Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Hunger Moon

The Hunger Moon is waning.

As part of our gift-with-purchase of New Improved Warmer Planet, we've been enjoying the first real winter in over a decade here, and she's a doozy. Persistent snow cover instead of our usual "look pretty and white for a day and then melt into muck. Epic northwest winds; I now own two new lawnchair cushions, some fiberglass roofing, and a mysterious linoleum kinda thing, while my Republican neighbors a half kilometer to the east are no doubt rejoicing in their acquisition of several thousand asphalt shingles and an Obama yard sign. Deep cold.

My main occupation these days consists of

Warm up the tractor
Fire up the tractor
Plow the driveway
Plow the driveway some more
Hand-shovel the especially tricky bit just below the curve
Admire my capable plowmanship
Watch the wind fill in the especially tricky bit just below the curve
Call Ken to tell him to park up top if he wants to leave in the morning

We were lucky to get a few days of ice-free driveway during which our oil vendor could get a truck down the drive; Ike knocked down plenty of firewood, and we've been cutting and splitting, but it won't be seasoned until next year. It could have been a tad nippy.

But this whinging about the cold from someone who has a pantry and fiberglass insulation does not impress the other residents here. There is not an animal alive in our woods who has lived through such a winter. Probably their grandparents never experienced a winter like this one. The only memory of snowdrifts and crust, no way to get to food, is written in their genes.

The voles and field mice have it pretty good when there's a crust. Most of their predators can't get through. Not counting these guys.

They are well-insulated under there, and can get to food caches. A shallow snow-tunnel is also nicely-lit; it must be a bright and pleasant time for the little mammals. The snow-fossil runs revealed during the oil-delivery thaw remind me of the Uncle Milton's Ant Farm I had as a kid.

The rabbits are living pretty close to the bone. A crust is a good running surface for them, but it locks up the better part of the food supply. The trees and shrubbery are paying for it.

And the high-fiber diet is evident in the dry, woody pellets at their scrapes.

The slash piles from where we've cut firewood out of the Ike blowdown are a favorite food source for the rabbits, and for the deer who yard up in the white pines on our north property line. There's a well-trodden detour from their perennial Bambi highway to this pile in the south pasture; most of the twig tips are roughly clipped off now. In future years I'll remember not to chip or burn this stuff up until spring.

Songbirds, too, are in shock. It's been eight or ten songbird generations since we've had deep winter here. Why are the berries and grub trees covered in ice? I made suet blocks with safflower in them.

I do not know what the turkeys are eating, or how they get it.

The few remaining groundhogs are holed up, heedless of Phil.

Our predator population is significant, but not varied. Fox tracks -- straight, purposeful, single-tracked and direct-registered -- are thick in the woods and fields -- except near the house and barn.

I have to credit Moe and his homies for their diligent patrols; the brushy buttcrack below the barn is bunny central, providing the cottontails with cover, food, and a built-in goon squad to keep Reynard at bay. We've yet to lose a chicken to a predator. (Sound of knocking on bentwood arm of the Poang.) On snow-free days, Ken puts the dogs out to conduct their Secret Service sweeps for a while in the morning, then opens the pop-door for the chooks.

Despite their sincere efforts, the dogs pose little direct threat to the rabbits, who can skim along atop the crust while the relatively lumbering canis lupus familiaris crack through. Except for Rosie, who does a pretty fair Legolas impression on the crustiest days.

The byword for the next six weeks is conserve.

Friday, February 20, 2009


I know how fetch started.

Cavewoman was just trying to revise a contract finish scraping this deerhide.

Cavepuppy kept lunging for her Macbook ulu.

The savage beatings discouraged him just enough that he started on her living room rug sleeping skins.

Cavewoman distracted Cavepuppy with a kibble-stuffed kong chunk o' elk tendon.

Cavepuppy wanted to chew his prize, but he also wanted to be a pill. So he brought the prize to Cavewoman's lap and tried to chew it there.

Cavewoman tossed the kong tendon to get rid of the little furcoatrazorblade.

But away is not annoying, so it is not fun. And back he brought it.

The rest is history.

In truth, we cheat.

We have not raise a puppy in over 17 years.

Strike that. We have not raised a puppy. Lilly was born a six-year-old midget.

Lilly raised Mel. Lilly and Mel raised Pip. Pip and Mel raised Moe. Sophia has never grown up. Pip and Moe and Sophia have sorta raised Princess Rosie. And all are pitching in with reform school for young Spike.

A couple hours a day free-ranging, chasing after the Big Dogs and getting chewed on by guys four times his size, takes a tyke a long way towards civilization.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Auction to Benefit Operation New Beginnings

AWFA is holding an online silent auction to benefit Operation New Beginnings, the Montana English shepherds.

There are some really great items up for bid.

I can attest to the quality of Red Bank Farm beef -- there are six lots of it available.

Some fine art, jewelry, and fibers. Books. Footie PJ's with glow-in-the-dark pterodactyls (for adults, natch!). Soaps, if you are a stinky person.

Go forth and bid.

Go ahead, outbid me, I dare ya.

Bidding closes on Saturday night, so hurry!

Monday, February 16, 2009

New Black Dogs

Two new black dogs here.

One temporary:

Spike is the youngest NESR foster I've had. He needs work on becoming bolder with strange people, and overcoming some mild hand-shyness, but is overall a pretty neat pup. We think he was born around November 10.

He's confident about strange places and strange dogs, independent, and able to put a dent on the dog-food bills with mouse hunting in the hayfield. Very quick learner.

I think he'd make a good farm dog. He'll need an animal-savvy owner who doesn't sweat the small stuff.

One permanent:

I saw this guy at this local gallery, and he wouldn't leave me alone. Can't get a photo that does the piece credit.

My slightly-less-ornery half knows better than to throw away money on marked-up-in-February vegetation or De Beers' artificially price-inflated poorly-worked bling-bling. So he brought this home instead.

The artist is also local, his website doesn't seem to be working correctly at the moment.

Friday, February 13, 2009

From the Crew Down at the Barn

I never know what I'll find when I open the porch door in the morning.

They've been presenting me with heads, tails, whole corpses, and, after an especially lovely night of hunting in the moonlit hayfield, someone's single, perfect, bean-sized kidney.

I don't let them see me feed it to the chickens.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Happy Darwin Day

The sign is from the Chicago Field Museum -- the grand entrance to their revamped fossil exhibits. The most excellent fossil exhibits of all. Go! (And when you've done that, go here as well.)

It is not labeled "The Hall of Dinosaurs" or "Ancient Earth" or anything so quaint -- the chronologically arranged, masterfully interpreted collection is called Evolving Planet.

The Church of Jebus Christmas and the Latter-Day Flat Earthers can suck it.

It's not the job of scientific educational institutions to cater to the carefully cultivated sensitivities of those who stick their fingers in their ears and hum You Light Up My Life when confronted with the central organizing principle of all biological science.

The Facts, The Truth, and the credible voices of interpretation and controversy surrounding them, are the sworn duty of science educators.

If Born-Again Bob gets his knickers in a knot when he takes little Elijah and Rachel to see the Giant Head of Sue and is confronted as well with the toothy science of life on earth, well, sucks to be Bob. If you can't manage the 21st century, could you take a stab at the late 19th? Guess he'll have to schlepp the house apes off to the Creation Science Museum for an exciting account of how Our Lord Walked With Dinosaurs. Then be astonished when Elijah can't get into even a Caribbean medical school on the strength of your paranoid home-schooling and further indoctrination at Oral Roberts U, and Rachel practices sexual selection at age fifteen by getting knocked up by an alpha-male well-adorned with prison tats and a grill.

Because the only thing that hasn't, in 150 years, conformed to the principles of natural selection is the idea-bank of the tiny-brained mammals for whom the realities of the natural universe threaten to completely annhilate their deep, strong, unshakable faith in an all-knowing, all-powerful, all-loving deity who is currently fully occupied sticking pins in the immortal soul of Charles Darwin.

Friday, February 6, 2009

Taming the Wild Beast

By request, the protocol I wrote up for the use of the volunteers who are caring for the 200+ seized English shepherds in Billings, MT, altered for blog form. Operation New Beginnings is not the first time a community has been deluged with a massive influx of essentially feral confiscated dogs. Sadly, I've no expectation that it will be the last.

I sent this along a couple weeks ahead of my visit there. I was guessing at the emotional condition of the dogs, based on previous experience with hoarder/puppymill victims.

I was pretty much spot-on. The Montana dogs are overall more fearful and much less aggressive than I'd expected. This protocol is the right one for the vast majority of them. A few were already pretty social. These are the older dogs, and several of them have been positively identified as individuals that were bought from good breeders as pups. Usually, in hoarder/puppymill raids, it's the oldest dogs that are behaviorally the worst. But that early environment makes such a huge difference, we have seen the exact opposite in Billings.

I did not invent this. It is cobbled together from the experiences of animal trainers and rescue workers in many fields. The oldest reference to something substantially the same I have found was in a book about circus trainers, written in the 19th century. I simply drew the information together into one document, and imposed on my husband and dog to act as models for photographs. I think the photographs really make it, and wish I'd had room to use more in the printed version. Of course I really didn't have a fearful, feral dog to model the postures -- and if I had, I wouldn't have had the days or weeks to capture each stage as it happened. But Moe did very well in simulating what I wanted. He's a pro. (And yes, he has an agent. Sadly, not a lot of casting calls come up in Western PA.)

There are three big challenges for the people implementing it:

1. Most of the dogs are housed in three-dog stalls. The dynamics among the dogs can interfere with one another's taming in many ways. In many of the stalls, there's a door dog, a middle dog, and a corner dog. (This was how it played out at the start of taming; adjustments are being made as the dogs progress or fail to.)

The door dog rushes the door. He then either withdraws, paces, or in some cases, makes overtures to the person who enters.

The middle dog will sometimes back the door dog in the rush, sometimes not. He often spends the rest of the time a human is in the stall pacing or darting from corner to corner. A few will make hesitant overtures.

The corner dog stays in the corner.

Some stalls had three corner dogs.

In some stalls, my colleague Douglas reports, the boldest dog has started overtly suppressing the other two -- guarding the human. This is in some ways heartening -- a mark of progress. But it's also a real hindrance to the taming of the other dogs. We've suggested a number of ways to address this.

2. It's really, really cold. It's hard for the volunteers to sit still for an hour to read. Most are wrapped up in blankets. When I was evaluating the dogs, I would crouch in each stall for five minutes, write my notes, take photos, and then go straight to the next stall. There was one day it was so cold I could not do even that -- being still for five minutes at a time was too much. I was fine if I was up working my muscles.

3. Human nature. This protocol requires patience. One can go weeks with no apparent positive feedback from the animal. Patience is something that must be learned, practiced, drilled almost. It's the most difficult skill to practice. Then it gets harder because of the social environment. The volunteer who is working with a particular stall of dogs sees other handlers whose dogs have come further. Perhaps they are already ready to come out on a leash. His dogs are still in the corner. Why? Am I doing something wrong? Is this protocol not working? Of course the "advanced" dogs are most visible -- the dozens of other stalls that are populated with dogs just like his own are not in front of him. So the handler is tempted to rush. Make eye contact and start cooing. Grab hold of the dog who has just approached and pet him. Put a leash on the dog who has not started to follow yet. But they are not ready -- they need a foundation of trust before they can accept human leadership, and even the mildest coercion in the form of restraint can undercut that. Of course it's possible to restrain these dogs, and sometimes necessary -- a dog must be examined, treated, or moved. But it sets them back.

Anyway, here's the protocol, as it's being used in Billings, re-formatted for the web.

I will send a packet of Brandywine tomato seeds and some other garden goodies to the first person who can identify the three titles that Ken is reading to Moe in the illustrations. You are on your honor not to blow it if I've already told you. Check the comments for others' guesses.


Taming the Wild Beast

A protocol for gaining the trust of feral dogs, puppymill and laboratory stock, junkyard dogs, hoarding survivors, and other unhandled domestic dogs

When unhandled and feral dogs come into rescue and rehabilitation programs, it is counterproductive to treat them as if they were badly-behaved pet dogs, or ordinary abuse and neglect cases. Although these dogs’ genetics are those of domestic animals, their life experiences may be more like those of wild creatures. Before they can be trained, desensitized, socialized and civilized, they must be tamed. A tame animal is not one that refrains from attacking when cornered or restrained -- many wild predators freeze when trapped and handled -- a tame animal is one that voluntarily chooses to approach human beings, and will freely accept and solicit handling. Please keep in mind that “tame” does not equal either trained or safe!

Depending on the dog’s individual temperament and life experience, taming can take a few days or many weeks. During this period, it will normally be necessary to handle the dog for veterinary care, to transport him, etc. Since an untamed animal is very stressed by handling, it is best to keep these first interventions to the minimum required for his health and welfare. At all times, handling must be conducted in a professional, confident, smooth, no-nonsense manner; if a dog’s first significant intimate experiences of human handling includes fumbling, flinching, or openings for him to bite and make a person withdraw, the process of rehabilitation can be significantly complicated.

We recommend that an untamed dog be housed in roomy, clean, quiet, escape-proof quarters from which he need not be moved. If the dog is acclimated to the outdoor environment and circumstances permit, an outdoor run with appropriate shelter is preferable. If that is unavailable or the dog requires more protection, an indoor run or room, such as a dog-proofed garage or basement, is an option. It is unsatisfactory to house the dog in a crate or small cage. A large fenced yard is also unsatisfactory, as it permits too much opportunity for flight and panic.

Taming should be undertaken by one person who can devote time to the project every day. If there are multiple dogs and multiple caretakers, each person should work with the same animal(s) each day.

The key to taming is patience and self-control. It is a boring process. The most frequent source of setback and failure is a lack of impulse control in a human who tries to rush progress, or who overreacts to the dog’s first overtures and frightens it with intrusive enthusiasm.

If the dog is overtly aggressive, protective of his space, and willing to charge a person, this phase begins with the dog tethered on one end of the run. Remember that catching and tethering the dog is stressful and dangerous, and must be done smoothly, confidently, matter-of-factly. A daily dog-rodeo debacle is counterproductive. Ensure that the tethering is both secure and safe for the dog, and sit well out of range.

If the dog is aggressive, do not remove the tether until he no longer threatens; do not corner the tethered dog

Most dogs should be loose in the run. If it is an indoor/outdoor run, close the door so the dog can’t hide inside.

Take a chair into the dog’s run or room. Bring a worthwhile book.

Place the chair near the middle of the run, and against one wall. Orient yourself sideways to the dog if he’s tethered -- do not face him or turn your back to him

Sit in the chair.

Read the book aloud in a normal tone.

Frightened or unsure dogs appreciate, and will try to maintain, a sideways or offset orientation; frontal approaches are threatening in this context.

Don’t look at the dog, move towards the dog, coax the dog, or otherwise pay any attention to the dog. Continue to read in a normal tone and at a normal speed, whether the dog cowers in the corner, paces, approaches, darts and retreats.

Continue for one hour -- longer if you have abundant time -- then stand up and leave the run. If you can’t read aloud for the entire time, just continue reading silently. Take the chair or leave it. Be sure not to stand up suddenly if the dog is approaching you or making overtures.

Continue reading as the dog makes his first tentative overtures.

It may be that “nothing happens” on the first day. The dog may hide, pretend to ignore you, cower in a corner. “Nothing” may happen for weeks with certain dogs. Trust me, something is happening. It’s also possible that the dog will climb into your lap ten minutes after you sit down. This process has to go at the dog’s pace.

Eventually, the dog will begin to show interest. His initial approach may be hesitant. Keep reading! Don’t look up, make eye contact, sweet talk, or reach towards the dog. Just let him check you out.

Let the dog investigate you and gain confidence.
The dog may sniff you, put his head on your knee, paw at you, or rarely mouth you or tug at your clothes. Unless he is doing something that is actually dangerous, ignore him. If he starts getting too fresh with his mouth, stand up and if necessary, step towards him and require him to yield space to you. Don’t yell, threaten, or chase the dog. You have not earned the right to correct him.

When the dog begins making overtures, you may offer a hand for him to investigate. Do not reach towards the dog to “pet” him, and do not reach over his head or in any way loom over him.


Allow the dog to come to your hand from above; just hang it down to your side and continue reading. At this point you may offer some food from your hand; just remember to do it casually; don’t be surprised if the dog grabs the food and darts away, especially if he’s had a life of hunger. Sometimes the presence of food can slow down or stop the taming process, and sometimes it speeds it up a lot -- but grabbing food from a hand and darting away is not the behavior we are seeking. You can try holding a large hard biscuit and letting the dog chew on it while you hold it.

When the dog is coming to you immediately when you sit down, is initiating physical contact with you, is not darting in and scuttling away, does not startle when you move slightly or there is a noise or motion outside the enclosure, it is time to put the book down and start talking calmly to the dog and, when he comes in to you, very gently stroking him under the chin and on the throat. If he offers you his flanks or butt, you can stroke and scratch there, but don’t overreach or touch anywhere he doesn’t invite. Be very mindful of how threatening it is when a person reaches or leans over a dog’s head and back; while the dog will need to be desensitized to these actions later in his socialization and training, now is not the time.

Now put away the chair and encourage the dog to come to you anywhere in the enclosure. Crouch down in a stable position, oriented sideways to the dog. This is another time where it may be useful to offer food to some animals.

If using food, control the food to encourage the dog to stay with you. Don’t threaten with a frontal orientation.
Again, the idea is not to have the dog dart in, grab the booty, and retreat. The dog needs to come and stay, and show social interest in the human.

The goal is social interest from the dog; note how the human is crouched so he can get up quickly and smoothly.
Now begin moving around the enclosure. If the dog bolts from the movement, stop. If he becomes pushy, aggressive, or attempts to control your movement, move into his space and require him to yield the space to you until he is more respectful.

Move confidently -- not aggressively --into a pushy or rude dog and require him to yield space.

Do not loom over the dog or chase him, just require him to yield.

Never loom or chase; you will trigger the dog’s flight or defense response.
But it is more likely that the dog will be somewhat intimidated by your movements. Keep crouching at different spots and quietly encouraging him to approach; this is a good time to teach the dog his name.

The dog is ready to be taken out for leash training when he voluntarily follows a person around his enclosure, and no longer panics or bolts at a moving person.

The same person who did the taming should do the leash training. The best transitional training protocol is a following exercise done with a loose 15’ line; see First Friend Dog Training handout “The Foundation.”

Thanks to my patient models, Ken Chiacchia and Moe. We did not have a genuine wild beast available for photo illustrations; please be aware that Moe’s body language is only a trained simulation of an untamed dog’s possible postures. There is no substitute for hands-on experience in learning to understand and respond to canine language. Do not attempt a taming or training program if you do not have significant handling experience and skills. A “love” of dogs or ownership of many pets is not sufficient qualification for working with untamed or aggressive dogs. If you cause a dog to bite you with mishandling, it is the dog who carries the stigma. This protocol is derived from the experiences of security dog handlers, exotic animal trainers, professional dog trainers and dog rescue workers.

Copyright 2008. Heather Houlahan. First Friend Dog Training.

EDITED: If you would like a PDF copy of this protocol suitable for printing out, please email me at houlahan AT zoominternet DOT net and I will send it to you. Permission is granted to reproduce as long as credit is given.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

"Positive" Enough for Ya?

Rocco. Former fighter, forever lover.
A lucky dog whose owners trained him based on his needs, not their politics

A few months before Best Friends Animal Sanctuary in Utah got hold of a fundraising goldmine number of Michael Vick's victims, they were contacting dog trainers around the country.

They cold-call emailed me and offered me a bunch of money to do something I normally do for free.

Seems that their hundreds of paid staff were not able to handle or train the herds of pit bulls they had brought back from Louisiana after Hurricane Katrina. They said that they couldn't house the pit bulls, that these dogs didn't do well in a "sanctuary" environment. (Swamp pits must be totally different from the high-news-value and lucrative Virginia pits that they very quickly snapped up.)

They wanted to pay professional trainers to take these dogs off their hands, train them, and place them in homes. The email was full of praise for my well-established prowess as a trainer at the top of the profession.

M'Kay. And the catch is?

I had to promise to use only "positive" training techniques.

Never mind correctly defining what "positive" means. I knew what they meant. They knew what they meant. And it had nothing to do with the training needs of any real live dog.

They were sending dogs to be out of sight, out of mind. (Katrina dogs were no longer a good direct-mail pitch.) Since this charity spends money like a sailor in port -- private plane, anyone? -- the money was the easy way to make the pit bulls go away. Part of the pretty story for the donors about Spike going to live on the Farm was that only "positive" dog trainers were going to fix these animals that their expert in-house staff could not handle.

I wrote back, telling them to look me up when they got their heads out of their colons. Or something to that effect. I also told them that they were guaranteeing that they were going to be sending money and dogs to liars. Because anyone can lie and claim to be using nothing but cookies 'n' love, while the reality is quite different. Seen it. I told them that they were going to be selecting out all the truthful, ethical trainers -- the ones who would refuse to lie about using balanced training methods, or would refuse to promise something that they could not guarantee would be the right thing to do.

They did not respond.

But others took them up on their offer.

One of them was Don the Dog Guy. They sent him 28 pit bulls.

"He was paid $1,000 for each dog he took for training and placement. He claimed to have placed the dogs and sent convincing photos and wrote stories about the dogs for our Web site," [BF spokesman] Polis said. " Don actually was quite popular with the trainers here and had somewhat of a following on our Web site."

Where are the 28 dowried dogs that Best Friends gave to Don Chambers now?

Mostly dead:

"...just three were placed in homes. Ten were euthanized at the Lorain County Kennel. One died in a dog fight. One died of untreated heartworms. Three died and were tossed into a trash bin. Six are unaccounted for. Best Friends took back three of them."

"Euthanized at the Lorain County Kennel" means, Chambers took the dogs to the pound to be killed.

Read the whole story here

But, you know, no one could have predicted such an outcome from offering money to people in exchange for them telling you what you want to hear.

Who could have foreseen that the levees could fail?

No one. Of course.


Posted edited after more time with the Googles:

Video of Don Chambers and one of the Katrina dogs

Used the Wayback Machine to get to his last known website

Second edit, another article in a more local paper:

The Morning Journal

Vote For Bailey: Help the Montana English Shepherds

Bailey was adopted from NESR.

Bailey's owner would like to donate the prize money for this contest to NESR for the care of the Montana English Shepherds.

Go forth and vote!


I've added a few more blogs to the roll at left.

By the way, the way it works is, the most recently updated blog moves to the top of the roll -- except for the ones that don't have the right kind of feed, which will remain at the bottom. There doesn't appear to be a way to fix that.

Okay, here's the deal.

If your blog pisses me off, I don't add it to the blogroll. If your blog is poorly-written, I do not add it. If your blog doesn't interest me, I don't add it. If your blog interests me, but is far from the rather broad scope of this blog and probably doesn't interest most of my readers, I don't add it. And if your blog has lots of interesting and useful stuff, but you occasionally indulge in dittohead right-wing rants or pre-programmed anti-scientific religious blathering, I don't add it. Unfortunately, a lot of the otherwise good farming blogs fall into that last category.

Farmers who don't believe in evolution. Oy vay.

End of discussion.

I also added a category of non-blog links to sites that don't sell anything, but are for the most part entertaining or useful. I'll be adding to it periodically.

I love Free Rice, which can be the greatest time-suck of all. Self-improvement for a good cause.

The Psychiatric Institute for Abused Cuddly Toys is unique and addictive. The dream sequences and memories ... wow!

And every dog owner should measure his or her animal and find out what size cage that dog can be confined in for his entire life. I'll be doing some photos here in the future.