Friday, July 30, 2010

On dog-dog greetings and wine tastings...

Dog Greetings and Fine Wine.

Most people assume that both of these things are supposed to be great all the time. Lassie et al have ensured that we all have an idealized picture in our minds of dog behavior, and the price tag and snobbish wine aficionados might be what tell us wine is just supposed to be enjoyed.

Upon actual observation, things are different. Reality tells us that some dog greetings go way off track, and too often a first wine tasting sends a person running, now self-stamped as a person that “doesn’t like wine.” We consciously or unconsciously blame the “nasty” dog, and the person with the “uncultured palate.”  If either a dog greeting, or a wine tasting, go wrong – then it must be due to a deficiency in the dog or person.

The thing is, most people can tell if something’s a train wreck, or a masterpiece. But in between, there are less easily discernible shades of gray, which take a very small and worthwhile investment of time, observation, and skills to see and to appreciate. Like in wine. And dog greetings. And pretty much everything.

People often assume that dog greetings are going fine unless there is a terrible cacophony of snarling to tell them otherwise (Train Wreck). Others can also discern when their dog particularly likes another dog. But that’s about the extent of it. Train Wreck or Masterpiece.

But just like when you meet people, some greetings are vanilla and uneventful, some are awkward and mildly uncomfortable, some are rude, and sometimes, rarely, you meet someone new that is destined to become a good friend. Dogs are a social species – this is one of the reasons they have found their way into our homes over time. Just like us, they come in a wide continuum of personalities, and each dog has preferences about who they’d like to spend time with. You might also have some opinions about just what kind of strangers you’d like to touch you, and how… but no reason to get too far into that. The point is – tune in, and what you see might change your attitude about assuming your dog loves every other dog. They might not enjoy greeting strangers at all. Oddly, even the shyest of people tend to find this disturbing.

Same goes for wine. I think mostly, people assume they “should” enjoy all wine. They hear wine drinkers touting the excellent bottle of Merlot they just had, the lovely Chardonnay. If they saw me pouring a freshly opened bottle down the sink, they’d know the wine aficionado’s dirty little wine secret – some of it is downright terrible. And just like the dog, you might justifiably need to look around a bit to find the wine you’d enjoy meeting, and you might need to look around quite a lot to find the wine you’ll be lifelong friends with. The Masterpiece. I like sweet whites, and dry reds. This is not “supposed” to happen, so no one else’s judgment would have gotten me to enjoy both red and white wine, only my own observation and experience. So non-wine-drinkers, I beseech you to hone, and then trust, your own observation and experience.

If you can learn to recognize the shades of gray, you can get more masterpieces, and you can enjoy warmer, happier shades of gray along the way. Until you can interpret the gray area, you’re destined to have only whatever masterpieces happen to fall into your lap by chance. You’ll keep wondering why you’re drinking wine you don’t really like, without the chops to throw some of the stuff out. You might just avoid the stuff entirely rather than attempt to navigate the scary “gray area.” And your dog will keep doing his best to humor your expectations to be constantly running for Mayor of Dogtown (but occasionally, he might throw a punch at a heckler. Really. At least don’t be so shocked now when it happens.)

Instead, you could treat both as journeys, with shades of distinction in quality of experience – Allow your dog some input on what kind of company he enjoys (if you watch for a while, he will tell you quite clearly), and be a good friend to your dog by honoring this input and not expecting him to tolerate continued behavior that he finds rude just because it hasn’t devolved into a dogfight. If you do this, you’ll find you have less of those shocking Train Wrecks. Allow yourself some input on the ups and downs of your own journey into wino-dom. Try wines out, find a few acquaintances at first, toss out the crass jerks and the ones you just don’t hit it off with; then as you surround yourself with good friends, you just might find a BFF or two. (Oh Shiraz and Riesling, I can always count on the two of you!) We know that having dogs can improve our health, and lucky me that wine is the only vice that, in moderation, has been medically proven to improve your health. And most wonderfully, “moderation” is still a glass every day! Apparently, my drinking habit isn’t even “moderate!”

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Dog Scout Camp 2010!


Rowdy, Seelie, and I just returned from a fun-filled week at Dog Scout Camp, my fourth journey to this heaven-on-earth in Michigan’s north woods. The whole concept of summer camp is awesome, with good friends, loads of activities to try, craft projects, campfires, hikes, water fun, and games. Combined with all of us bringing our dogs to focus on our shared hobby of choice, I can’t imagine a better way to spend a vacation. It also has “all-inclusiveness” since you park your car and leave your wallet for the whole week, with everything within walking distance and an honor-system camp store “tab.” Lisa Basial and I made the trip together (with her dogs Nano and Ransom), and had a blast as roommates.

Merit Badges! Gosh I love these cute little things, each one holding a memory of time spent learning something new together. Seelie earned some of her “first year camper” badges:

Puppy Paddler (learning to swim)


Obstacle 1 and 2 (Agility)

 Art of Shaping (painting) - hers is top left, a stingray 

I used the clicker to teach Seelie to raise her paw and hit a board, and also to wear a little mitt – later to be used by her to paint a picture which earned first prize in the “art contest.” She’s a quick learner, and gave a great demonstration of latent learning (like when you “sleep on it” and then grasp a concept better the next day without any further studying) – at our first Shaping class, we managed to get a couple swipes of paw on board and I decided we’d just end early on a good note, since we had all week to train with Shaping class each day. The next day, as soon as we sat down she picked up the behavior immediately and began striking the board – on with the Painting Paw mitt and paints, and whamo there she is painting in two ten-minute training sessions. Wow. But the big achievement for the week for Seelie and I was strengthening our relationship and communication – I definitely feel like we’ve crossed a bridge to a place where training is easier and the awkward new-ness has worn off of our relationship.

Rowdy has already earned most of the easier badges, but he got three neat ones this year.

Water Racing


I’m especially proud of Rowdy for earning the new Messenger Dog badge (whose patch isn’t complete yet.) It simulates the job of military messenger dogs who in wartime would take messages back to base camp, and lead reinforcements to the forward platoons, tracking the platoon to its new location if they had moved. My friend Lisa took Rowdy about 200 yards down a wooded, winding trial and with the command of “report!” she sent him back to me with a message, Rowdy flying at top speed to reach me, never mind the wildlife, woods, and lake he needed to pass to get to me – he was on the job! He then led me to the location she released him from, but she had by then moved another 100 yards away, choosing one of three paths and then hiding off of the trial. Rowdy used his nose to track her path, not wavering even a moment as he chose the correct trail. As we passed Lisa’s hiding spot, Rowdy stopped when he lost the scent on the trail, just a few feet past where she had went off trail. It took him a moment to figure out what to do, but then he doubled back where he knew the scent was, picked up her scent again and then found her in her hiding place! Amazing! We only trained on this for a few days, and he did great.

Training for the Messenger Dog merit badge reminded me that I should never underestimate Rowdy – if I just can figure out how to communicate what it is that I want, he is always willing and able to carry it out.