap. I was goaded to post earlier by this entry over at the Pet Connection. Bring it, Gina, bring it!

Please send to your most impetuous friends and family. You know which ones.

(Notice that, of the
2835 "needs" listed by this notorious puppymill retailer, all of them are material in nature and coincidentally available for purchase on their shelves at easily double the big-box or online price, right next to the live product in the deli case. Is there someone out there with a strong enough stomach to walk into the mall with a clipboard and tote up the damage?)

'Tis the season in which puppymills make their profits. What consumers do in the next month determines whether Amos and Ada fire up the puggle factory for spring production, or cut their losses and go back to making oak furniture and rhubarb preserves. You decide whether March sees the opening of a shiny new GNC in that mall slot, or another year of shivering Yorki-poos behind glass.

The retail puppymill industry depends on two rather different kinds of consumers to keep the misery factory's gears greased. Without both, it will not survive. Without understanding both, advocates for animals -- shelter and rescue workers, ethical breeders, trainers, vets, and other professionals -- can't combat the retail puppymill's marketing strategies.

The "traditional" puppymill retail customer is the see - want - buy consumer. There's a reason the stores put the doggie in the window, and keep the price tags on the QT. (Hint: If the shop-worn, gangly, potbellied puppy has a sign on the cage promising $200 OFF, you do not want to know "off what?")

In other words, the traditional puppymill customer is ignorant, and lacks impulse control.

Ignorant of what?

First, the customer is ignorant of what a puppy is worth -- not "worth" as in "He's my best friend and I wouldn't take any money in the world for him," but the market value of a comparable pup.

One can buy an indifferently-bred Labrador with no registration papers or worthless papermill papers for about a hundred bucks in this market. "AKC registered," about $250.

One current ad in the local paper offers microchipped, health-guaranteed Lab pups from OFA'd, CERF'd parents for $400.

The recently-opened Petland in Pittsburgh has a three-month-old yellow-colored male Labrador for sale right now: $899. I called. The clerk (she sounded super-kyoot) volunteered the color, but not the gender, of the pup. (As we all know, there are three distinct breeds involved here: the blacklab, the yellowlab, and the choklitlab.) I did not ask about OFA and CERF. I can't keep a poker-face that well, even over the phone.

900 bills is a fair price for the carefully-raised offspring of two health-tested Labs proven in field trials or hunt tests. Also about the going rate for puppies from two pageant champions. Wanna bet that's what they are selling?

So the puppy-in-the-window buyer is getting robbed on a pure commodity-value basis, and he's mostly ignorant about that.

He's also ignorant about dogs in general, and the social constructs surrounding them: What kind of paperwork means something, and what kind is just another unnecessary tree death. What is and is not a "pure" breed, and what that does and does not mean for the pup's value as a companion. What a healthy, thrifty, sound, mentally stable puppy looks and acts like. What constitutes a useful "guarantee" on a pup's health. The developmental needs of puppies, and how those are met. The importance of genetics -- best observed in the physical persons of the parents -- in determining a pup's potential to be a good pet. The importance of assessing and matching temperament to the family situation.

One wrinkle on this kind of buyer is the customer who has been conditioned by relentless consumptionist propaganda to equate breed with brand. After all -- if I buy a new Honda-brand model of automobile, it's going to be cosmetically and functionally identical to any other new Honda-brand same-model automobile. That label is predictive of certain things, and both my personal experience of the label and the Consumer Reports generalization are useful guides in whether to buy one or go with another brand.

This is not true of dogs. There is no German shepherd brand dog. There is no poodle brand dog. One cannot conclude that because the neighbor's dog Gretchen was so kewl and lived to be fifteen, that a "German shepherd" puppy from the pet store will perform similarly. And just because Pierre liked to bite fingers doesn't mean they all will. Neither does a seemingly safe generalization -- "golden retrievers make great family dogs" -- mean that any golden retriever from any source is going to be an acceptable, much less "great," family dog.

Cosmetically "identical" (to the unpracticed eye) does not equate to functional similarity. Black, tan, pointy ears does not make Strongheart.

This "branding" misconception is especially dominant with fad breeds and fad mongrels that are, or are marketed as, "rare," and can override any judgment someone might ordinarily have about the pricing or provenance. "I must have a purebred Shiba Inu, and this one in the pet store is the only one I can get right now. They'll take a credit card, I can pay the $3000 over the next year!" The overhyped breed or "designer dog" becomes a panic buy, on par with a new Wii, a living Cabbage Patch doll. (Remember the shar pei bubble of the 80's?)

Third, the traditional storefront impulse buyer is ignorant about the puppymill industry. He may have vaguely heard of such things and even remember them being associated with pet stores just like the one he's standing in now. But the sign says that the puppies come from "USDA-licensed breeders." That's good, right? This puppy has a government stamp of approval, like a steak. And Tammi and Cindee, the super-kyoot clerks, seem to just looove the puppies, and it's all clean glass and chrome, with this thing on the wall that squirts cinnamon scent into the air every two minutes.

What can I say? We can only repeat, over and over again: If it is for sale in a pet store, it came from a puppymill. If it came from a puppymill (and it did, it did -- do you get this? -- it did), its genetics are highly suspect, its early environment was impoverished, it has been stressed and exposed to communicable disease before its immune system developed, it is at ultra-high risk of becoming a dog with serious, unfixable health and behavior problems, and you will get no help or sympathy from the seller when it does. You are buying an expensive heartbreak for yourself and your family. Furthermore, you -- you personally -- are perpetuating animal cruelty that would make you puke if you saw it, heard it, smelled it. You and your Visa card have sentenced this puppy's mother, father, and their now-inevitable successors in the puppy production line to continued lives of unremitting misery.

Do not believe the lies of the super-kyoot clerk. This puppy did not come from a "reputable breeder." (Except in the sense that "reputation" used to carry when my mother was in high school.) No reputable, ethical, caring, competent, knowledgeable breeder ever sells a puppy through a pet store, broker, or any third party to persons unknown. Never. Never ever. The person or corporation who owns this puppy's unfortunate mother does not give a rat's ass about his mother, the puppy, or any part of you that is not backed by Citibank.

And a clean, sanitized, concrete-and-stainless, passed-USDA-inspection "commercial kennel" is still a puppymill. (If a breeding kennel is large enough to be USDA-licensed -- it is a puppymill.) Regular use of bleach is not indicative of love for, knowledge of, or commitment to, the
production unitsbreeding animals caged there, nor for their
productspuppies or the unseen

Okay, so we combat the traditional pet-shop purchaser's big mistake by filling the gaps in his knowledge, in the not-unreasonable hopes that it will lead to impulse control when he's confronted by the puppy in the window -- and possibly the wails of the children. I don't care whether he's moved by an appeal to his humanity, or because he takes umbrage at being robbed, or because he (rightly) fears that the shivering little pup in the back corner of the cage will become a Big Liability in terms of vet bills, a decade of carpet-cleaning, or emergency room visits for the kiddies. I just wanna keep the Mastercard under wraps and stop the production line back in Missouri (Iowa, Holmes County, Lancaster, basement in Brooklyn).

One would think that exposure to all this information, all these warnings, would be enough to stop any but the most willful and precipitous "consumer" of dog-as-product. After all, any self-interested person will want to avoid getting ripped off, and any compassionate person will want to avoid causing suffering. Right?

That's where the second class of puppymill customer comes in.

These people also suffer from a failure of impulse control. But their ill-advised purchases are paradoxically motivated by knowledge of the puppymill industry's cruelty. They are the self-proclaimed "rescuers" of the doggie in the window. If you ask them, it is "compassion" that motivates them, and "self-interest" is just dirty.

The more photos of mangy emaciated bitches standing in filth this nice lady* sees, the more she hears about miserable lives of the young pups who are the industry's products, the more overwrought she becomes about the cruelty, the more danger she is in.

Because she is going to walk into Petland ("Just to get goldfish food."), see the most miserable, wretched, defective little product in the deli case, and ask to hold her.

And then she's going to start the rationalization process that she will later present to her incensed husband, her eye-rolling vet, her disapproving sister, the trainer whose head is cracking repeatedly against the wall, the neighbor who volunteers fifteen hours a week at the shelter: "I had to save her from that place. I couldn't leave her there. We bonded instantly."

Indeed, in the past five years or so, this category of puppymill customer may have become the dominant one, and further, they have become perversely empowered; while previously a woman would answer my question about "Where did you get the puppy?" with a simpering "I know it was wrong, but ..." preface to the story about the impulse buy at the mall, now it is more and more common to get a self-congratulatory "We rescued her from Petland!"

The first time I heard this, I imagined that the young lady and her boyfriend had donned black turtlenecks and rappelled down an airshaft to snatch puppies in the dead of night. Alas, no. The "rescue" was accomplished with the aid of Mastercard, in a manner so much resembling a routine and profitable-to-the-store purchase that one might be forgiven for regarding it as such.

This pet store buyer does not respond to appeals to either emotion or reason. Self-interest does not serve, because the buyer is wrapped up in her imagined role as the dog's savior -- so the more messed-up the dog is, the higher the medical bills, the wackier and more destructive the behavior, the happier the "rescuer" is -- the more validated she is in her elevated status. And one of the more self-indulgent delusions of her manufactured reality is validated: "No one else would have given this puppy a good home. Everyone but me who walks into a pet store and buys a puppy is a bad, selfish person doing it for terrible reasons, and they would have all been mean to her."

This buyer also maintains a divided consciousness, or is cognitively unable to supersede a concrete experience (cute puppy in my arms) with an intangible reality (my actions perpetuate the systematic abuse of her mother, father, and their now-inevitable replacements on the production line, guarantee that her retail cage will be filled tomorrow by another victim, and reward their abusers handsomely). This puppy, right here, needs me to "rescue" her; those "other" dogs somewhere else are not real, they are just theoretical dogs that I can't touch and can't look at me to beg for help.

Of course, much of this is emotionally dishonest, guilty cover for an underlying see - want -buy impulse. Nobody walks into a puppy retailer honestly believing that she will not see any puppies; one can buy every kind of pet supply at non-puppy-selling outlets nowadays, and cheaper, too. And it's remarkable how often the puppy that she asks to hold just happens to be of a
brandbreed or designer mix she has been coveting, one perhaps not readily available in appealing eight-week-old form at the local shelter. What were the chances that they'd have a cavi-poo right there in the window?! Indeed.

It took me a while in my work as a dog trainer to realize that this second kind of puppymill buyer existed -- that those of us who know dogs and want the best for them and their humans are not combating simple ignorance or uncomplicated callousness. I've long encountered unproductive savior-complex emotions in the owners of dogs that came from pounds, shelters, or (real or imagined) bad previous owners; for the dogs' sakes, I try to wean these owners from dependence on a self-image as a selfless rescuer, and a version of the dog as a lifetime helpless victim. But it was a surprise to find these same destructive personal stories behind the failing relationships that started with a very expensive retail credit card transaction.

It took me quite a bit longer to realize that the puppymill industry is aware of these buyers, understands their emotional motivations, knows that it depends on them, and markets accordingly. Holy shit, Batman!

Well duh. All it takes is a savvy corporate marketing director to stand in a busy store for an hour in December and listen to the family conversations. Petland had this figured out years before Thicky O'Thickson the Dog Trainer grokked it. And it has as much to do with competing with their own suppliers' internet direct sales as it does with grabbing market share from both shelters and decent breeders.

Because the direct-sales from internet puppymills cannot benefit from the immediacy of a (perceived to be) suffering little pup. Internet puppymillers have to pretend to be ethical breeders (and some are getting pretty good at aping the forms) because nobody in Miami Paypals a grand for a NKC-registered Sheltie that is in a wire cage in Nebraska in order to "save her."

The Petland marketers know that they are walking a fairly thin line. They must be clean and pleasant enough that people will walk in. But clinical and "mean-looking" enough that the pups project pathos. The deli case hits that note perfectly. Cold glass, steel, aqua fiberglass -- and maybe one little colorful squeaky toy in there with the morkie pup, a sort of garnish on his desolation. Perfect.

Here's another thing the Petland marketers know about the "rescue" buyers: they are the ones who will buy the sick, overaged, shopworn pups that are "marked down" -- without the markdown being big enough to make the transaction unprofitable.

And the final thing that Petland marketers know about these Martyr Mommies: They are recidivist buyers. While an ignorant buyer will only return for a second pet-store puppy if he is extremely lucky (gets that really good 'un the first time -- and they do exist) and/or exceedingly dull, callous, and incurious (Paris Hilton, say), the buyer with the well-developed Savior Complex will do it again, no matter how much heartbreak she bought the first (second, third) time. It's not the dog she's buying -- it's her self-perception as a wonderful human who helps poor little animals (and just happens to help poor little animals that are currently trendy and exactly the color she likes best.)

How do those of us who care about animals, understand the systemic nature of their commercial abuse, and work with the owners of all kinds of dogs combat this powerful psychological drive to buy?

First, I try to wean owners from a dependence on "poor-baby" emotions directed towards their dogs, from whatever source. No matter how broken the beast, he's more mature, more capable, and possesses more potential for dignity than this owner wants to allow. I do this mostly by showing how well the dog learns and responds in the absence of coddling. I show them their dog's capacity for achievement.

I also lightly talk up, and heavily demonstrate, the pleasures of owning an animal that comes with no "issues," and the wonderful relationships one can develop with a thoughtful breeder who is there for the life of his or her dogs.

I always try to direct the impulse to "save" towards dogs in pounds, shelters, and rescues -- especially those that I know will screen appropriately and try to make a good match.

And finally, I cut them off.


It would be callous of me to deny education and behavioral help to a puppymill puppy and his overwhelmed owner. I absolutely do work with pet-shop products both privately and in group classes (after the pup is no longer at elevated risk of passing on puppymill diseases to the group).

I even have some special written material for clients that addresses the specific behavior issues that beset puppymill pups -- housetraining, socialization issues, genetic shyness, etc.

I do this once.

The training handout on Your Puppymill Puppy ends with this paragraph:
If, in the future, you choose to purchase another puppy from a pet store or puppymiller, First Friend will not provide private training or classes for you. We will not be associated with any financial support of this cruel and exploitive industry. When the time comes, we are happy to help you select another puppy or dog from a source that does not profit from misery, whether you choose to buy from an ethical breeder or adopt from a shelter or rescue.
I have had many clients consult me first for behavior issues presented by a puppymill puppy; years later, they are the most likely to call me for help selecting another dog, and I've had the pleasure of training many second or successor pups that came from shelters or ethical breeders.

I have no way of knowing how many puppymill pup owners became pet store recidivists and never called me up or tried to enroll in class because they remembered this warning. Not many, I think. At some level, I don't care. I am not their dog trainer.

Now, what if every trainer, every veterinarian, every groomer, every boarding kennel operator -- every professional who cleans up after the messes caused by Petland, Hunte, Lambriar and their suppliers -- did the same?

You get one free pass for ignorance. Now I have educated you. If you choose to ignore reality, or not to care about suffering you can't see, I choose not to help you.

What if there were no vets who would work for puppymill owners -- no health certificates for flying pups?

How long before the puppymills shut down then?

* I have no doubt that there are men who buy from pet stores with this exact motivation. I don't remember ever meeting one. It is primarily a chick thing.

Friday, November 21, 2008

The Unbearable Cuteness of Being a Dog Trainer

Admit it. This is what you think we do all day.

One thing about working as a dog trainer -- cocktail party conversation.

Tell the random stranger at the awards banquet that you are an import manager or mechanical engineer, and usually not much goes forward from that.

Tell him you are a dermatologist or a dog trainer, and be prepared to hear his stories, endure his folklore, respond to a barrage of questions (most of which are more appropriately handled by a veterinarian -- and that goes for both dermatologists and dog trainers), and often have to deflect a demand for a free diagnosis of whatever is vaguely troubling him -- which you know he will ignore, because hey, what do you know?

There are people -- sometimes I think, everybody -- who would much rather bitch about their problems than solve them. Their mating call is "Yeah, but." I try to avoid the mistake of offering solutions in these cases, but still find myself sucked in when I am unwary. The correct response is to offer a business card and turn the conversation to something less incendiary, say, that jazzy new abortion clinic on the corner, or one's recent conversion to Mormonism.

Still, I suppose that's better than the engineer's wife who asked what I did for a living, and when I told her, responded with an enthusiastic "How cute!"

It would not occur to me to characterize anyone else's profession as "cute." I mean, assuming she is not a teddy bear stylist or greeting-card kitten photographer, say. And I still wouldn't say it to her face. Who can tell when it's been a bad day on the kitten ranch? Kitten bites get infected! Maybe the teddy bear boutique was besieged by crazed plushies in rut this week. One never knows.

I didn't ask Mrs. Cute what she did. It was apparent that the answer was not "diplomatic attache to Yemen," and was quite likely "nothing much."

Anyway, at the time I was carrying a client load that included some high-maintenance humans and a couple of fairly committed trainer-eating dogs. I'm sure Mrs. Cute did not conjure a 90-pound resource-guarding Weimaraner coming for my face when she pronounced on the nature of my career.

But it is little wonder that people have only the vaguest notion of what I do. Few people bother to train their own animals, and popular culture has provided very few, and very weird, images of what a dog trainer does at work.

The most common archetype is Barbara Woodhouse -- crazy as a sack of squirrels at best, and enough to scare the bejimmies out of most people contemplating going to a group class. If you are under 30, you may think you have never heard of this lady. Fear not; you've seen the parody a jillion times. It will never die.

Cesar Millan's television show comes close to a realistic portrayal of the kind of private counseling and one-on-one work that has been my kibble-and-butter for fourteen years. Cesar's clients are richer and on average loopier than mine. California, ya know. I do not look so good in a shortie wetsuit. I am not so willing as Cesar to take a bite -- don't know anyone else who is, actually. But I've met him, and he still had all his fingers. Neither of us typically solve all your dog problems in a 12-minute segment.

That fake dominatrix from England -- actress, not dog trainer. She's got the costume (for dominatrix, not dog trainer -- I mean, stilettos? Really?) but not the chops or attitude (mere bitchiness is not authority, Honey), and certainly not the knowledge. Anyway, a B&D mistress gets paid a lot more per hour, and who am I to say she hasn't earned it?

Possibly the best capture of the flavor and feel of working as a private dog trainer that I have ever seen in the "media" is in this short work of science fiction.

Fifteen years of bitching about work, and who knew? My husband actually heard something. It wasn't all "Blah blah blah KEN."

Tuesday, November 18, 2008


Woke up this morning, and world had gone all Andrew Wyeth on me

Took a walk out to the camera trap in the upper pasture. I couldn't see any tracks along the trail at all, but the dogs were running some sort of scent.

The trap camera needs to be adjusted to point more downwards, or else moved to the downhill side of the trail. I got 20+ photos of this:

And one partial shot of the swift and wily tractor-bambi:

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Becoming Ourselves, Again

In which the blogger sincerely promises that this will be the last political post for a while, and commits to a return to dog stories, some meaty training topics, and perhaps more funny pictures of chickens. And in which I apologize in advance to my relatives for mining family history for a metaphor about America.

The core of conservatism -- real conservatism, not the loopy, vicious pseudo-Christian slash 'n' burn pre-millennialism that has been claiming the title in this country for the past, say, 27 years -- is a deeply-held belief that the way things are is the way things ought to be; or at least, that the way things are is preferable to the uncertainty of many unexplored possibilities. Real conservatism is, therefore, based in a profound love of this world as she is, and a respect for the gifts of the past.

The core of liberalism -- real liberalism, not some whinging self-absorbed reflex of pale political correctitude -- is a deeply-held belief that the world can be better, and that this end must be achieved through the earthly efforts of human beings. Real liberalism, therefore, is based on a profound love of potentials and possibilities, and an optimism for the promise of the future.

Those both sound pretty good to me.

I live in a nation that was audaciously founded to embrace both. I'm fine with that. Dynamic tension keeps life interesting, but not too interesting.

I also live in a nation in which the polymath genius who asserted to the world as self-evident truth the Enlightenment heresy that "All men are created equal," owned human beings as chattel -- owned his own natural children just as he owned rare books and fine wine and merino sheep. A nation in which, as well, the architect of the Constitution owned human beings.

I am not fine with that. Conserving that status quo is not okay by me. That was not being "of one's time." Nostalgia for those Good Ol' Days -- not cool. America, as in Shining City on the Hill America, as in Beacon to the World America -- America had a long way to go, a lot of progress to be made, before she fulfilled her promise to her people and her world and became herself. And things really did get quite a bit worse before they started very slowly and fitfully and with much fire and blood getting better, which supplies even the most committed progressive with some perspective about why some people do get awfully nostalgic for some other Good Ol' Days and always think everything sucks more now. Sometimes it does. The cotton gin was not a gift to the moral development and advancement of mankind.

It is the optimism of liberalism that could see not just what was wrong about that disturbingly familiar-looking young man waiting at Jefferson's table, but what was right about the sentiment that we are endowed with the those unalienable rights. Progress is not measured in how far we have come from the injustices and atrocities of the past, but how close we draw to the promise of our ideals.

Because my President has, almost in the hour of his victory, lost his grandmother -- his rootstock on this earth -- a word about my own maternal grandparents. And why I think that, despite some of what I'm going to tell you, I believe that tonight's historic victory for America honors both their memories, and the memories of so many of our honored ancestors.

My grandmother, Caroline Toso Shoenfelt, was a lifelong Democrat in a pretty Republican little town in the Western Reserve of Ohio. I don't remember her talking politics much, but I do remember that she worked at the polls in every election. Civic duty was more prominent than partisanship. It's not clear to me that there was a difference for her.

When I was a single graduate student, she tried in all seriousness to fix me up with a certain obscenely famous and ungodly talented recluse cartoonist who lived in the town. "Heather, he's single, and he's rich now, and I happen to know he's a Democrat!" What more could a Gramma want for her granddaughter?

Caroline Shoenfelt was also, during my lifetime, a Congregationalist -- Hudson being something of an outpost of New England in the nearly Midwest. What I did not know until the recent baptism of my youngest niece was that she had left the Lutheran church -- the Missouri synod, aka Shiite Protestants -- over doctrine. When the minister declared that my niece was born "a child of darkness," my Mom leaned over and whispered (and I paraphrase, but not as much as you might think) "It was shit like that that made your grandmother leave the Lutheran church." Now it happened to be Trinity Sunday when Sean was baptized, meaning that the congregation recited the entire Athanasian Creed. I'd never heard a loyalty oath being administered before, and it was uncomfortable. I had the distinct tactile hallucination of a pike point gently pressing into the small of my back. (Later Ken said I was mistaken, that it was definitely a gladius.) I saw Gramma's point.

She smoked little cherry cigars and drank the occasional Canadian Club, put too much salt on her celery and too much sugar on a bowl of wild strawberries. I inherited only the vice of oversalting; my taste in whiskey is more spendy as I age. She had great legs and skin that did not wrinkle much with age, and I was lucky enough to inherit both.

Robert Shoenfelt worked for Firestone through The War (and after), and also owned an auto repair shop in town. I'm pretty sure he was also a lifelong Democrat, but you know, he never told me that, and I could be entirely mistaken. He tended a huge garden and orchard, worked in metal and wood and photo emulsion and brick and stone, and was a Master Mason -- leading to a cognitive muddle that persisted well into my adulthood about where the practice of actual stonemasonry ended and the practice of Freemasonry began. (I was astonished to learn that most Masons do not know how to set mortar or lay a cornerstone.)

My grandparents' rural property was a few acres, I guess, but to a feral child it was a whole world. Pata cut a network of paths through the overgrown fields with his lawn tractor, and I would disappear into those fields for hours just about as soon as I could toddle off. It wasn't until I was an adolescent that I realized he had mowed those paths for me. I never, never got the slightest impression that a granddaughter was second best to a grandson.

This midwestern mechanic kept a bust of Nefertiti on the console television. Hand-forged a bronze ankh for my mother. Had bookshelves full of arcana, spiritualism, natural history, ecology. I read Silent Spring on my grandparents' living-room floor, and being about eight, cried for the dead birds. They tolerated -- even welcomed -- a swooping, pooping nest of barn swallows on the front porch every summer. They composted when no one had ever heard of it.

Robert Shoenfelt had male pattern baldness and Alzheimer's. My uncle and both of my brothers were lucky enough to inherit the former. If I inherit the latter, I have a friend (no, I am not telling who) who has sworn to put me out of my misery and find some good woman to take care of my husband.

My husband-to-be met my grandfather when Alzheimer's had already reduced him greatly -- but not yet beyond recognition. The core of the man was still there, and it was a good day for him. As we left the house and drove away, Ken turned to me and observed "Your grandfather is a wizard, you know."

Oh yes. I knew.


The conservative says, cleave to what is good in what you have, and embrace all the baggage that is attached.

The liberal says, we must do better to become what we truly are.

My grandfather did not self-censor around the grandkids. And my grandfather indulged many prejudices. At times he seemed to do little else.

I learned from him that Japanese cars were complete shit.

That cats were hateful creatures, suitable for target practice.

That black people were ... I cannot even begin to catalogue the shortcomings of black people. At my beloved Pata's knee, I first heard the injunction to "send them back to Africa." I kid you not. And worse. These lessons did not set. These lessons made me confused at much too tender an age about loving someone utterly and, utterly rejecting some part of him too.

Vile speech in front of little children -- and hateful, unworthy thoughts -- were the slave master's bastard of my grandfather's life.

But things did change.

I took my driving test in a little white Toyota. My grandparents' little white Toyota. Because those Japanese were sure making good little cars now!

One of the last big manly projects Robert Shoenfelt undertook was to put a new roof on the house. And who should join him up there but a tomcat who had been hanging around? Caroline finked him out to the rest of the family -- she heard him talking companionably to the cat while he worked. Caught him petting the cat. That cat was OK. Good company. Not like other cats.

And then there was my parents' friend, Evelyn Chatton.

My mother describes her as "The most truly spiritual and beautiful soul it was my pleasure to call my friend." I remember her as a quiet presence of comfort.

With trepidation -- and I'm sure more than a little fortifying coaching for Evelyn, and cautionary threats for Robert -- they introduced this dignified black lady to Robert, a man who was as his true self, in spiritual resonance with her.

And he loved her, and respected her. And that changed him. Not completely. Not holding hands and singing Kum-bay-ya with Carl Stokes change. That would never come. Since Robert fervently believed in reincarnation, I'm sure he will have or has already had an opportunity to continue to evolve.

That bronze ankh that he crafted for my Mom (the one I'm going to inherit one day, and my nieces will inherit from me)? He labored just as long over its twin, cut from the same slab. The ankh, as the hieroglyph for "a journey" is derived from the shape of a sandal strap. They should be made in pairs.

The other ankh was a gift for Evelyn Chatton.

Tonight I saw my America become, not just a little bit easier to love unreservedly, but more itself. I saw the promise to the world that is America the Big Idea leap forward towards its own realization, and away from the centuries-long betrayal that has been, at various times, America the bully, America the greedy, America the fearful, America the shrill -- and buried deep, but still there, swaggering in its ugliness, America the slave master.

I know that it is hard for a conservative -- a true conservative, one who loves what is so much that changing it seems too perilous to risk -- to face the future without genuine fear right now. The line between an abundance of prudence and clinical paranoia, once so clear, has been erased by years of cynical manipulation. Big changes are coming -- big changes would have come no matter what, but now we have a direction for them, and that seems threatening to those who suspect change on principle.

Step outside. The stars are spectacular over Pennsylvania tonight; maybe they are where you are, too. For all human purposes, they've been there forever, and they'll be there forever after tonight. That thought should calm anyone. Take a deep breath. Think about what it is that we have to conserve in America. Our oldest treasures. One of them begins with an unsupportable, wild-ass assertion: "We hold these truths to be self-evident ..." Another, 18th-century collectivism: "We the People ..."

American conservatives are charged with the difficult task of maintaining the radical propositions enshrined in our civic scriptures and national ideals, from the Mayflower Compact on forward. Guys, you have to conserve liberalism! That's hard to hold down with a fork. But a great task for all Americans, starting on a momentous night when we will begin to

Let America be America again.
Let it be the dream it used to be.
Let it be the pioneer on the plain
Seeking a home where he himself is free.