Friday, December 31, 2010

New Year

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Some years ago, I basked in a holiday-time compliment from a fellow trainer, who lauded my "ability to make dogs wear antlers without them looking beaten."

Seems that that mojo has worn off this year, alas.

May 2011 see many sparkly things, and very few beatings, for you and yours.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

A Profane Open Letter to the Leader of the Free World, and an Apology to My Readers

Dear President Obama,

You know I love you.* Now shut the fuck up.

Okay, I gave this some time to cool, so I've now read that you did not actually call up the Philly Eagles in order to congratulate them on guessing right about the profit potential of a paroled sociopath.


When you call up an executive in the corporate entertainment world -- which, I might point out, as the POTUS you should not be wasting time doing -- you stay on your goddamn message. No frills. I understand your message was supposed to be "Good job making your stadium less of an environmental catastrophe."

But that's not what Jeff Lurie went running to the media to crow about, is it?

No, Lurie spun your phone call into a Presidential endorsement of loving† the puppy-hanger while maybe hating the puppy-hanging faster than a Kensington whore flips a BJ into a crack hit.

Are you surprised?

The White House hasn't denied that you talked about this parolee, or that you used tired cliches such as "second chance" and "level playing field" in referring to the hiring of a creature with bloody hands to catch the ball, run with the ball, throw the ball.** For far more money than you make.

So I reckon you did say that bullshit. Dumbass.‡

It's less clear whether you used the hackneyed language of "redemption," in your boy-talk with Lurie. If so, let's be perfectly clear about something.

Catching the ball, throwing the ball, running with the ball -- done well, done poorly, not done at all -- is not a morally relevant activity.

Jebus doesn't endorse men who play boys' games, or the mega-corporations who own employ them.

But more important, catching the ball, throwing the ball, running with the ball does not and cannot "redeem" anyone as a moral agent.

I'm going to repeat that with smaller words for you sports fans: Good at football not same as good man.

The usual sequence in, for the sake of argument, the "Christian" formulation is sincere repentance -- meaning that one is sorry one did wrong, not sorry that one got caught or suffered consequences -- followed by penance -- that is, working hard for the benefit of others (often the victims of one's misdeeds, or their proxies) for no personal gain and under no extrinsic compulsion in order to make things right -- leading to personal transformation into the kind of moral agent who is no longer capable of the kind of wrongdoing that led to the need for redemption.

Just, you know, ferinstance.

As for "comebacks," these are noteworthy -- not necessarily morally, but of interest -- when the "setback" that provides the stage is extrinsic, or at least not a direct and easily avoidable result of the staggering moral perversity of the one who has "suffered" the setback.

One can perhaps be inspired when an athlete comes back after blowing out a knee. It is not morally relevant in the way that sports writers like to sell, but it may speak to character traits such as perseverance that we generally favor and to which we aspire.

From what has Vick "come back?" Merely the cushioned, mitigated, kid-gloved semi-consequences of his own freely-chosen, focused and sustained moral depravity. From a token prison sentence for a few of his crimes, and unconscionable legal and media gloss over the worst of them.

Also, just saying, court-ordered community service is not a mitzvah. It's part of the goddamn sentence. Completing it is not optional, so you don't get extra credit points. It is not intended to "clean up your image" on the way to lucrative endorsement contracts.

There is, likewise, no "heroism" in apparently discontinuing ongoing acts of violent atrocity after being stopped by force of law. Most of us manage to refrain on a daily basis without threat of prison. Our "self-restraint" is not praiseworthy, even in these grade-inflated times. It's not even self-restraint, because normal people do not ever fucking want to electrocute dogs in our swimming pools.

I am quite certain, Mr. President, that as the doting father of two daughters, you would not go out of your way to praise an employer who hires an unrepentant serial child torture-murderer to perform any job -- and because he's good at it, to pay him $5.2 million. You wouldn't justify the crime because the murderer had served time, even if he'd served time for the actual crime. (It bears repeating, Vick has not).

Doesn't the same consideration extend, in its way, to your dog?

While the tradition of political-pet-as-prop is too longstanding to ignore (nearly as venerable as the political wife/accessory), you seem to be genuinely fond of that hairy beastie Ted Kennedy gave your kids. It's hard not to be, right? That's the thing about dogs, isn't it? Like children, they disarm you; even despite yourself, they bring out some of the best core parts of the real person in there. For most of us, that's the open, trusting, innocent, unselfconscious giver and receiver of love. And with a dog as a catalyst, we might even bring a little bit more of that creamy center out into the rest of our lives, where the people around us can enjoy it.

It is that part of ourselves that bleeds when we hear of a child or a dog who is tortured. And that blood that rises into primal outrage when we see that the abuser will not be held accountable.

Cogitate on what Michael Vick's dogs -- loving, trusting, loyal dogs no different from the "cuter" fluffier kind -- brought out from the inside of their owner, what they revealed to the world about what occupies that center. And then tell me what the prize is for redeeming that ticket.


An American


* This is by no means unconditional.

† Or at least exploiting for execrable profits, as long as that keeps working out.

** Good thing Vick can do all three. No dog in his right mind would fetch it back to him.

‡ If Bush had done the same thing, the world would have found out what a really profane open letter looks like. And you know, that's not fair. So thanks for reminding me of that about myself. I'm going to pay attention to that.

* * *

An Apology to my Readers

Yesterday I published this post.

When I arrived home last night, I found a backlog of comments. (Comments are now moderated, as the spammers have honored this blog with their love). Almost every single comment expressed sincere white-hot outrage at the British judicial system and the RSPCA for this obvious miscarriage of justice. If you think the post above is profane ...

A more careful reader -- or perhaps just a person who has read more of my work and can see it coming -- catches the conceit of the post.

Because the "news article" is a fabrication, and was meant to be recognized as such.

It began with a friend's musing about what the general public would think of Michael Vick if he had gleefully tortured and killed animals other than pit bulls -- something fluffy and "cute." Kittens, perhaps.

Because people get caught up in the dog fighting aspect of his crime, and fail to stay focused on the psychopathic torture-killing of the dogs who disappointed their "master."

I took it further. What if Vick wasn't any good at football?

In other words, what if someone non-famous was treated as Vick has been?

It is too implausible that someone non-rich would be dealt with thusly, so I kept that part, and set the stage in a foreign land.

I asked a British friend with an eye for written nuance to edit the thought-experiment; she made it read more authentically British, and further, British second-rate newspaper.

I'm not going to name these co-conspirators, because the end result is all my fault.

I became rather pleased with the result as a piece of collaborative writing, and lost track of its likely effect on readers. Having constructed something that was too convincing, I thoughtlessly set a trap for them. That was never my intention. I honestly thought that this would play out like many articles in The Onion*; that is, initial outrage or astonishment, followed by "Oh, it's the bloody Onion. Got me again you jerks." But of course, this blog doesn't provide the context that an Onion header does.

I honestly figured that "Victoria Michaels" would jump out at people and cue them. I was wrong. Too subtle when someone is RWA. (Reading While Angry.)

The names of her co-defendants and mother -- also derived from the Vick case. The name of the judge and kennel, invented whole-cloth. The RSPCA, a real organizations that, as far as I know, has never made such a deal with the Devil, unlike its US "analogue." Swindon and District Animal Haven, a real charity that, as far as I know, is worthy. Holloway prison, Swindon, Wiltshire, Goatacre -- real places, where Victoria Michaels has never lived.

After sleeping on it, I've decided not to release the many comments posted yesterday. A big thanks to the spammers who set me up to have this time to consider things. It would be terribly disrespectful to "trap" readers -- many of whom I know to be thoughtful people -- and then leave them hanging out in public to look foolish to people who already know "the answer."

I'll release any comments made after a link to this post is active at the top of yesterday's.

I'm sincerely sorry.


* Without being, you know, funny in any way.

It Can't Happen Here

Dear Readers of Raised by Wolves:

Please read the second part of my December 29 post before commenting, linking, or forwarding this post.

Seriously, do.

The Mirror, 27 December 2010

House of Horrors Puppy Farmer Wants Another Pup.
Convicted Tax Dodger and Puppy Farmer Says She Has Been Rehabilitated

Swindon -- Convicted tax evader and notorious puppy-farmer Victoria Michaels has begged Wiltshire courts to let her go back to owning dogs. At present this would be a violation of the terms of her probation. The wealthy estate agent has told Judge Simon Walcott that she has been rehabilitated, returning to her career selling luxury homes, and has donated over £15,000 to the RSPCA, as well as paying the bill for her tax crimes.

Michaels came under police scrutiny in 2006, when a complaint from a neighbor about a bad smell and swarms of flies revealed a house of horrors behind the wooden fence of her smallholding outside the quiet village of Goatacre. Michaels was well-known for over a decade in Kennel Club circles for her “Powderpuff Kennel.” She entered several of her animals in dog shows, and sold surplus puppies to fanciers.

Authorities seized over fifty breeding dogs -- mostly bichons frise, a small and cuddly white breed that can sell for up to £1000 at pet stores. The dogs were kept chained to metal barrels or in rabbit-hutches in a dirty yard. Michaels was not licensed to breed dogs, and had forged documents in order to sell puppies to brokers and pet stores throughout Britain.

But what officers found in the shed and manure pile at the back of the dog yard was to shock the nation. Hidden under the manure pile were bodies of dozens of dogs that Michaels said had died of “old age” or distemper, but they showed signs of having been beaten, stabbed, strangled, smothered or electrocuted.

Inside the shed authorities discovered a bloody crowbar, a bloody nylon noose hanging from a beam, plastic bags and twisted wire that prosecutors say were used to suffocate unprofitable dogs, and an electrical cord that had been modified with clips, which they say she used to electrocute several stud dogs that had proved infertile.

Michaels’ co-defendant, Anthony Taylor, occupied the cottage on the property and served as kennel manager, feeding the dogs and arranging the sale of the puppies.

Taylor and his associate Lawrence Phillips gave evidence against Michaels, telling police and prosecutors that Michaels was ruthless in culling non-performing breeding dogs and unsaleable puppies. She seemed to take revenge on animals that disappointed her.

Taylor described the death of one bitch whose puppies had been born outside in December and later died of exposure. “I don’t have time for bad mothers,” Michaels reportedly told him, before grabbing the little dog by the back legs and striking her head repeatedly against the corner of the shed, then dumping her body on the manure heap.

Reject puppies with defects like cleft palates, broken limbs, and hernias, were hung inside the shed and dispatched with blows from a crowbar.

A bitch that did not conceive and fought with the stud dog had a plastic bag wired over her head and was left hanging by the neck in the shed overnight, after Michaels told Taylor “They either pay their rent or they get out.” When Taylor discovered the dog alive the next morning, Michaels allegedly laughed and told him that “She’s earned a holiday in Texas” -- a reference to the electrical cord that Michaels then used to “execute” the still-conscious animal.

Prosecutors eventually brought charges against Michaels for over £30,000 in unpaid taxes on her illegal puppy sales, as well as charges of operating an unlicensed breeding kennel. In return for withdrawal of animal cruelty charges, Michaels relinquished ownership of the surviving dogs to the Swindon and District Animal Haven.

Michaels served eight months in Holloway and was let out on probation in October 2009. As a condition of her probation, Michaels is not allowed to own or or have animals under her care.

Michaels’ solicitor has appealed against this condition, arguing that:

“Ms. Michaels has paid her debt to society, and sincerely repents of her crimes, as is shown by her personal and professional conduct since her release.

Ms. Michaels owned at least one bichon frise from when she was a small child, and wishes to once again enjoy the companionship of a dog, just as so many families enjoy the companionship of the puppies supplied by Powderpuff Kennels. In addition, Ms. Michaels is now caring for her elderly mother, Brenda, who was forced to put down her own bichon frise when she moved in with her daughter. Brenda Michaels had no part in the commercial operation of Powderpuff Kennels, yet is being denied the comfort of a dog in her final years.”

The RSPCA supports Michaels’ plea. An RSPCA spokesman told The Mirror, “We have been working with Ms. Michaels since her time in Holloway. Ms. Michaels has been eager to help the RSPCA in our ongoing efforts to educate the public about the abuses of illegal puppy farms. Such efforts are important to prevent vulnerable dog fanciers from falling prey to these enterprises. We believe that Ms. Michaels, with her many years of experience caring for dogs, would provide a good home for a puppy.”

Wednesday, December 22, 2010


I had thought that I'd be posting amateur photographs of the solstice eclipse yesterday.

Skies were winter-clarified and bright, and the news was abuzz about the blood-red moon that we could expect. I researched photography sites for hints on using my modest digital camera, got out the tripod, and played with the controls. Had some normally verboten dinnertime caffeine, and stayed up.

At midnight the moon burned cold and high, sharp-edged and brilliant. The landscape glowed back. I could read by the light.

By two, the shroud of clouds was so thick that I could not find the moon at all -- premature eclipsulation.

Sunday night I'd been possessed by the urgent thought that it was time for the last of the excess cockerels to convert -- convert from hen-harassing freeloading loud-mouthed date-rapists into coq a vin and mole. I'd caged them up then, and spent Monday afternoon killing, plucking, and butchering them. I am prone to procrastinate those chores that require me to kill someone, and this task goes faster if PC is here to help, so this positive urgency was curious. It just seemed as if it needed to get done now.

Much like the wood-splitting that calls me out back nearly every day while the light fades. As the stacked cordwood piles up, I feel a little less nervous urgency in my bowels.

I was not born a medieval peasant or stone-age pastoralist; winter has not meant especial hunger and risk for me. But somewhere in the last 10,000 years of re-twisting DNA, there must be a gene that, triggered in the proper context, tells me: Cold out, meat will keep, you can't afford to feed that guy all winter, now is the time.

So at Yule we celebrate with fire and flesh.

Barn chores kept me busy yesterday, and it was coming on 6:30 when I remembered the bowl of rooster heads and innards chilling on the porch.

The dogs get the necks, gizzards, feet, hearts, lungs, enormous testicles, and livers. But the heads and guts are the portion of the other canids, the family of red fox who den in the hollow log at the far east end of our south pasture.

The fox stump is a perhaps fifty feet from their favorite lookout spot. Because generations of lazy farmers have nailed their fence wire to the trunks of trees, any tree that expires near the pasture edges must be cut at least chest-high, leaving a tall stump. The fox stump is too tall for my dogs to steal the foxes' tithe. As the tree's formerly living layers rot away, nails and staples and bits of wire appear on the pasture-facing side, as if exposed by rain on stone.

I've been bringing the slaughter remnants and the occasional naturally-expired bird to the stump since we got our poultry. I've never lost a bird to a fox. It's a contract enforced by Moe's diligent patrols and the block walls of the barn. But still, the foxes have been good neighbors. Polite. Deferential. Their tracks in the snow take a hard turn when they encounter the tracks that record Moe's perimeter -- the canids have an ongoing and subtle conversation, though I doubt they have often seen one another. For a dog or fox, scent is thought and intention distilled in time. Moe's perimeter, and Rosie and Cole's profane late-night call-and-response sessions, are no doubt what keeps the local coyotes at arm's length -- and whatever pushes the coyotes away is good for the foxes.

So the dogs and I walked out to the end of the pasture and left an offering feast on the fox stump at just about the moment of the solstice. We had the moon and sky back; I had not even brought a headlamp, whose beam shuts out the world. As we neared the house and barn, warm lights making embers of each window, I felt the great horned owl.

One never hears an owl, unless the owl intends.

I turned just as she landed on the top of the big hemlock that guards the outside curve of the lane. The dogs felt her too; they rushed the tree -- but silently -- and must have been circling its trunk under the dark cave of its branches.

The owl said nothing, just made a silhouette. I watched her for several minutes. But goats were yelling in their stalls about dinner.

When I came out of the barn ten minutes later, she had silently dissolved.

In the small hours this morning, Rosie stood at the bedroom window and growled profane threats under her breath.

This happens from time to time; usually I can make out nothing in the darkness. I believe her, but in winter, with all our creatures locked in after dark, the night belongs to the wild things.

This time, moon blazing once again and snowy world glowing, I could see the owl, posted on top of a defunct utility pole a hundred feet from the front door. She was scanning the garden, hayfield, and stone retaining wall for prospects of her own Yule meat feast.

Uncommon brightness illuminated the solitary life of a night creature on this, the darkest day of the year.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Food/Feed Part One: Nitrogen is Nitrogen

The students at Sheep School (aka classes offered in conjunction with the Maryland Sheep and Wool Festival) were a mixed lot: a few experienced small commercial stockmen and women, hobby farmers, hand-spinners, pet herders, stockdog handlers, and farmers new to sheep. And me, the stock farmer wannabe; closing on our farm was still a week away.

The instructor for our integrated pest management class was a bit ADHD and very widely knowledgeable, so the course strayed a bit from the closely-defined curriculum. At times, quite a bit. We spent a good deal of time discussing general nutrition. How to balance a ration, how much protein was necessary, working with the feed mill for custom mixes, computing supplements for animals on pasture. And making use of "waste." One student fed bakery discards to his flock. Another was exploring a deal with the produce manager of a supermarket. Good economy if one could ensure that the animals got proper nourishment, if their "ration" was "balanced" overall.

Then the skeptical question, from one of the more experienced students: What about this thing he had read about, feeding poultry litter to sheep?


For those of you whose brains are reflexively vomiting back what you just read (and good for those brains, that is the right reflex), I'm afraid, yes, he was referring to feeding chicken shit, feathers, and soiled sawdust (corncobs, peanut hulls, shredded paper, whatever) to sheep. To animals that evolved to eat God's grass. To animals that are eaten by humans. Whose milk is consumed by humans.

Most of us in the class had to have this clarified and explained too. Not because we were thick.

It's worse than just that, though. What is the source of "poultry litter" to be added to the silage for sheep, goats, cattle? Not the smallholder's wholesome happy henhouse, but, of course, the industrial broiler factories, "vertically integrated" McNugget mechanisms where hundreds of thousands of freakish hybrid birds are crammed together for the short duration of their lives, scarfing down pellets laced with subclinical antibiotics, growing at an astonishing rate, and shitting prodigiously.

The instructor's official response came straight from the playbook of industrial agribusiness: Well, nitrogen is nitrogen.

Translation, long form: As long as an animal receives known chemical nutrients in the right amounts and relative proportions, as determined by science, it doesn't matter what foods it eats.

"Food" is presented as a quaint vehicle for delivering chemical nutrients. No, not "food." "Feed." If livestock eat it, it is not even dignified as "food."

A joke: April Fool's broadcast of NPR's All Things Considered in the early 90's. The well-crafted spoof spotlights the growing practice among organic gardeners of skipping the middleman and eating delicious, rich, nutritious finished compost.

Okay, cute. Funny part was listener reaction the next day. There were the clueless who never got it, and earnestly wrote and called in to solemnly warn about the dangers of pathogens in compost. And the pinched and humorless, who upbraided the wicked reporters for their irresponsibility, invoking the legions of listeners led astray, and out to the corner of the garden with a spoon.

Little did they know.

Sitting in that tent in Maryland, I remembered the previous year's pet food recalls. Are nutrients packaged and marketed for dogs and cats "food" or "feed?" On the bag it says "food." The pet-owning consumer likes to think of it as food, no scare quotes. The industry periodically drops into referring to it as feed, same as the pellets and crumbles and grain mixes sold for poultry, cattle, horses.

Dog and cat food, or feed, was systematically killing beloved pets because, somewhere at a factory in China, someone had discovered that a cheap industrial plastic could be added to agricultural commodities to make them appear to be higher in protein. It was cheaper to add waste plastic (impure "melamine scrap") to grain products so that when these products were tested for "crude protein," they would appear to be more valuable than they were.

What does the simple, cheap "crude protein" test detect? Not protein, but nitrogen -- an element that is lacking in lipids and carbohydrates, but abundantly present in the amino acids that form proteins.

Logical enough. If nitrogen is part of a food, it is tied up in the protein. Measure nitrogen, you measure protein. Why would one expect anything else?

But that's not quite true of "feed." Ruminant animals -- cows, sheep, goats, camels, deer, etc. -- can, to some extent, utilize free nitrogen as nourishment. The microbial symbionts in their reticulorumens (first two "stomachs") are able to convert non-amino acid nitrogen to both microbial amino acids and -- if an excess is present --ammonia, used as an energy source. The animal does not digest this free nitrogen (as well as undigestible cellulose) itself -- the animal digests the microbes that have eaten these uneatable feeds. And their poop.

Feedlots have been adding urea to the already unnatural rations of cattle for decades. Since the feedlot steer is not meant to live to adulthood, what does it matter that his kidneys are being destroyed? The captive-bolt will beat fatal organ breakdown by a few months. There isn't even the conceit of optimizing steer nutrition for health and well-being. Cheapest way per pound to cover bone with meat over the course of the next few months.

Monogastric animals -- dogs, cats, chickens, horses, almost everyone, including us -- don't carry around a belly-load of symbionts ready to digest these particular undigestibles for us. Nitrogen that isn't chained into an amino acid is useless to our innards.

So that's the basic biochemistry -- the reason the ag-school expert was willing to pronounce that "nitrogen is nitrogen," even when faced with a practice that, from her paralanguage, evoked the same disgust in her as it did in the rest of us. Official line: Industrial chicken-shit and prime alfalfa -- same diff to a sheep's symbionts. Do the math. Use what's cheap.

A notion that has grown rather more legs than are justified by sciences and disciplines beyond the basic biochemistry involved in a nutrient analysis.

Does it make sense from the standpoint of evolutionary biology?

Well, there are animals that consume the feces of other animals for nourishment. They are called scavengers. If you've kept an aquarium, you've likely employed catfish or snails in this capacity. Sheep are not among them. Sheep have evolved to to eat grass.

The will to ignore the observed facts of biology comes from the conceit that, because we understand more about the chemistry of nutrition today than we did a hundred years ago, we know everything about it.

Does it compute from a public health perspective?

Factory broilers consume sub-clinical doses of antibiotics from the day they hatch to the day before they are slaughtered.

Does your lamb chop need to consume megadoses of not only the antibiotic residue in the chicken shit, but the mutant coliform bacteria themselves?

Does it pass the sniff test of food safety?

The melamine in US infant formula wasn't dumped into the milk powder from a vat. It was concentrated in the kidneys of cows fed contaminated "feed."

The contention that "nitrogen is nitrogen" -- could that be the underlying industriagra conceit that gave us Mad Cow/scrapie/Creuzfeldt-Jacob? That poisoned dogs and cats who were eating a "balanced" and "scientific" ration? That has destroyed the kidneys of uncounted Chinese infants? That has American cows' milk testing positive for the same a fossil-fuel-based contamination that "couldn't happen here?"

Has this conceit clambered up the food chain to become "fat is fat" -- which has given us industrially-altered trans-fats and their attendant heart disease -- or that "sugar is sugar" -- whereby chemically mutated high-fructose corn syrup replaces cane sugar?

Are eaters -- and feeders of eaters -- falling prey to a sad shadow of physics envy -- and regarding as "sciencey" the neatly quantified pronouncements of industrial nutrient peddlers? I see an agribusiness creep -- from livestock "feed" through pet "feed/food" to ConAgra's interpretation of "food" for humans

The goal of the feed seller is to get away with the maximum markup between raw material cost and the feed bag on the shelf at Agway. Some can spin chicken shit into gold.

The goal of the commodity farmer is to get the maximum production for the least cost. A broiler chicken's lifespan is eight weeks; a lamb's, eight months; a steer's, eighteen months. No one is worrying about cancer or blindness or kidney failure striking down Ferdinand in middle age.

Pet owners were surprised in 2007, when we found out that the feed sellers did not ethically distinguish between beloved pets and working dogs and future lamb chops.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

News from English Shepherd Land

English Shepherd Club

The 2011 English Shepherd calendar is available from the English Shepherd Club for $14 (ESC members) or $17 (non-members). Order here. Volume discounts available.

This gorgeous calendar features ES from around the world, including many of our beloved rescue ES. It is a major fundraiser for the ESC, a 501(c)3 non-profit incorporated for the conservation of the English shepherd dog as a heritage agricultural resource.

While you're there, now is the time to renew your membership for 2011, or apply for membership if you are not already one. (Join now and get the member price on your calendars.)


The National English Shepherd Rescue 2010 cookbook is also on sale. Shepherds in the Kitchen: 483 Recipes to the Rescue is available for $20 here.

Yep, almost five hundred recipes for $20 -- about four cents a recipe. Hell, it costs me that much to print one out. And it's the only way you are going to get my chili recipe, or my famous marinara.

While you are on the order page, check out the other items that benefit NESR's work rescuing and rehoming English shepherds in need -- jewelry, decals, and the great martingale collars with side-release clips (hard-to-find item!) made by the vendor who supplied them for the ONB dogs. And visit the NESR Cafe Press shop.

Mark Your New ESC 2011 Calendar

Please come!

June 11-12, 2011 will be the first Brandywine Farm English Shepherd Gathering in Harmony, PA (16037).

What's a Gathering?

Two days of education, fun, food, networking, socializing, and celebration of (and with) the dogs we love.

I've been to Gatherings in Ohio, North Carolina, Ontario, Montana and California. Each one was different, each had activities tailored to the venue. The larger gatherings attracted ES and their humans from all over North America.

At Brandywine Farm, we are fortunate to be able to rent the township park and community center that abuts our hayfield -- giving us the entire farm, plus the community center's historic schoolhouse (with kitchen and bathrooms), picnic pavilion, baseball field, playground, and parking.

Activities planned include CGC testing, a SAR demonstration, agility, a silent auction to benefit NESR, lectures on breed history and conservation, obedience fun drills, and, if we have the fencing and stock squared away by then, a stockwork clinic. (I've already ordered new ducks for the occasion; we're working on the sheep.)

There will be two days of potluck picnicking, and a barbeque of Brandywine Farm pastured Freedom Ranger chicken. As those who are wise enough to order the NESR cookbook will soon discern, English shepherd people take their cooking seriously. I generally waddle away from Gathering potlucks with a smile on my face.

You can come for one or both days.

There are a variety of camping and dog-friendly motel accommodations nearby.

You do not need to own an English shepherd to come. The ES community is a friendly crowd, and we welcome friends of the breed, the curious, and all who have an interest in conserving heritage breeds. No one will check your dog's pedigree at the door, and all well-behaved dogs are welcomed.

If you have a Facebook account, you can RSVP or keep up on developments at the Brandywine Farm Gathering's FB page. I'll be adding a page to this blog with schedule and particulars as they develop.

Thursday, December 9, 2010


I'm playing with some redesign this week. Bear with me; the blogger preview lies like a priest, so it will take some time to get the font sizes, colors, etc. where they need to be.

For some reason, every time I change a background color, all kinds of text becomes Barney-purple.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Agent X-10 Reports for Duty

Today, November 30, is The Shelter Pet Project's "Celebrate Shelter Pets Day."

If you have a Facebook account and a dog, cat, ferret, rabbit, pony, gerbil or manticore who came from an animal shelter or rescue, please share his or her story there, and tag The Shelter Pet Project in your note. (You have to "like" TSPP first. And what's not to like? Contrast the positive, clever, pro-animal and pro-adopter message that The Ad Council has devised to promote adoptions with the weepy and fraudulent attempts to dun TV viewers perpetrated by the ASPCA*and HSUS**, and tell me which one has actually helped animals.)

I could tell you about my first shelter pet, Shannon, the golden retriever puppy dumped in a ditch suffering from mange. The one whose need for training led me down a less-traveled path when I was eleven years old. Shannon deserves her story on her own time.

There was Kuttatoa, good old cat. He came from a shelter in the north suburbs of Boston that doesn't seem to exist any longer, or has changed its name. We'd just bought our first puppy, and no one at the shelter seemed worried that our intact German shepherd pup would miscegenate with the kitten, a curious notion that now prevails at at least one Pittsburgh-area shelter.† Lilly and Kootie were fast friends. He was not a bright cat, but the job description of "family pet" does not require or favor genius, evil or otherwise. He got along with everyone, every species, even pesky puppies. For the last seven years of his life he endured several chronic health conditions that required daily pills and periods of regular SQ fluids. He took the pills without drama or complaint, and sat on my lap and purred when I poked a large-bore needle under his skin to give him fluids. Seventeen years of loving companionship.

We now live with five dogs. Two cats. Six goats. A colony of rabbits, and countless poultry. (Literally. I haven't tried to count in a while.) Foster dogs and other temporary residents come and go.

None of them are pets.

Some of them are pets.

There are a couple of laying hens who are welcome to stick around when their productive years are over. The barn cats have an open invitation to the house, which they accept when the weather gets really wicked, and are affectionate lap cats when I have a moment to sit in the barnyard. The goats have names and abundant personality.

But everyone here has a job. I extract the rent in milk and eggs every day. A goat who eschews brush-clearing to scream for the grain-bucket will find himself hungry. A rooster who doesn't protect his hens makes excellent curry. A non-mousing kitteh would probably find herself re-situated as a house cat somewhere else.

And then there's the dogs.

Pip and Sophia are the two currently-operational SAR dogs. That's a full-time job; anything either of them contributes to the workings of the farm or to my training practice is gravy. Pip provides a lot of gravy. Sophia does try with the goats, and can sometimes be borderline useful.

Moe is medically retired from SAR and from assisting me with client dogs. Before the farm, he was unemployed, unfulfilled, and bored. Here he has naturally taken on the duties of Director of Homeland Security. He does delegate quite a lot of the critter duties to the youngsters, but when there's a serious threat, he's the one leading the charge.

Rosie is long-overdue for testing to operational status as a trailing dog. Also a full-time job. She is also my farm shadow and chief goat-beater-upper.

We did not need a fifth dog.

We've had, I think, twenty-two foster dogs pass through our home. Several who I really liked, who fit in beautifully, who people predicted "Oh, you're keeping that one, how could you let him go?"

And they've all moved on -- Rudy and Zippy and Teddy, Spike and Gary and Sparks, Mr. Barry White. I've loved them all, and I've let them all go. Some have needed help from the deepest pockets of my trainer's bag of tricks, and some have just needed a place to take a deep breath before moving on to a forever home.

I've written about Cole before. I tend to get a bit sappy when I discuss the little dude, and the condition is fairly contagious.

When he was seized from his abuser, Cole was about four or five weeks old. (I estimate, based on his presumed litter seeming to be about seven or eight weeks old when I first met them a few weeks later.) Yellowstone County gave a letter designator to each location on the property where animals were found, progressing alphabetically, and a number to each animal prefixed by the location designator. One day I'll write about the legendary "J" pen.

The trailer where Cole and a dozen other pups were found was designated X. The last place from which living or dead dogs were removed. Cole was the tenth pup removed from the X trailer. To Yellowstone County, the law, the judge, the keepers of proof, he became Evidence #X-10 in Case #DC09-018.‡

I've never found out who named him Cole. I'm just grateful there was someone who cared enough to do so.

The shelter where Cole lived for the next nine months was unique. On the one hand, the consistent nature of the sheltered population and the dedication of the employees and many of the volunteers simplified the work of raising and rehabbing. On the other hand, Evidence #X-10 could not go for a damned walk. The law in Montana would not permit his caretakers to take him out from behind the walls that formed the sheriff's perimeter. He couldn't be fostered in a home. A good-faith legal effort to have him declared fungible property, post a bond for his "value," and release him for adoption failed. He and his relatives continued in limbo.

I'm told that initially normal dogs who spend a long time in shelters develop "cage rage," become depressed, are rendered unadoptable.

Maybe. Maybe in your "shelter." Maybe if no one cares enough to exercise, play with, and train the dogs. Maybe if there is no volunteer program, because volunteers are troublesome. Maybe if the staff and volunteers are presided over by decision-makers who assume they are stupid and untrustworthy. Maybe if there's no commitment to ensuring that every dog who comes in "normal" gets out alive, and -- dare we expect? -- no worse for the experience, and perhaps improved significantly.

I've watched ordinary people with little or no dog-training experience do extraordinary things in the past two years. Enough so that I now question the idea that anyone, properly motivated, is "ordinary." Certainly there are stupid and untrustworthy people. They need to be fired to make room for the others, the ones who will rise to meet extraordinary expectations.

Despite the significant problems that Cole developed as a result of growing up in a kennel environment where he could not take a damned walk, stretch his legs, have some peace and quiet, he was not "ruined." Despite the fact that in just about any shelter in the land he would have been snapped up at eight weeks -- that puppies growing up in a shelter kennel is, under normal circumstances, simply unnecessary and easy to avoid -- he came out ready to flip into greatness.

A word about getting working dogs from shelters. SAR, specifically, since that's the world I've lived in for nineteen years.

Generally, I'm bearish on it. For first-time handlers, especially those who don't have significant experience training and observing the training of a wide variety of dogs, there are too many pitfalls. It's not as bad as buying a dog from show lines or taking a show breeder's ego-donation, by and large, but taking a shelter pup of unknown provenance does not bode well for your prospects of finishing out as an operational team.

The dog's genetic heritage matters. It just does. When we assess purpose-bred little puppies as working prospects, we are assessing them against a background of their parents' and other relatives accomplishments, and their known upbringing. We have a good idea of the pups' eventual size, health, and athletic potential, and can make reasonable prognostications about his temperament, drives, and amenability to training. We stack the odds, and it usually works. Doesn't mean that the handler can't screw up -- most higher-order failures to become operational are handler issues, not dog issues -- but he's swimming with the current, not against it.

That said, the side-of-the-road litter of "I think these are mostly ______" has yielded more than a few good operational dogs -- mostly for experienced handlers, or SAR-experienced or dog-experienced first-timers who had good supervision in both selection and training.

For experienced handlers, there are many treasures to be found among adolescent dogs in pounds. The failed pet may be the working dog waiting for his employer. While the shelter's belief that Joey in run 14 would make a great SAR dog is seldom a spot-on assessment, there are plenty of good prospects for the patient, persistent, experienced, dog-savvy handler and trainer to consider. The important quality for a handler who decides to choose his next partner from the shelter or rescue population is the ability to say no. He will pass on many dogs before seeing the genuine glint of diamond.

The thing to which I say hell no, as a training director, is the half-baked notion of a first-time handler that she can take a troubled dog -- often a shy and fearful one -- from a shelter (or anywhere -- I see as many coming from show breeders) and simultaneously rehabilitate that animal and progress towards operational status in SAR with him. The two projects are not compatible. There's plenty of room for sentiment to drive one's altruism in both fields, but some laudable sentiment is not the same thing as unrealistic romanticism or a generalized savior complex.

So I've always personally started with purpose-bred puppies. Twice I've made my own -- pups who were started on SAR conditioning as soon as they left the womb, if not before.

But once in a while -- Once in twenty-two times? Once in two-hundred-twenty-seven chances? -- a dog will come along who won the genetic lotto, even if his breeding was random, or ill-considered, or whoknowswhat. He's likely to be characterized as "troubled" in ways related to "too much dog" by the shelter or rescue workers, or at the very least, considered a pill in the kennel.

With the right guidance, he may be just the guy to report for duty.


* One animal shelter, in New York City, only for animals confiscated from New York City, and not very many of them. Most homeless animals in NYC languish or die in the pound run by public ACC.

** No animal shelters. Five times more money goes into the executive pension fund than is disbursed in wee grants to animal shelters. And yes, I know they provide some money to the SPP. As long as it flows in just one direction, we're good.

† No shit. We were turned down to adopt a neutered cat because we have one unspayed bitch. I'll write more on this later.

‡ That's his actual seizure-day photo. For scale, the sign is, I think, standard 8.5 x 11 cardstock.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Friday, November 19, 2010


What? Walt Disney got the biology of critters wrong? Say it ain't so!

Spring is not the season of twitterpated. At least it isn't around here.

As the plant world and the invertebrates* die or tuck themselves in for the year in the forest and farm, the local tetrapods are getting busy. Late fall is the time for making babies. When I say you can smell the sex on the air, I'm not being hyperbolic or metaphorical. I'm hoping the wind doesn't shift from the goat pasture towards the house.

Rosie is in season, which makes her pushier, snarkier, cuddlier, and generally underfoot. She harasses the eunuchs and has her way with them. Neither Moe nor Cole got the memo about their testes, so they are happy to oblige. It's hazardous to turn a corner suddenly around here -- always a little disconcerting to walk in on a couple of dogs in flagrante delicto.

I've had bitches who became uncharacteristically stupid or wacky when they came into season, and were unreliable in their work. Pip and Rosie just add energy and intensity to their already driven performances. Rose has done a bang-up job on her last two trails; her estrus is a good time to throw extra distractions and new challenges her way. Canine sublimation?

Next estrus is put up or shut up time; we'll be deciding soon whether she will be a mother.

The deer rut means that I see more of them, as caution takes a back seat to libido. Six paraded through the south pasture at dusk; I think it was five does and a buck, but there may have been two bucks. Their rubs are particularly shreddy this year.

Our new rabbit herd got off to a slow start. The first doe that my original buck bred, back in September, did not "take," though she seemed to have. It's likely that his swimmers' soup was overcooked by the summer heat. The second doe had a litter of six, around the same time that the buck sadly succumbed to (what turned out to be) a urinary blockage. I got a new unrelated young buck from a different breeder, and have just integrated him and a new doe in the colony. Within two minutes of being released, New Guy had scent marked ten places in the stall, bred one of the younger does, and gotten his ass kicked by the dominant doe. With five does in the colony, I expect an early winter population explosion.

Gollum the barn cat, fearsome slayer of mice, voles, rats and chipmunks, has taken to sleeping amongst the rabbits. No shit. He ignores the babies, which are hardly larger than a large rat, and I've spotted him nuzzling with more than one of the does. Gollum said buh-bye to his little friends at a tender age, so I don't think he's joined in any Samhain barncat orgies, but he did get into a fight recently, which for a cat is much the same thing. His face wounds healed up fine, and he kept claiming that I shoulda seen the other guy. His sister does not corroborate his account, however.

It's not just dogs who can† discriminate between "ours" and "other" without explicit instruction and control their predatory impulses accordingly.

Meanwhile, I have to remind myself that our baby chicks and turkey poults were also freaking adorable, and grew up to be delicious.

Speaking of bucks, and urine.

Jefferson the he-goat is visiting from Rachel and Stan's farm.

He's got a lovely calm temperament. Pity about his personal habits. I do everything I can not to touch him. There's burdock in his beard and on his rump, and he's just going to have to cope, because there is no way I'm combing him out. Also, I know just how far backwards he can reach; he could groom that burdock out if it was a priority for him.

His job here is to settle Patsy and Edina. Lovely term that. Knock them up.** We'll know in a couple of weeks whether he's succeeded.

He courts the ladies by applying Capraxxe body spray, waggling his tongue, blubbering, flaunting his flehmen, and -- well, now I know what inspired the odd-looking phalli on all those vases depicting Bacchanals.

The wethers swear that he's been hanging around the playground wearing a trenchcoat and talking about a lost puppy. I'm monitoring the situation.

Jefferson gave me some crap about the gate his third morning here. Cole, who is deathly afraid of the electric fence around the goat pasture and never willingly approaches it, came flying off the back porch, through the gate, and straight at the he-goat's nose. Cole doesn't think much of visiting he-goat, and he interpreted a little stroppiness as a genuine threat. And now I know what he does when he thinks I'm threatened.

Good to know.

Finally, a weirdly untimely ray of hope in our disappointing heritage turkey breeding season.

Three or four weeks ago I noticed that the Bourbon red hen who had not succeeded with a clutch this year was not coming in to roost or running with the flock. But I would sometimes spot her for a few minutes in the morning around the feed trough before she would dematerialize.

Far too late in the year to be setting a nest, but the signs were unmistakable.

I finally found her Tuesday morning, close to the barn and setting a dozen eggs. She'd already pushed out three eggs -- a good sign, actually, indicating that she was paying attention to their viability and keeping the live eggs protected -- and this nest and eggs were clean, unlike her previous nests.

It is now far too cold and snotty for her to set outside, and I lost two shrubbery-setting hens this year to a raccoon, so in she came, whether she wanted to or not. The answer was Not. A twelve-pound bird can be surprisingly strong when she Does Not Want, but in she came with her eggs to a private stall. I candled them Thursday, and found squirming embryos in seven of them. Fingers crossed. It's a ridiculous time to raise turkeys, but I cannot say no to her.

The broody hens work so hard. It breaks my heart when things don't go well for them. Such devotion demands fulfillment. The only thing harder than brooding a clutch is the hero's journey of hatching out of an egg. It's hatch or die, and if anyone takes pity and helps the little warrior, it's likely to kill or cripple him. We mammals know nothing of birth struggle.

Spring may be the time of vegetative abundance and enthusiasm, but as the death and dormancy of Winter looms, the animals flaunt their eternal optimism. Snow all you want, we'll make more.


* Including the hornets, wasps and bees that make life exciting and possibly brief, and the $#@^$ stink bugs that make it annoying.

** For the dairy-animal uninformed: A goat (or cow) can produce milk for about a year after giving birth (kidding or calving), provided she is nursing offspring and/or milked regularly. To continue to get milk, the farmer must breed her every year. The onset or resumption of lactation is called freshening. She'll lactate just fine while pregnant. It's the usual practice to dry her off a couple of months before she's due again. So I'll stop milking the girls, and wean their 2010 kids, in February in preparation for April kidding.

None of this applies to the "Happy California Cows" of agribusiness fairy tales who calve and freshen, then receive hormone injections to keep them continuously lactating until their udders break down and they become hamburger. (The cows. Come to think, the udders, too, both metaphorically and probably literally.)

† Can. Can. Not necessarily will. And an absence of formal, or even conscious, training does not equate to a guidance vacuum or magical thinking.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Well Enough Alone

I just won't leave it.

For one thing, I need to provide some entertainment for Randy at the feed mill.

For another, I'm cheap.

But mainly, I don't trust conventional wisdom when the "wisdom" comes from a multinational agricorp and the "conventional" is the convention of the compliant customer.

We're talking about a woman who personally salvages whole cow tripes -- innards so vile that the slaughterhouse workers refuse to touch them -- for her dogs. Because they are that good for them.

When I got my first chickens I bought commercial chicken feed at Tractor Supply or Agway, in fifty pound sacks. The food is in pellet or crumbled pellet form, its constituent ingredients unrecognizable. It is "complete and balanced."

You can guess how long that lasted.

When we bought our first flock of meat chickens, our friends Rachel and Stan encouraged me to have feed made up at Zanella's.

Nineteenth-century technology, still going strong at Zanella's and mixing my chicken feed; photographed with a five-year-old cell phone camera that is already obsolete.

This is the sort of thing I do on principle -- buying from a local small business that sources most of its supplies from local small farmers. It was also significantly cheaper. Our local, local mill, Knauf's in Harmony, a few miles away, has been shuttered and for sale since before we moved here. I remember buying a few dog supplies and garden things there years back, when we lived in the sprawlburb to the south. They were phoning it in then. I wish someone would buy the mill and do something with it. John Zanella says the mill equipment is probably not salvageable; I still think the building would make a keen brewpub. It's a great location, but parking would be an issue.

Randy, the animal-feed guy at Zanella's, ground up the standard corn/soy mash for broiler chickens, and I drove off with a half-ton on the trailer. Did the same this year, and while I was kvetching about the high cost of layer pellets, Randy pointed out that the broiler mash could also feed the hens, as long as they were getting oyster shell.

Derrrr ....

But later this summer I started reading and talking to people and thinking (always a mistake), and then buying sacks of whole grains and experimenting.

How locally can a chicken eat?

What are the optimum protein, calcium, fat contents?

Are the whole grains better for the birds than pulverized?

How can I keep egg quality and hen health up during the winter, when pasture is snow-covered or just dead?

I goosed out a recipe that we'll try:

cracked roasted soybeans
rolled corn
(All the above grains are local)
sunflower seeds
soybean oil
dicalcium phosphate
brewer's yeast
mineral pre-mix

ad lib (in separate hoppers):
kelp meal
oyster shell

add in winter:
alfalfa meal (as rabbit pellets)

Soybeans and corn need to be cracked for the chickens; the other grains are served whole
Pasture all year when it isn't encased in snow, but the food value of the pasture starts dropping off to negligible levels around now (the psychological value is indisputable -- just ask the chooks who were snowed in for much of last winter).

Scraps from wherever I can get them -- our kitchen, friends. I'm going to try to work with some local restaurants on recycling scraps this winter. I hate waste even more than I'm cheap. Chickens eat anything. The commercial diet is deficient in animal protein and fresh green stuff, and they can't make that up on pasture in the winter. I'm interested to see how much difference the rabbit pellets might make.

At the moment, store brand layer pellets (think chicken kibble) are $12.89 per 50# bag at Tractor Supply, my closest feed store. 25.8 cents per pound, or $516 a ton. Purina Layena is $13.99 a bag, or $559.60 a ton.

I paid $275 for this latest batch of feed, which came to about 1150 pounds. $20 for rolling and mixing, $255 for ingredients, including the kelp which will also be fed to goats, cats, and dogs. (But not rabbits. It is "not recommended for rabbits." I do not know why this is.) 23.9 cents per pound.

Not the huge savings I got with the off-the shelf formula broiler feed, but the quality is just not comparable to the industrial hen kibble. This is primo chicken feed. My hens, and everyone who eats their eggs, deserve no less.

Since I was planning to add ad lib kelp to the chooks' diet regardless, and I'm not yet sure how much of it will be fed to chickens and how much to my other critters, it's reasonable t0 subtract that $35 and 50#, making the figure 21.8 cents per pound or $436 a ton. Eighty bucks saved looks a lot better than four cents a pound saved. Plus I expect to save a lot by not schlepping into TSC -- or for that matter, Zanella's associated hardware and farm supply store -- and picking up odds & ends that I could probably do without. I make feed runs every week or so when I'm buying bagged, and that adds up just for the gas.

I reuse my woven feed bags from Zanella's, bringing them back to Randy when he rolls and mixes my next batch. Or I forget them and get my chops busted until I threaten to tell blog readers worldwide which key ingredient he forgot to mix in to the last batch of feed. Most bagged feed is in paper bags, which are useful for trash, but one can only use so many. Tractor Supply and Purina are now using some pretty nifty-looking woven poly bags that can be re-used for other things. I've used some of them as shelf backing in the barn, and am experimenting with remaking others into reusable shopping bags for sale. But again, one can use only so many of these.

So far, so good. The poultry have been eating the custom mix for about a month. Egg production is up somewhat (it normally drops off in the fall, and some birds are still moulting) and shells seem stronger.

Thursday, November 11, 2010


What appeared to be a grass hut loomed up ahead of the advancing man and dog. It was a camouflaged pillbox. Rowell watched flame spurt from its wall as its hidden machine gun swept the beach he had left. Then as the handler later reported, "things happened pretty fast."

The leash jerked from his hand. There was a swirl of sand and a streak of brown hide. In seconds, Chips was inside the pillbox. An appalling noise -- wild shrieks and murderous growls -- cut through the racket of battle. An enemy machine gunner staggered out, a snarling, slashing fury at his throat. The three remaining members of the crew followed, hands up in surrender. Rowell called Chips off before the raging dog could kill his adversary.

History of Dogs for Defense, Fairfax Downey, 1955

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Friday, October 22, 2010

Photo Phriday: Move Along

Nothing magnificent to see here. Return to your homes.

Sunday, October 17, 2010


A conversation is not the sum of its syllables.

Rottweiler owners are fond of telling those who (they presume) don't know the breed that Rotties like to "talk."

He's not growling, he's just talking.

Thing is, many Rottweilers (and some other dogs) do have a growly vocalization that is not meant to be agonistic. It is rather charming.

People who are primed to skid their knickers in the mere presence of Satan's draught dogs are difficult to convince. Even most dog lovers and, in my experience, many dogs, can misinterpret these chest-rumbling soliloquies as a statement of most sincere ill-intention.

It gives me a little start every time a dog first does it around me, just like I do a double-take when one offers me a toothy greeting grin.

The submissive or happy grinning dog is quickly distinguishable from the angry snarler.

The "talking" dog is not always so clear.

Trouble is, another thing about Rottweilers is that they also growl. Sometimes a lot. Sometimes at their owners and their owners' friends and family. The growl frequently means something such as "You want the La-Z-Boy? Try me," or "Nail trim. Yeah, I don't think so."

Rottweilers are one of the very few breeds in which a large proportion of individuals can fairly be characterized as highly dominant animals*, dogs who actually want to take over the household and run it, sometimes even when the owner is quite competent.

Most dogs are happiest -- and know they are happiest -- if a credible human handles all the important decisions. "Dominance" challenges are either garden-variety adolescent experimentation or a desperate gambit to take the empty controls of a plane that the dog perceives as plummeting into the side of Mount Doom.

But there are exceptions, and a lot of those exceptions are Rottweilers. The breed supplies a disproportionate number of those truly dominant-aggressive dogs, as well as territorial-aggressive dogs, resource-guarders, and standoffish animals with a well-developed sense of personal space.

The fact that the dog has not bitten anyone yet is not prima facie evidence that he is not growling. When a Rottweiler -- or any dog -- is making a low rumbly sound in its chest, one has to look at the entire gestalt before determining, even provisionally, that the dog is either "talking" or "growling."

First, the circumstances -- the dog who rumbles like a gravel truck when told to get off the couch may be talking, but what he's saying is unprintable, and sooner or later he's highly likely to back up the threats. The dog who makes the same sound while writhing on his back in the grass getting his chest scratched is saying something else entirely -- possibly also unprintable, but only because this is a puritanical culture that frowns on pleasure.

But far more important, the whole picture of the dog's communication -- eyes, ears, eyebrows, lips. Butt and tail**. Muscle tension in neck, legs, and torso. Breathing. Looseness v. tightness. Skin tension and hackling. Not one little pieces-part, and not an imaginary sum of the pieces-parts -- the whole damned dog. How it all hangs together. It's nice to be able to name the parts and their positions, but no more practical than diagramming a diplomat's sentences to discern whether his country is about to declare war.

Those in the thrall of the Dunning-Kruger Effect focus on one thing, some body-language shibboleth that they imagine is the secret decoder ring for what a dog says or means.

We all know the classic, man on the street with some suprise body-perforations who claims, "But he looked friendly! His tail was wagging!"

Worse are those whose cynological expertise would move them to mock that poor civilian who thought the "cute" Akita's slowly-waving vertical tail was a friendly wag. They volunteer at the shelter. They've studied a chart. And doG help us, they've gone to a workshop (or better yet, watched a video of a workshop) in which a presenter attempts to teach them to "see" a dog's communications.

Even the best instructor can only do so much. Most of the students will walk away with a half-understanding of two or three canine field marks; if they retain one for more than a week, it is noteworthy. The rest will latch onto one or two insider buzzwords that become increasingly all-purpose and divorced from anything a dog is actually saying. Because the inexpert student is looking for a one-to-one babelfish dog-English translation, he refuses to consider that a dog, like any sentient creature, may experience ambivalence, threaten and not deliver, change his mind, hide his intentions, use misdirection, or speak gibberish. But he's proud of his insider knowledge, and takes it to the streets.

A few weeks ago, my teammate Rebecca was the recipient of much helpful advice about her young, enormous, steady, good-natured dog's temperament and behavior, from students who had just finished one such seminar. We now know that Cinders is "reactive" (he looked at another dog when it was disorderly) and that he is "trying to be the boss." (Still pulls on the leash a bit when he's not on a training collar and is very excited about working.)

Dominant Cinders reacting.

As Rebecca -- I love her, she's so diplomatic -- said, after I regaled the room† with my impression of Cinders trying to be the boss, "Everyone here is so friendly! And they all want to share what they know, whether or not it's right."

Combine such shallow "expertise" with a pig-headed commitment to interpret a dog's behavior as a "special" -- generally a breed-specific "specialness" -- and the sum can be a spectacular failure of common sense.

Consider two Rottweilers that, according to their owners, "purr," another term that rottie owners will apply to their dogs' actual or imagined "talking."

No cheating now. View each clip first with your speakers muted.

First this one:

And then this one:

Edit: Sorry folks. The person who posted video #2 has designated it "private." I don't think it was my readers, who are far too classy to harass a stranger on YouTube; it has been zipping around Facebook for a little while now, and I am guessing that some of the attention it was getting was not what the poster had in mind. It's also certainly possible that there was, shall we say, an "outcome" involving this dog that makes this video seem like not such a good idea in retrospect.

Disclaimer: I don't know either of these dogs, or the women shown with them. I don't know their histories, or what either of them might or might not have done since the videos were recorded and posted.


Are both dogs happy? Are both dogs enjoying the hugging and handling? Is either woman in any danger of being bitten, either immediately or at some future time? What do you see as the differences, if any, in what the dogs are communicating?

Now watch the clips with the sound on. Does it change your opinion?

Is either dog's non-vocal gestalt at odds with his vocalization? Or does the vocalization mean something different depending on the silent communication that accompanies it?

What would it take for you to believe a stranger when he tells you that his dog is "just talking" or "purring?"


* I am well aware that the latest fad among the Clinique Calls That Burning set is to declare that (mix 'n' match):

There is no such thing as a canine dominance hierarchy because dogs aren't cooperative hunters / dogs aren't even predators / packs are families, and everyone knows that non-pack predators / families don't have vertical development in their social structures / don't have social structures at all, and that therefore there is no such thing as a dominant dog, and also, dominance is not a temperament / character / personality trait so ipso facto no animal can have more or less of a predisposition towards social climbing, it's all the same, like minnows in a giant school, or slime molds. And also, anyone who says otherwise is a dog abuser. He kicked that dog! There, in the slow motion replay, see that, didn't you see it, that was a kick!

I don't care.

** Yeah, this is more difficult to assess when you have cut off the dog's fucking tail.

† The audience consisted of Rebecca and three dogs, mind you, but it was the crowd most qualified to appreciate the irony.

Snapshot Sunday: 100 Miles

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A just-completed-69-miles runner's-eye view of the Wolfkiel Aid Station, where AMRG provided medical support and search-and-rescue standby for the Oil Creek 100 foot race this weekend.

Because a marathon is just not hard-core enough.

Most interesting medical event of the weekend: Twenty-something male runner complaining of abdominal pain radiating sub-sternal.*

After sufficient discussions, a Hx of a defective pyloric valve, possible celiac disease, and oh yeah, this exact kind of discomfort from time to time whenever he inadvertently eats wheat, any potentially alarming element was quelled.


* Chief complaint -- feet hurt. Ya think?
Lotta that going around.

Friday, October 15, 2010

To be entered into the drawing for a Brandywine Farm Basket o' Noms, cast your votes for entry #2 in the NESR Cookbook-naming contest by the end of the day today, October 15.

At last count, Rescued: Recipes Too Good For The Pound was in fourth place. Remember, the drawing is only going to happen if it wins. So those of you who already voted early, you can still vote more often.

Methinks some other entrants are stuffing the ballot box themselves, instead of honorably bribing others to do so!

Monday, October 11, 2010

Macro Monday: Caging Summer

The tart, popping flavor of the currant tomatoes will be locked up by the food dryer and olive oil.

August days in a jar.

Friday, October 8, 2010

Photo Phriday: Can't Stop the World

But pole beans and overly-perky sunflowers are patient enough to imprison the wind.

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