Welcome to Tales From the Sonora

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Tales From the Sonora is a blog about life lived in dog on a small ranch in the Sonoran region of Arizona. Life here is measured in earth time, night sky time, dog time, and horse time. The juxtaposition and collision of those “clocks” with every day modern life is for me, a never ending source of inquiry and reflection.  Tales from the Sonora is the creation of Maryna Ozuna, founder of Kinaesthetics tm, http://www.dogbodycare.com and owner/trainer at http://www.azdoggyduderanch.com.

Welcome.

REWARD: A MANY SPLENDORED AND COMPLICATED THING Reshaping the Dialogue Copyright 2020 Ozuna

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Reward is one of the most complicated concepts in dog training.  For me, mastering its nuances is both the art and the craft of what we do as trainers.  Yet, too often the discussion on a million internet posts is phrased as “to reward or not to reward”, as if that is the sum total of the dialogue, and the only relevant question.  Yet, whether to reward or not to reward when shaping a behavior is only one of a 1000 questions to be asked.  Rather the discussion needs to be if, and if so, what are we rewarding, how, when, why, where and in what fashion, what context, and with whom are we working and what are their likes/dislikes/preferences, strengths/weaknesses, in short, an endless kaleidoscope of details that make all the difference between good training and mediocre or bad training.  This article is a brief, by no means comprehensive, look at some of the considerations that come into the training equation with respect to the question of reward.

Behavior:

Is the desired behavior, at this moment in time, something that will shape easier with reward or without? Do you want the dog to do something or to NOT do something?  If a NOT do something, what do you want the dog to do instead?  If it’s a DO something, what stage of learning are you at: showing, teaching, reinforcing, or proofing? Are you aware of the difference between those stages of learning?   Depending on the stage of learning or rehab, or end training goal, what precisely am I rewarding?  Am I rewarding drive?  Effort/try?  Position?  Execution?  Steps towards execution?  Polished execution?  Execution under distraction?  Polished execution under distraction?  Focus?  Changes in behavior — both to do or not to do something?  How big of a change in behavior or how small?   The exercise?  Pieces of the exercise?  Just showing up?? As a colleague once said to me, “What are you trying to teach in this moment?” All of these things (and many others) can be separate and distinct rewardable moments.  What are you trying to teach IN THIS MOMENT IN TIME, not an hour from now, not tomorrow, but where is the dog at vis a vis your training objective right now.  Do you need to break something into smaller pieces, link pieces together, start a new piece, review an old piece?  What are you doing?  What is your teaching plan.  And since training is the ultimate life humbling exercise, how can you shift to reframe or refocus if training is not proceeding according to plan.

Arousal levels:

Do you want arousal levels up or down?  Is this a rehab or train of an already over aroused, reactive or aggressive dog, or at the other end of the spectrum, a timid or fearful, who ironically will be equally dysfunctionally flooded with adrenalin.  Rewards may need to be low key, touch or voice only, where pups or dogs are already overexcited or aroused.  Many, even low to mid drive puppies and dogs, come into training anymore already addicted to their own adrenalin.  Adding fuel to the fire does not give you a brain to train to.  Or is this a competition dog that we are building, building, building focus and engagement for increasingly complex tasks, and longer durations of concentration.  Again, at the other end of the spectrum is this a competition dog who is getting too aroused, and easily distracted and unfocused.  How, when, what, and where we deliver reward may all need to be tweaked.  Arousal is not in and of itself a bad thing, it depends on the context, and what the dog’s response to arousal is.  If the response is snappy, nippy or reactive…not so great, and reward may need to be modulated or timing very carefully orchestrated to reward calm focus not the moments where the dog is losing its mind.  If the response is buoyant, focused performance, well then mazeltov, reward is on point.

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The Participant — the Dog:

What does the dog you are working with bring to the equation?  Reward is as individual as the dogs that come through our doors.  I currently have three personal dogs.  Rajah, the old boy shepherd, wants his reward as food, food, food, and delivered in a static (non-moving) fashion with quiet hands.  The higher the food value, the happier he is.  Steak would be his life goal, but chicken and cheese would not be amiss.  That they do not appear on any regular basis, he considers my failing.   Lily, the opinionated alpha elder Shiba, wants her reward food based but tossed away from her in active prey mode.  Hard, crunchy food doesn’t work for her, soft and fast munch builds her drive.  Whatever position/task we were training when I was competing with her, I had to find a way to deliver reward in an active fashion, so that meant choosing certain rewards that both met her nutritional needs, were soft, but could be thrown and wouldn’t fall apart, and it meant not training on dirt, which at a grassless dirt/clay/sand ranch was challenging.  Carport were us.  Kerrtu, my 2.5 yo shepherd, on the other hand outgrew food early on, and only wants an active reward — tug or ball, and loves it the absolute best, when we are doing so in a dynamic fashion in two senses of the word.  She loves it best when the ball/stick/pinecone is thrown, but even better if we incorporate the throwing/reward while moving all across the ranch, not just hanging out in one place.  She wants double dynamic reward, and thrives on that level of complexity.  For her, we work out on the trail, in and out of formal commands and positional work.  Both the other two would shut down at that level of dynamic reward.  They do not have the drive to sustain work for that kind of reward.

Typically, with my pups in training, I am hand feeding a portion of their food, a core resource, as opposed to feeding a treat, something additional, as I want an extremely high level of low stress focus, and low gut impact. Using food, a core resource, gets me a higher level of focus, and nearly all pups within about 48 hours will click in to the food game which we will do in various contexts building positional memory: come to a hand target, touch, sit, down, place, and eye contact.  With them, I am delivering the food in a quiet, fixed, cupped hand NOT in my fingertips because I want them taking food with their lips, not with their teeth, as 9/10 times anymore, I am also building bite inhibition with mouthy youngsters.  Using the cup of my hand and holding that steady also simulates the rooting reflex, so we are accessing core reflexes as well, giving me an extra deep neurological bang for my training buck.

Not all pups are food or toy driven.  Touch is another core source of reward. I am working with a young Belgian shepherd right now, who gets too nervous and overstimulated at times to take food.  Ironically, as he was resistant to touch at first, he now comes to my hand for stroking even if he doesn’t want food, like a cat arching it’s back for pets.  He comes and shoves his head under my hand, and since coming is what I have asked him for, he gets his pets.  He is touched though in a very specific way to increase his proprioceptive (total body) awareness. Again, we are using core neurological processes to aid development and learning.  I use a slightly cupped hand, closed (fingers touching) fingers, firm one-way stroking from front to back, and top to bottom.  Scary for him at first, now touching is a reward.

If I am dealing with a dog who too easily goes into arousal, whether a fully reactive dog or just a pup who can’t process too much adrenalin then my “reward” needs to be tempered accordingly.  If we have a super mouthy or harder edged bitey pup/dog, then the last thing I probably want to do, at least in the beginning, is use food, and even touch may be too much, and just elicit jumpy, erratic behavior.  I’d probably start with just low tone voice praise and evaluate the dog’s arousal balance point over time.  What reward is too much, what is not enough, what is just right in the moment, is the continuing quest of the trainer.  And just when we get a glimmer of rhythm with a dog, all of those considerations will change with the dog’s development, and sometimes from morning to afternoon.

Style and context of reward varies immensely and the style, context, and needs of the dog you are working with vary immensely.

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The Mechanics of Reward:

Books, videos, lecture series, workshops, careers have been developed on the subject of the mechanics of reward.  I just want to raise a few points for the purpose of reframing and deepening the dialogue.  The infinite intricacy of the mechanics of rewards — what, where delivered, how delivered, when delivered — all of those will depend on that initial analysis of WHAT it is we are trying to shape and thus what it is we want to reward, coupled with insight, knowledge and awareness of the dog with whom we are working.  Added to which, just to make this more difficult, task, context, dog analysis, and reward are exceptionally fluid.  We may reward different components of the exercise in very different ways, during the course of a single practice session, let alone from session to session.

Mechanics: Timing

The timing of reward is an intricate dance whether doing behavioral rehab or command based training.  For example, reward in my world, if working on command based behaviors, is coordinated with a careful rhythm of words using a marker system: 1) name, 2) command, 3) marker — “yes”, “good”, or “no” depending on stage of learning and 4) reward or praise language.  Marker timing is a four-part rhythm, not always easy to capture, but when you do it is like a waltz with our dogs.  And yes, the better you get, and the higher the levels of tasks you are training, or the longer the duration of focus you are asking for, the trickier it gets.  I can remember watching an instructor coach one of the members of our Schutzhund (IPG) club on the timing of the release of a bumper reward.  You could totally see the dog flatten slightly or motivate depending on split second differences in timing of the release of the reward.  Fascinating.  Especially when I see so much focus on changing the dogs in endless internet videos with bad timing, rather than a mutual review including changing ourselves.

Reward for behavioral reshaping is the most nuanced and will depend totally on assessing microshifts in behavior in the direction of the desired balanced behavior I am shooting for.  That is a topic for another day.

Another component of timing is when and how are you delivering your reward vis a vis the concept you are trying to teach? Is the correlation strong enough for the task you are teaching? Are you constructively building the desired behavior or is the behavior flat lined because the reward timing is off for that dog, that concept, in that moment?  Working with another experienced person or coach can really help hone your timing.  Timing is a crucial skill to develop as its use or misuse can radically affect behavioral aspect, drive levels and task outcome.

Mechanics: Place of reward

Another piece of the mechanics of reward is the whole concept of place of reward, and its nemesis — consistency.  I see innumerable videos on the internet where the reward is delivered in a variety of places throughout the course of a short video in relation to one specific behavior or task with concomitant varying results.  Yes, our dogs can be moving targets, but we can still strive for consistency of place of reward to facilitate cleaner learning.

There is a vast variance of opinions on “place of reward” depending on what skill is being taught.  Left hand/right hand, fingers tucked back, fingers level, fingers cupped/toy hidden, toy out, there are innumerable details that vary with the task taught and the stage of training.  Some skills sets do not require as consistent a place of reward as others.  The specifics of place of reward depending on what skill set is being taught is again a whole other article.  My point here is be thoughtful about what position you want your dog to be in for a task and reward accordingly.  Think about it, film it, review it, change it, and then once tweaked, push yourself for consistency, before you push your dog for consistency.  However you are going to define place of reward for that skill set, you need to be consistent in delivery.

Being consistent with place of reward does not contradict the need that may occur to vary style or type of reward during a session.  Each of those would also have their best place of reward depending on what is being taught.  In addition, place of reward usually evolves as a task is taught.  Knowing how and when to vary place of reward is an art form.

Evolution of reward:

As training progresses, reward needs to remain fluid and changeable in many different aspects. Reward is never static if training is progressing how it should.  For e.g., when I am first starting a very young puppy, I may be rewarding using a treat/food lure like a magnet, and be rewarding 100% of the time for a particular shaped behavior.  If I am using food up over the head of a pup to sit, the pup sits, and food comes directly from the visually close lure position to the mouth.  Then I may transition to rewarding after execution and a marker (a verbal marker “yes” or a clicker).  Food now is not over the nose of the pup, I simply say the command, mark when executed, then deliver the food.  Then, I might transition to rewarding a sequence of behaviors vs. one isolated behavior.  For e.g., now I want my pup to sit and stay.  He has captured the sit idea, and now I am adding a second concept — sit and hold the sit until I release you.  The timing and place of my reward will now shift from the quick reward for the sit to reward on release from the sit.  So reward is subject to development along with the development of the dog, physically and mentally.

At some point in time, once I am teaching sequences of behaviors, I am probably going to introduce variable reward, not rewarding 100% of the time to build curiosity and what we call drive to problem solve and get the reward.  To isolate one factor, whether or when I switch to variable reward might depend on the status of the dog.  I might have a dog who is smart and executes the sequence really well, but is behaviorally insecure and might need way more time at 100% reward.  Or I may have a super smart dog who rapidly gets bored with 100% reward.  Now we are getting into the infinite nuances of reward and shaping behaviors.  But these are all considerations to be brought to bear to the training equation.  What the reward schedule is for any given dog or task will vary.

Reward: It is a many splendored and every so complicated thing, and worthy of far more of our attention as canine professionals than a cursory emotional stance of whether you reward or not.

 

Movement Markers ™ Clinics

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Where did the concepts, exercises and techniques behind the Movement Markers™ Clinics come from and why are these concepts remotely relevant to dog trainers, or dog owners, who have enough on their plates just dealing with the challenges of building solid behaviors and preventing or eliminating chaos in modern dogs.

When I began training dogs professionally, many years ago now, I brought with me a background in human and horse sports, as well as many hours of actual hands on bodywork sessions on humans, horses, and dogs.  We all look at the world through the blinders of the tools we bring to the equation, and my tool was movement, and movement analysis.

As a result, I was one of the first in this modern era (these concepts have been around for forever) to talk about the many ways in which proprioception (simplified — body awareness and coordination) or lack of proprioception in modern dogs was affecting their overall physical and mental balance and the training equation.  When I began teaching these concepts in clinics, the only other person really writing much about this in dogs was Suzanne Clothier, and the bunch of crazies who were starting this sport called agility, who were more focused on giving modern suburban dogs something to do with their brains than they were about the scientific underpinnings of how movement affected learning.  My focus on movement and proprioception led to clinic exercises, articles, the development of concepts like Five Week Puppy Syndrome, puppy enrichment development, hands on techniques specifically for the canine, movement warning flags to subclinical gait issues that we needed to take into account during training, recognizing gait issues that needed to be evaluated by our veterinary colleagues, building partnerships in the veterinary community and daily discussions about all these issues on professional email lists before the advent of social media.

Fast forward to the present, when I am being flooded on a daily basis with pix and video from colleagues around the country checking in to ask if there is “anything going on with this dog” that will affect their ability to learn.  Just yesterday alone, I looked at:

  1. 7 mo Pitty cross with exaggerated roaching in the back, disproportionate growth patterns in the long bones of the legs, and disparate curvature from one leg to another.
  2. Mastiff pup with an overly straight, splayed hind end, weight disproportionately tipped on the forehand (even for a normal adolescent of nearly any breed who will carry more weight on the forehand at various stages of development), no ability to flex or collect behind, and impaired longitudinal, lateral, and rotational flexion,
  3. Golden pup whose hind end movement looked like an egg beater gone wild…that was not the result of just being a pup, but again disparate growth patterns,
  4. St. Bernard pup we had seen in pix since babyhood, (thanks to a colleague) whose owner’s insistence on garbage food was now causing distortion at every growing plate and joint,
  5. A comparison between movement in a docked vs. undocked Rotties of related blood lines,
  6. Ayoung mixed breed agility competitor with disparate muscle development from side to side in the hind legs, torsion in the gait, and a stiffness in the back and one hind leg that are the kind of profile that raises concerns about an unhappy knee.

We are not veterinarians, thanks be to God.  Nor do I have any pretensions or desire to be one.  But animal husbandry and basic knowledge of movement falls squarely in our wheel house.  We need to know when there is an issue that needs to be referred over to our veterinary colleagues, we need to document for them what we are seeing, and we need to know when there are issues that are going to affect our training strategies, sequences, tool choices and timing.

I am seeing a vast variety of circumstances that squarely affect learning readiness, learning capacity, and behavioral profiles of the dogs sent to us for training.  These things directly impact the dog’s ability to benefit from our training efforts and constitute substantial impediments to learning that must be taken into account if we are to achieve results for the dogs and their owners.  Some of the most common categories we are seeing for which we have developed protocol include:

  1. Proprioceptive deficits that affect the dog’s ability to uptake training information, retain information, sequence, generalize and extrapolate information.
  2. Subclinical gait abnormalities that affect learning readiness and capacity.(“There’s something about this dog that just doesn’t look quite right.”)
  3. A marked uptick in the resurgence of various bone growth development issues including panosteitis (pano) that need to be referred out to our veterinary colleagues.A situation which is only going to get worse with the current onslaught of canine corporate food marketing strategies.
  4. Undiagnosed or under treated clinical gait abnormalities that need to be referred out before, or atleast concurrent with, training so a dog’s learning is not impeded by pain or discomfort.Again, not remotely our job to diagnose, or treat, but it is our job to recognize that perhaps this animal needs to be referred out.
  5. And a new and disturbing category of dogs with bone growth development issues from an utter and complete lack of necessary movement during puppy development.I have now seen 7 of these cases in the last few months, like nothing I have ever seen before, all the exact same profile of a larger breed youngster kept in a too small space with no migratory movement — straight line movement from place to place — i.e. walks, with weird bone growth issues, and concomitant massive behavioral imbalances up to and including severe aggression in uncharacteristic breeds.  Pups literally never taken out of a small yard, and never taken for a walk for a whole host of reasons, but primarily, basic lack of training ability of a larger sized puppy when it outgrows the cute butterball stage of life.

Normal, healthy bone development in living creatures requires healthy, progressive stressing, i.e. movement.  Dogs are genetically programmed to move, and that genetic code requires certain actions to be fulfilled during development of their bone structure, or it does not develop correctly.  Puppies need to run and play and be taken for long walks, long being relative to a puppy.  The training trail here on soft ground is a half mile trail and the youngsters do that 2 to 3 x a day when they are here for training.

In response to these floodgates, I developed Movement Markers™ Clinics to help my colleagues

— be able to identify what normal movement and structure in a canine looks like, feels like, sounds like,

— be able to identify when is there a deviation from normal movement that constitutes a problem that may act as an impediment to learning,

— learn how to use a variety of visual assessment protocols to identify gait abnormalities,

— know when to refer those out (always if any question whatsoever),

— how to help that pup/dog and owner when it comes back into our wheelhouse with appropriate training and pre-training strategies, tool selection, tool placement, proprioceptive exercises, hands on sports therapy assessment tools, and hands on bodywork tools for the enhancement of physical integrity for the dog.

There are many pieces of the dog training puzzle.  Hopefully, these clinics can add necessary and useful information to anyone interested in maximizing learning and maintaining the best physical integrity in our own and our clients’ dogs.

World Without Lines

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Copyright all photos and text S.A. Ozuna 2015

1.

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Walking the bones of the earth,
seeing the accretions of time,
glimpses of hidden truths,
half truths, new truths,
a palimpsest of history.

When we look at man,
what do we see?
Do we see the eye of the soul,
or merely the accretions of the years,
a contextual crust of many layers.

2.

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We are born naked,
and immediately begin
the accumulation of sedimentary debris.

Family,
geography,
history,
religion,
school,
work,
experiences,
seasons,
smells,
memories,
the topological markers
of our souls.

3.

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Like minerals on the wall of a cliff,
our accumulations color us,
create the texture of our lives.

We are both enriched by their content,
and separated by the walls they build.

Looking out and looking in,
the world is inevitably distorted
by the kaleidoscope prism
of our accretions.

We see out dimly through our layers,
and the world, looking back, sees
nothing but crust.

4.

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We need to go walkabout
through the layers of the earth,
the layers of each other,

We need to steal from the great lions,
see with cat’s eyes,
piercing through layers
to flesh and bone.

We need to wade through family,
geography, history, religion,
school, work, experiences,
seasons, smells, and memories,
to the eye of the soul,
touch naked hearts.

Earthquakes will happen.
The earth will cleave in two,
shattered by compassion,
riven by history.

5.

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At night, we watch TV,
and weep tears of the moon,
at the images of drowning babies,
while in the morning we reiterate
there is no room at the inn.

Six million lives lost,
their voices echoing on the wind,
Surely we can find room,
there are ghosts holding place markers.

My heart seen from space
would have ley lines of sorrow
for my beloved earth,
her broken creatures,
and wounded mantle.

6.

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Hourly, I feel her wounds.
Not a day goes by that
I don’t doctor her cuts.

And I ask, “Who are these merchants of death
who profit from the arms,
that turn to dust
the temples of Palmyra.
Who profits?”
For therein lie the secrets and the power.

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Those who profit,
glory in our walls,
delight in our separation,
bang the drums of celebration of our layers,
their important, their sacred solemnity,
and draw lines on the planet.

8.

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So, I walk,
holding conversations with the earth,
stripping myself naked,
dreaming of a world without lines,
a world without walls.

Copyright all photos and text S. A. Ozuna 2015

Meadow Larks and Rainbows…

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     Dawn sky swirling with the tattered remnants of last night’s storm, clouds capturing and defining color, space, distance.  Light, that voluptuous Sonoran storm light perfusing morning chores.  Flash of black and yellow, liquid trills of bird call from the corral fence.  A welcome pair of new visitors, meadow larks have arrived to announce the morning.  The mountains are backdropped in virga black, a rainbow arching across their face.  Soft purling of wind flutters the pine needles.

     Every day, I hear the earth screaming in pain at the senseless, and unrelenting destruction of her nature.  Glacier National Park, soon to be nothing but a historical reference of what glaciers used to be, and the elephants, the elephants keening their death knells, estimated to be gone in 30 years absent radical intervention.  These things haunt my waking moments, and writhe through my veins at night.  And yet nature is endlessly generous, providing daily moments of precious beauty.

     Why write about a shaft of light, a flicker of wing in a world gone mad?? When lives are being lost, when anger and hatred seem to have become the norm.not some unusual rendering of the fabric of society, but every day bread and butter, what does it matter, the chiaroscuro rendering of a morning’s cloud painting??  Why pay attention to a moment.

     Because moments matter.  Because these fleeting moments of beauty remind us of the integrity of nature, of its intrinsic value.  They are a snapshot of nature’s vast soul.  They remind us of the difference between grace and destruction.  They provide reference markers between routine and possibility.  In a world that too often seems to be marching on a one way trip to annihilation, moments of beauty keep me, if not sane, at least marching forward within a sanity zone of tolerance.  Moments of beauty restore shreds of hope to my vision of the future.  They are the wind beneath my somewhat life battered and aging wings.

 

 

 

 

 

Of Meadows, Mountains, Golden Light and Golden Dogs

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Of Meadows, Mountains, Golden Light and Golden Dogs

I knew I should be creating lovely, educational blogs on dog training or canine massage, but my head was aching from way, way too much computer time and way too little earth time. I needed dog time, mountain time. I needed to smell trees and wind, and water. I needed to be in high places. So I took the dogs and ran away up to the mountains.

We didn’t go far, just up into Carr Cyn meadow in the Huachuca Mountains, here in Sierra Vista, Arizona. But it was enough. Carr Cyn meadow sits like a tipped bowl below the rocky palisade down which Carr Cyn waterfall flows in season. The furthest end of the bowl is tipped slightly upwards, the end closest to us, down. The result is like a giant lap resting below the torso of the mountains. We walk it counterclockwise, entering bottom left.

The light was that wonderful slanting magic light fall brings that etches each leaf with a sharp jeweler’s precision. Tufted grasses waved a thousand shades of celery green, harvest gold, pale straw. The trees shimmered and flipped through a palette of greens and silvers, while the sweet, pungent aroma from the fading Mexican arnica still permeated the air. I actually managed to harvest this year, a few plastic bags full, to make the world’s best liniment for humans. Nothing even comes close, and when it is finished, it’s just like having all that golden meadow sinking deep into one’s bones.

The Shibas love the meadow, and their golden coats flow in and out of grass and light and shadow. Nagi, the big, black sable shepherd, lumbers along, feeding his soul with the mountain’s portfolio of sounds and scents. The blue jays chatter above, and Nagi stares, dreaming his endless dreams of blue jay conquest. The moon is slightly more than half full and is up early, perching proudly on a clear azure backdrop, dead smack center above a cleft in the top left hand corner of the ridge line. My heart raises up to greet her.

The dogs are earthbound, earth passionate, earth ecstatic. They are buried in earth’s cloven ridges. As we cross the top of the bowl from left to right, the whole Sulphur Springs Valley opens up in the distance, the demarcation of earth and river, the line of the San Pedro, visible from afar. Deer scamper ahead of us, the grasses so high that all we see are the flash of white flags disappearing into the trees. The dogs pause, bodies keen on alert, then gentle at my call.

We meander to the creek’s edge, and I sit to listen to her songs. I love this little creek and talk to her often. She is full of stories, humor, pathos, yesterdays, and tomorrows, but mostly todays. She is ever so present. She makes me mind the moment. It is this gurgle, right now, that flash of light, that dropping leaf, this resonant reddish tinge, oxides a testament of summer’s hard floods. She is here now and forces me to be as well. The dogs just drink.

Across the creek and up the trail we go, tight together around the cattle guard, a right turn, and then down the right side of the bowl into the shadowed woods. Year round these woods give me succor, give me blessing. I am more comfortable in them then any friend’s living room. For me, they are like an old flannel shirt. They are my home, my family, my respite from the world. I know their moods like I know the holes in my own soul. We have known each other.

Back across the creek, and up and out once again into the meadow. Lizards live here, basking in the sun. For the dogs, it is a playground nonpareil. Lizard chasing is heaven. They dash and dart – the dogs that is, and I presume the lizards. It is an old, and endless game. The dogs are happy. The lizards I assume, not. Down we go back under the big, rambling mesquites. We have lost a number of these old grandpa trees in recent years, their shallow roots no match for the turbulent winds that seem to torment us much of the year anymore. It is sad to see them toppled, their wizened wizards’ limbs uselessly beseeching the sky.

Then on down the path to the final creek crossing, parking lot and home. It is still there, my meadow, and thankfully, I have once again climbed into her lap for comfort. The dogs and I are soothed and full, replete with mountains and sky.
Home again, home again.

Copyright Ozuna 10/7/08

Space: The Language of Dog Culture Part I

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Space: The Language of Dog Culture Part I

In the world of dog culture, space matters. How close. How far. How far up. How far down. All these things are language in dog culture. How quickly or slowly we approach. At what angle. With what kind of body language. These are the nuances of language, the things that bespeak personality, flavor. In the same way that people move through a party or gathering with different styles of body language each of which gives us information about that person, so too does space give information in the dog world.

Here at the ranch, both professionals and owners of dogs in training come to learn the non-verbal language of dogs. Learning how to read dogs is an essential part of the ADDR teaching process. The forty acres of space here, and the off leash training that enables all clients’ dogs to move freely through space, allow for a full range of dog social language. Teaching points out nuances in language, and response, to enable ever better and better communication. Learning to read, really read dogs is an ongoing joy of mine that brings new details every day.

When we approach a dog, we are actually engaging in a conversation. There is language in every motion of our body and how we occupy space. People are no different. Each of us prefers to be approached in a certain way. Most of us prefer something vaguely in the middle between too servile and too “hale fellow well met.” We neither appreciate bluster, nor cringing. Dogs are the same. It is not so much that they derive different meanings from body language, it’s just that theirs is an older, courtlier language than our modern day interchanges. Dogs are still a distinct culture.  Just like a business person would not presume to go to Japan or Saudi without studying what nuances of meet or greet might make friends or give offense, if we want to be really successful in the world of dogs, especially with tricky dogs, we need to slow down and pay attention to both communicating well and not giving offense.

Approach

So what is the conversation when we approach a dog? Depending on how far away we are when we start towards a dog, we move through more generalized pack space into personal space. Personal space, for dogs, like humans, begins about three feet out from the body. Personal body space is entered when we actually touch another creature. Critical distances of language occur at probably a vast infinity of divisions — the “alphabet” of space. But for purposes of this discussion we will use the following rough transition zones: 3, 6, 10, 15, 30, 50, 100, and 250′ of space. Family space might be considered to be out to 10′, pack space out to 30′, social space 50′, information 100, and threat assessment 250. (More on this in Part II.)

Just like with us, there is more latitude allowed for confusing body language between dogs when one is further away than if they are within close proximity. When someone gets close to us, we want them to behave in a certain way. When someone touches us, we especially want them to do so in a certain way, depending on what our relationship with them is. We certainly want our co-workers to touch us differently than we we do our kids or our partner. A favorite friend has far more access to our personal space than a new acquaintance. Presumptions made too soon about personal access are a sure interrupter on the path to intimacy. The same is true for dogs. Yet so often we presume to just slam on through space (language, and meaning) and PAT, PAT, PAT on the head of some poor dog. Yccgh says the dog in a million ways. Eyes scrunching. Mouth dropping open. Body going neutral, or not, depending on the level of aggression in the dog. Breathing changing. Holding the breath. Breathing more rapidly. Muscles tightening. Tail dropping. A million subtle clues.

So what might polite approach look like in the world of DOG??

Slow down
Soften your body
Angle slightly sideways
Dip your eyes
Breathe
Approach at the shoulder
Closed fingers
Given permission, matter of fact, firm stroking, front to back, top to bottom.

Sort of like a courtly dance or presentation to the queen isn’t it?? Yes, dog culture is more formal than we are.

When we just walk straight up to the dog, shoulders and hips front facing, eyes front, regardless of the amount of relaxation in our body, we are still communicating a bold, (actually rude) bordering on aggressive, approach. Straight on approach signals aggression. Curved approach signals politeness. If our body is tight, we signal even higher on the aggression scale. If the dog’s body is tight, they will receive the information higher up on the aggression scale. A two way street of burgeoning negativity.

When we zoom through pack space into personal space and on into personal body space without even a pause, we are unknowingly making demands and statements about dominance and submission. We are not giving the dog an option to hang with us, we are imposing our friendship, and the fact that we are in charge of that friendship. I am not referring right now to the need to establish clear training boundaries with a dog, I am talking merely about what space and approach mean to a dog so that we can read their language correctly to get the very best response out of the dog. We can pause briefly and acknowledge a dialogue and achieve way, way more.

We probably don’t really like it if someone is looking at us with a very intent, fixed gaze, yet we do it to dogs all the time. Just because about 8/10 of the dogs that are out there will be polite when we are rude, does not mean that it wouldn’t hurt us to learn to speak their language a little better. And increasingly, we are seeing dogs who will not be polite back, dogs who do not come from a stable gene pool, who are poorly bred or merely the result of some haphazard mating, or who have not had any proper development or who lack any kind of age appropriate and breed appropriate socialization, (which does not mean taking your young pup to a dog park and letting them get pummeled by the older hooligans who are there.). That is not socialization. Socialization is a gradual process of increasing the complexity of experiences and sensory stimulation that begins at week one of a pup’s life.

Whether the dog is polite back or not, our continual obliviousness to the subtleties of spatial language, or our misunderstandings about the language of space can diminish our training results, result in confusion for the dog, result in frustration for ourselves and in its worst aspects create chaos. Simple courtesies go a long way in all cultures. The same is true of the boundary between the culture of humans and the world of DOG.

In upper level training, we use these notions of space and proximity to build and direct drive to our training objective. Space and movement become treasured pieces of the motivational puzzle. At a basic level it’s about preferences. My big shepherd likes to be part of a rugby scrum. He likes to push up against and be pushed against. So does the Rottie who’s here now for training. Approached like that, the Shibas blink in either disgust on the part of one, or confusion or an attempt to placate on the part of the other. The terriers want to come in on their terms or not at all. Each has their personal preference to space, proximity, speed, and direction. Just like us. Our job is to be aware and if we want to learn to train, or maximize our effectiveness with our pets – some basic awareness of what it all means is essential.

Resources: Turid Rugaas, Calming Signals video.