Monday, 22 September 2014

Perception is Reality

Flying back from Texas this weekend, I had an enlightening and disturbing conversation with a seatmate.

Enlightening in that how breeders are (sometimes? frequently? always?) percieved by rescue groups; and disturbing in that, well, her view was utterly toxic.

After a little "hi, whatcha reading" chit-chat, she mentioned that she volunteers with a local breed rescue group - and that she hates breeders. Hm, I said. I'm a breeder.

Awkward silence.

She's involved with a very popular breed, and no doubt sees more dogs in a year locally than I do borzoi at Nationals. But, still...

As we chatted over the next hour, we traded stories, the way strangers do when looking for common ground. She told me a sad story about a friend who paid a fortune for a puppy from a breeder and wound up with a health problem - must be a terrible breeder, she said. Well, I said, maybe. But sometimes we do all the health testing available, generation after generation, and mother nature will take you out for a spin. I told her about Bruno, and showed her the OFA database listing his ancestors' clearances - she didn't know such a thing even existed! 

She told me about her daughter's new SUV, and how they go on home visits together. Ah! I said. Yes, I require that too. And told her about a buyer that didn't get a dog from me due to inadequate fencing and an unwillingness to improve his fence.

Wow, she said. I didn't think breeders cared where their puppies went. They just want to make money.

::speechless::  I mean - really, how does one respond to that? I know it wasn't intended as an insult... It's just her perception - her reality - based on what she sees in rescue.

Well, I said, you may not believe this, but I know, right now, at this very instant, where EVERY puppy ever born in my house is. Right now. 

She looked shocked. 

And, yes, I charge for my puppies. Does your rescue group charge for the dogs you place?

She squirmed. Yes, she said, there's an adoption fee - but, she hastened to add, we lose money on every dog.

Me too, I said. Calling it an adoption fee is just marketing, I smiled. You sell dogs, I sell dogs. And we're all losing money. I haven't figured out how to make a profit. I've easily got five figures invested, once you factor the health testing on the parents, and on the puppies, and the costs of a few years campaigning before doing a breeding. Forget initial purchase price, food, and regular vet care. I lose a fortune on every litter. But - money changes hands - it's a sale.

I also told her how every good breeder I know is also involved in breed rescue, and that the purpose of rescue is to reunite the dog with its owner, or breeder; and only if neither can take back the dog, is it then made available to a new owner. At first she didn't believe me, so I told her a couple of stories of owners that had become very ill, or a breeder that died, and how we all pulled together to get those dogs back home. 

We did not talk about Piper. It is the nightmare scenario that every breeder has been losing sleep over for more than two months now: a wayward dog picked up by ACO and turned over to breed rescue, and breed rescue refusing to return the dog to the rightful owner, co-owner, and breeder. But the conversation made me think - we need to find ways to educate people in rescue, people like my well-intentioned traveling companion who has a negative view of all breeders.

I told her, nobody hates bad breeders as much as good breeders. NOBODY. Because we understand that JQP paints us all with the same muck-covered brush. It's easier, I told her, to blame breeders and not owners; to lump all breeders into the same barrel of bad apples. But that it's not right, it's not fair. Come to a dog show I told her (giving her the date and location of one next month). Talk to people, ask breeders how they screen their homes and what's in their contracts. Ask them if they've ever had a dog returned. Listen to their stories.

I'm not special. I'm not better. I am lucky to have mentors with decades of experience, and incorporated their values into my own. In my circle of friends, there are more good breeders than bad ones. 

I don't think that's unique to me. I do think we aren't getting the word out. We need to find ways to educate those focused on rescue what the truth is about breeders, and partner with the good ones. 

As we deplaned, she said, well, good luck with your dogs. Thank you, I said. Hope to see you next month. Your breed always has a huge entry, there will be lots of people for you to meet.

Wonder if she'll make the effort. For the sake of the dogs, I sure hope so.

Monday, 31 March 2014

Standing Ovation

Finally, a good reason to move to Canada. And I've been to Calgary, there's lots of Chinese take-out and it's close to Jasper...

Monday, 24 February 2014

An Open Letter to AKC's VP of Performance

Note - AKC's BOD rescinded the age lowering - restoring it to 12 mos - at the March 2014 meeting. Kudos to AKC for responding so quickly to correct this.

24 February 2014

to: Doug Ljungren, VP of Performance and Companion Events

re: AKC Board Minutes 2/7/14 - CAT rule change - minimum age reduction

Dear Mr. Ljungren -

I am writing to ensure you are aware of my acute dismay at the recently published AKC Board Minutes, dated 7 February 2014 in which the following change is announced on page 10: "The Board VOTED to amend the Regulations for Coursing Ability Tests, Chapter XV, Sections 3 and 9, to open the Coursing Ability Test (CAT) up to a wider range of dogs by (1) lowering the minimum age for a dog to participate to 6 months..."

I must express to you my most strenuous objection to this change, and to the manner in which it was carried out. As the immediate past-Secretary, previous President, and current Director on the Board for Albuquerque Whippet Fanciers Association/Lobo Lure Coursing Club, we were not allowed the opportunity to provide feedback on this proposal. Neither were current active Lure Coursing Judges asked to weigh in.

As you are aware, lure coursing is a Performance event, not a Companion event. As an agility competitor since 2001 and a lure coursing participant and judge, I am keenly aware of the distinction between the two categories. Your own involvement in field trials no doubt gives you a similar appreciation.

As you can see from this chart the average age for growth plate closure of the critical tibial crest (stifles being the last joint in which growth plates close, and in all canines the joint most prone to injury) is 11 months, with the range being up to 14 months (the study used beagles and greyhounds). In my own borzoi, I have seen (via digital radiograph) some males' growth plates still open at 18 months of age.

It is therefore my considered opinion - as owner, breeder, and judge - that the 12 month age MINIMUM for entry into any lure coursing activity is an essential safety rule. I find it unconscionable that AKC would enable entry in a performance event by immature animals.

It has been brought to my attention that several clubs will be dropping CAT events from their hosting activities; countless judges have stated that they will decline CAT assignments; and the NM club has lost its FTS for future CAT events. Please work with the AKC BOD to rescind this rule change before dogs are needlessly put at risk of suffering career-ending injurys.

Thank you in advance for your prompt attention to this matter.

- Leonore
AKC LC Judge
AKC Breeder of Merit


AKC LC Field Rep

and the following AKC clubs, of which I am a member in good standing:

Albuquerque Whippet Fanciers Association / Lobo Lure Coursing Club - President
Rocky Mountain Borzoi Club - Performance Chairman
Borzoi Club of America - AKC Delegate

Tuesday, 24 December 2013

Scent of a Memory

It started at the grocery store, but it wasn't until I had a knife in my hand that the flashback became physical time travel.

My family here in New Mexico has made an effort to gather not just at the holidays, but once in the summer as well. Location moves around a bit, and the host/ess plots the entrée and everyone brings an accompanying dish. It's not quite "pot luck" as the options are divvied up, first dibs first taken. Vegetables, soup, potatoes, sweets, beverages, etc. As we had a 3+ hour drive to my aunt's home well north of here, I claimed the fruit option, knowing I could prepare it in advance and it would travel well.

I stopped at the grocery with my list, hoping my master plan for colors, textures, sweet and tart would be possible. No apples or bananas; nothing that would turn color exposed to air. I needed berries, melons, and grapes. Luck was with me, and blackberries, raspberries, green, red and black grapes made their way into my basket. A couple of cans of cubed pineapple were tucked into a corner. 

Then I surveyed the melons. As my grandfather taught me, I rapped each with my knuckle, seeking that specific sound, deep and hollow, which reflects the ripeness beneath the rind. I heard his smile, that one, yep, and that one. 

My grandfather was born in 1898; he was in his mid 60's when I was born. He was a towering figure, with the jet-black hair and broad cheekbones of his Indian mother (his hair was still black when he passed at 97) and ice-blue eyes. He was from a time that viewed children as labor, and all us grandkids spent summers working the fields - moving irrigation pipe, picking chile - 40# a sack (we were grateful it wasn't cotton, as the bolls cut like razors), picking and shucking pecans ("PEE-kahns"). We'd jump in the ditch to cool off, drink sweet tea to slake our thirst, and get back to work. I learned to change oil in a tractor and a version of Spanish used by migrant workers. We'd never heard of sunscreen, defying the heat in borrowed hats, our shorts and bare feet.

The smell of roasting green chile - in big barrels over open fire - transports me into my grandmother's kitchen. It's about a thousand degrees, the chiles still warm from the roasters, having to be peeled quickly. The wet, slippery flesh rinsed and dropped into the endless rows of waiting Mason jars. The pressure cookers on the stove steaming and clacking in harmony. Apron-clade women, hands covered in lard to keep the chile's fire out of our skin. Sweaty brows and laughter. 

I was in the very fortunate position, as eldest, to go on ride-alongs with my grandfather. I can't say I was his favorite, but I worshiped him. We'd walk in a field, and pick out a few cantaloupes or honeydews to take home for dessert. Taptaptap, taptaptap, hear it? That one. Taptaptap...

As I stood in my kitchen, knife in hand, I went taptaptap before cutting, just to make sure. The rind resisted the blade for an instant, then parted with a dry sound, deep and hollow and echoing across the decades. As knife met cutting board, a faint glistening of juice rolled down and I saw the seeds well separated from the walls, clinging together. The color of the fruit went all the way to the rind. As the sweet smell rose up, I heard him say yep, that one, and smiled.

Monday, 16 December 2013

Mean Girls

I was not popular in high school. I was tiny, smart-mouthed, and battling my own demons. There were probably plenty of people that were nasty, but I was oblivious. I didn't care, I was much too busy taking too many classes and listening to what is now referred to as "classic" rock. The people who were my friends then are, 35 years later, friends still. It was a time of computers the size of small buildings run by punch cards, and the coolest rotary phone around was the princess; it was easy to be clueless of what others were saying about one. 

No longer.

Now, thanks to the ubiquitous-ness of recording devices, internet connectivity, and sharing platforms, secrets and privacy have become fiercely guarded rarities. I have a colleague whose daughter has been subjected to cyber-bullying; no parent likes to feel powerless to protect a child, and the anonymity and relentless onslaught of over-connectedness is difficult to combat.

One mis-step and the veil of civility can be shattered forever. Reputations carefully cultivated over years are wiped away as easily as a spider's web. So we watch what we say, where, in front of whom; what we post, the background of photos, our choice of adjectives. Too Much Information (TMI) is rampant when poor judgement is exercised; we have lost our sense not just of propriety but of discretion.

It has always been easier to destroy than to create. Why take delight in something that takes so little effort? And trust me, someone will notice your snide comment and repeat it; gossiping is like breathing. As the great wit Alice Lee Roosevelt Longworth quipped, "If you can't say something good about someone, sit right here by me." Little gives more wicked delight than hearing about the foolishness of others.

A number of recent incidents have me scratching my head over what to do. The bottom line is that we, in borzoi, aren't very nice to each other. Oh sure, we behave well in public, sheathing our knives and presenting a sweet face to outsiders. And we, like all dog people, have a superlative gift for pulling together in a crisis - the shorter lived the better, lest the fissures surface. Woe unto anyone that says something against our breed of choice, our packing instincts are well honed. 

But all too often our favorite hobby is feasting on the flesh of each other. I used to say that borzoi people are opinionated and outspoken. That's true, but that's not all of it. We are mean to each other, and really should stop. It's important that we stop. And each of us must do our part, and support each other.

Over the weekend someone (accidentally, I'm sure) posted to a 1000+ person e-mail list a critique of how someone else describes her dogs and spends her money. I know this person slightly, having corresponded by e-mail some years ago. I can only imagine how hurtful it was for her to read, no matter how accurate (or not, I have no idea) the comments were. We all have a lot to learn. I don't care if you've been in the breed 5 minutes or 5 decades, we all have a lot to learn. Particularly about being nice - not just in public.

As C.S. Lewis said, "Integrity is doing the right thing, even when no no one is watching." The thing is, everybody is watching now.

Wednesday, 30 October 2013

Fact, Fiction, and Fantasy - or, reality vs conventional "wisdom"

Twice in the past week I've been read essays blaming clicker training for misbehavior in dogs. I don't know what's behind this resurgence, but will offer my perspective on why that is foolish and dangerous.

The authors are postulating that a return to the use of aversives (under the slick marketing term of "balance") will magically create "better" behaved dogs. One post was about alpha rolls and dominance; the other was about the need for using punishment in training for competitive obedience.

Neither cited a single peer-reviewed reference or controlled study; that should be a clue to all readers that what they are getting is opinion and not fact. I will endeavor not to make the same mistake.

Let's tackle alpha rolls first. (Like the metaphor?) There's so much misconception, myth, and misinformation wrapped up in this, it's difficult to know where to start. So I'm just going to pick a place and begin. 

One commonly heard rationalization for the use of alpha rolls is they establish the human as dominant - "alpha" - over the dog. That should beg the question - what is dominance? For a primer, read Dr. Sophia Yin's excellent article. For a "how to" on being the pack leader using brains instead of brawn, read this.

Wolves don't actually physically dominate one another. At least, healthy wolves don't. They don't have access to medical care so risking injury by actually fighting one another would be, from a survival standpoint, stupid. Why get into a physical confrontation, even if you win it, when an infection could kill you? The alpha wolf / dominance / roll myth has been disproven so many times I've come to the conclusion that people cling to it willfully. You can read the facts here and here (and if you don't have the Coppinger book and own a dog, for pete's sake buy it); watch video evidence here and here. Need more? Here you go: more and more and more and more.

And by the way, it may seem obvious but bears pointing out: dogs aren't wolves. So even if wolves do use physical dominance - and current research finds no evidence they do - it would be foolhardy to presume that behavior transfers to dogs, which are a different subspecies. (If you're aware of real evidence, by all means share it in the comments section below.) If we get hung up on the genus canis we are making the same mistake as anyone that assumes a horse Equus ferus caballus and a donkey Equus africanus asinus are the same because they both start with Equus. Ask anyone that has lived and worked with both and you'll get an earful of reality.

Why on earth would someone that loves their dog, and wants to be a good trainer, willingly cling to this myth? After a decade of working with people and their dogs, I think there are three likely reasons:

1 - Ignorance

Many people continue to use outdated training techniques because they just don't know differently.

Pavlov, Skinner, Breland, and Bailey have repeatedly proven for the better part of the last century that it simply isn't necessary. The data show that, even with non-professionals, it is more effective not to use punishment to train. Click here for an interesting discussion on the vocabulary used by professional trainers and behaviorists. Read this for a short overview and this for a longer and more technical presentation.

Anyone genuinely interested in becoming a better trainer will find countless resources available to get them started. It's not an easy journey, but an indescribably satisfying one.

2 - Delivering punishment is a self-reinforcing behavior to the person meting out the punishment

Go back to this link for a moment. Read slide 40: "Punishment reinforces the punisher." Read it again. Then read this and this

Simply put, physically punishing a dog makes the person feel good. Even though it is, conclusively, bad for the dog, bad for the relationship, and doesn't actually change the behavior supposedly being punished. People feel like they are doing something, get a chemical rush out of it, temporarily suppress the dog's behavior, and pouf! Perfect recipe for repeating the deliverance of punishment. (For a full discussion of this phenomenon, read this book.) It's also worth noting that using positive reinforcement has long term benefits to the cognitive ability of the dog (or whatever species is being trained - from fish to primates). 

3 - Not everything is a training problem; thus training isn't always the answer.

There was an incident at a recent obedience trial that got quite the emotional write-up. Being subject to attack or witnessing one is traumatic for all involved. What's missing from this piece is first-hand knowledge that the attacking dog was clicker trained, had never been herding (nor why that would be relevant), nor that fuzzy toys were actually used by its handler (nor why that would be relevant in a normal healthy dog with good vision). Nonetheless, the author has made the assumptions necessary to put forward her "solution" euphemistically described as a return to a balanced approach to training and thus supports her postulation that the use of "corrections" - another euphemism - and rationalizes the use of punishment in dog training. 

Does punishment work? Sure; with precise timing and the right level of force, it can. But it's got a heavy price and as documented above, isn't necessary.

When a dog has a true behavior problem - is unstable, unpredictable, or just crazy (and yes, that happens) - then what is called for is Behavior Modification. There are several choices, but what's mostly needed is a professional (who can be hard to find, depending on where you live) with successful experience. We must always remember that training has its limits; we can not teach a fish to drive a car or a horse to do calculus - only what it is physically, cognitively, and emotionally capable of learning. B-Mod can make a difference... and when that fails, an owner is left with few choices. Let's be very very careful and not blame training technique when it may not be a training problem at all.

Have I ever manhandled a dog? Well yes of course I have. I'm not perfect and have done any number of things in my life that I'd rather I hadn't. Do I still use physical means when training dogs? While this invites a longer discussion of management vs. training (a worthy topic all its own), in the main, the answer is: rarely and consciously. Deliberately. With specific purpose and then immediately move from P+ back to R+. I have in fact worked with a client to use a shock collar; it took weeks of soul-searching, long and detailed conversations, and careful planning. Did it work? Yes. Would I do it again? Maybe. Would I prefer another solution? Yes.

Do I use aversives with my pack at home? While I never claimed to be a purist, neither is P+ the first tool I pull out of my metaphorical bag of tricks. You'd have to ask my dogs - aversives being in the opinion of the receiver - if I am a fair and predictable trainer, owner, and leader. I expect you'd conclude that they are happy, generally well behaved, and respectful. They are not plotting to dethrone me (and they are a lot faster and stronger than I am), and I live with a large number of dogs that never fight - for the simple reason that I ensure they never have something to fight about.

I'm not perfect and neither are they, but then training is never truly done, is it?

Monday, 12 August 2013

Feedback and food for thought

Perusing my morning e-mail I was pleasantly surprised to find one from AKC asking my recommendations for the AKC / Eukanuba National Championship judges for borzoi. As a Breeder of Merit this is a nice thing for AKC to ask.

I didn't give them any names, but did write out two suggestions. Fingers crossed somebody at least reads what I took time to write:

Thank you for asking BOM's for input. I would ask you to do two things:

1 - Select judges with experience with performance events relevant to the breed they are judging. Herding, hunting, coursing, etc.

2 - Scrip the TV announcers with information calling particular attention to Best of Breed winners in the Group ring - since that is all that is on TV for the public to see - that have CHIC numbers, OFA Clearances, are temperament and / or performance titled- and have health tested parents / get. And dogs that are FIT not fat.

In my opinion the AKC/ENC is the public relations event of the year. PLEASE use it for appropriate education of the millions of TV viewers at home.

Thank you in advance for your consideration.