Let the Sequins Commence

It happened this way.  An 80 pound yellow dog came to live with us, and once he had recovered from his depression (oh yes, they can so be depressed), his waggy tail, bony hard as a whip, signaled the end of Christmas trees decorated with ever-so charming, vintage glass ornaments.  As in all things Christmas, I was prepared with a plan B.  (Isn’t it nice that Yellow Dog was often known as Mr. B?  I love a pun.)

My dear sister had, a few years earlier, made an innocuous seeming request that I supply her with “a few of those beaded ornaments we used to have on the tree.  I think Mom might have made them?”  Oh Pammy, you are so very innocent.  A few.  Snort.

I found them, alright, in people’s driveways and basements, in bags at church sales, and received more than a few from indulgent friends who knew that no more expensive gift could, in my eyes, hold a candle to a quarter’s worth of styrofoam and sequins.  Having divied the booty up even steven, as twins are wont to do, I sent Pammy her pile and of course, kept right on accumulating floss covered orbs erupting with sequins and ribbons and beads like some sort of Christmas acne.  Immoderate in all things priced under $1 and Christmas related, my approach was as always, ‘the More, the Merrier.”

Until Yellow Dog joined our family, however, these bejooled and beribboned spheres had never seen the Twinkly Light of Christmas.  Craig wrinkled his nose in skeptical distaste at their crafty kitsch.  But, Bumper mattered more, so the Glass from the Past was passed over, in favor of what seemed, even to me, an unpromising substitute.  We hauled the boxes into the living room, and with only the lights of the Christmas tree, commenced to decorate.

Does it over state things to say a mesmerized silence descended?  That we were humbled?  For there, surrounded by pinpoints of light and depths of shadow, the sequins and beads transformed into shining jewels, and the flossy surface glowed like embers.  These church bazaar rejects had conjured an unexpected magic.  “They look beautiful,” Craig observed, and they truly did.

As it turned out, Bumper wasn’t the least bit interested in the tree.  Investigating it would have meant getting up from the couch, and What Was The Point in That?  Our glass ornaments were permanently retired that night, never to be hung again.  It was our most beautiful Christmas tree ever, restoring enchantment and surprise to a holiday that had, for me, grown threadbare and routine.  And it all happened because of you, Yellow Dog.  May your days forever be merry, and bright.

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At The Master’s Feet

Waiting for me on the same dictionary page as the word “grief,” was a welcome definition of joy:  greyhound.  With eloquent simplicity, the entry explains, “Greyhounds can run very fast.”  Indeed.  They are certainly the fastest land animal that doesn’t live in an artificial natural habitat, surrounded by a mote to keep them from chomping on the gazelle next door, or your succulent arse.

In my experience, however, it is in greyhounds’ skill at training humans where their true genius lies.  Their retiring demeanor, even diffidence, exudes a promise of relationship, should you prove Worthy, which every girl who has ever played hard to get can confirm is very powerful.  Thus did they hold me enthrall, and bend my will to theirs.

Katy came into our home in the winter, snuggling into a life as indoors as possible.  Her personality was passive enough that she allowed Bumper to eat her food without any protest we could discern, so we segregated their feeding locations.  Katy was assigned the threshhold of the hallway, where carpeting reassuringly kept her feet from slipping as she ate.  All was well, as winter turned to spring, notwithstanding firmly discouraging Bumper’s stealthy attempts to retrieve food that, by rights his, had mistakenly ended up in That Other Dog’s Bowl.

And then, one day, Katy abruptly refused to eat.  Talk about leading a horse to water.  Mealtime after mealtime, she stood at the threshold, staring mutely at the tempting morsels in front of her, then at us.  We petted, cuddled, ignored, did everything except eat the food ourselves, and I have no independent confirmation that Craig didn’t try.  Katy rejected her bowl, and its contents, in favor of hunger and as much affection as she cared to endure.  We even threw Katy’s food away in front of her, a strategy guaranteed by the wonderful Dr. Patricia McConnell, to scare any dog straight.  A less food motivated animal there never was.  Katy went to bed with everything she wanted: an empty tummy and unlimited affection.

Morning came, and we began again.  With the windows open to let in a spring breeze, the Chef prepared a delightful repast of yogurt and kibble, greedily gobbled by a Certain Yellow Dog.  Katy sniffed hers, and looked away, standing so tensely still that she quivered.  Argh.  As I stood in the doorway, I caught a slight flicker in Katy’s gaze, from my face, to a spot over my shoulder.  Following her glance, I saw it.  The ceiling fan.  In the wintertime, it had been Dead.  Now in the spring, it was Alive and Scary, looming over her food like a predatory bird with countless wings of death.

Immediately, I switched it off.  The blades slowed to a stop.  Katy continued looking up, making sure the Threat was Gone.  At last, she lowered her head to her bowl.  Gently, so very delicately, came the first nibble.  Nothing Bad Happened.  More food, more enthusiastically.  Soon, it was all gone, and finally time for the real reward:  snuggles in the hallway.

Katy was clear.  That Thing was a Threat.  And until it was vanquished, there would be no reward for either of us.  She demonstrated beautifully the hardest behavioral reinforcement approach to master, negative reinforcement.  Usually confused with punishment, which is the delivery of a painful consequence for a behavior, negative reinforcement is a sort of reverse psychology, where removing a negative stressor becomes the reward.  Like undoing the top button of your pants, after Thanksgiving dinner.  Ahhhh…..

Accomplishing this complex feat of behavioral shaping with what amounted to batting her eyelashes, Katy revealed how keenly she was observing me, waiting patiently for me to listen to her obvious communication.  People are So Thick.  From her, I learned that my dogs, watching constantly for signs that Good Things were about to happen for Dogs, missed nothing they wanted to see.  A new world of minimalist communication opened up to me.  Standing in front of Bumper, as he lay on the couch, I would silently catch his eye.  Raising my eyebrow, and tilting my head bestirred him to stretch luxuriantly, and disembark his throne.  Time for walkies.  It was enough, and all that we needed to say to each other.  I’ll open the door.  You do the rest.

Greyhound Mind

I probably don’t need the 2 shots of espresso I am currently sipping, but they were unavoidable.  Without some kind of distraction, my brain was about to explode.  Surely you can guess the problem?  Yes, of course, I am trying to teach myself brand new software.

Learning new software, for me, is a bumpy, painful do-it-yourself process.  Hunting through bottomless drop down menus, crammed with as many options as possible, I feel like screaming, “Just tell me what you want from me!”  Eventually, the need to get away grows so urgent, no reward or cookie can overcome it.  Nothing Is Worth This.  I Think I’ll Go Take a Nap.

In the eyes of animal trainers who modify behavior using the clicker method, this avoidance behavior is, paradoxically, a positive sign.   Clicker training substitutes a symbolic I O U for a food reward.  The click of a cricket toy nudges your animal in the direction you want him to go, promising food later.  The task can be as simple as a dog touching his nose to your hand, or as complex as a dolphin writing its name (I’m sure they can).  Silence means no reward.  Click means you are getting close.  Using all the powers of his brain in the hope, hope, hope that you have Something Good To Eat,  your dog will fumble in the dark to figure out what sets that clicker off, until he just can’t take it anymore.  The moment the dog walks away, the books tell you, you can be sure he is thinking.

Seeing this phenomenon in action, as Craig and I did when we rescued our first Greyhound, was unforgettable.  Quickly grasping the equation click =  food , Bumper moved on to an important dog skill, “Go to your mat and lie down.”  Lying down on a mat may not seem like a big deal to us, but if you don’t speak the language, it can be hard to decipher What The Hell Those Dogs Who Control the Food Want From Me.  Just as the books predicted, Bumper gave us about 10 minutes of clicking and concentration before wandering off, having reached his limit.  His bewilderment was palpable.

We stayed near the mat, leaving him to relax alone.  After a few minutes, his lanky figure reappeared in the living room.  With absolute confidence, he trotted directly to the mat and lay down.  Liver treats flowed, and many, many kisses.  I have come to think of this moment as Greyhound Mind.  He was so smart, Mr. B.  He knew how to give himself a time out, and let the little grey cells do their work.

We tried to make the effort worth his while, and our reward was abundantly clear – we had opened a dialogue with our wonderful friend.  Faced with a Super Foe like software, however, my reward seems mighty far away.  Considerably more encumbered by self critical thoughts than Bumper (the dog never blames himself when the cookies run out), my brain needs no less freedom to disengage from the Problem At Hand.  Just a thought… programmer degrees should be in the College of Animal Behavior Studies.  Because powerful though it may be, Adobe Lightroom still lacks a Preferences setting for treats and kisses.