When the Hitchcock movie first came out, I pictured large, human sized crows, hanging around on street corners, smoking cigarettes. It’s been what—thirty, forty years?—and people still do pilgrimages to the town of Bodega to see where it was filmed. They still want to see the schoolhouse, take pictures in front of it, buy the movie related bits in the small shops in town. I had a friend visiting from Idaho a couple years ago, and he just had to find the schoolhouse, which wasn’t easy because it’s on an obscure side street. But we found it, (kind of spooky and deserted now) and so did a young couple who were taking pictures when we got there. One of the highlights of his visit, he said.

I love the crows and the ravens here on the ranch, but am sometimes confused about which is which. I think I’m getting it now, and I think it was a crow (because it was big, but not huge) that was causing a fuss in my pasture a couple years ago. I went out to see what was going on and this bird was dancing around one of my sheep like a prize fighter, back and forth, back and forth, diving in once in a while to grab some wool off her back. I’m sure all the birds love to add this luxurious mix to their nests, but this guy wasn’t waiting to pick up the occasional piece of wool off the ground. He had a nest to build, and was on a mission. The sheep was stamping her foot, spinning around, trying to act tough (never an easy thing for a sheep to do). It wasn’t working. He wasn’t deterred in the least. I’ve seen herding dogs more intimidated than he was by that ewe.

This week was like “the week of the birds” here, which is what reminded me of the movie. I came out one morning and as I was walking by my car I heard scraping noises. There was a young robin trapped behind my grill and my license plate. And I mean trapped. Don’t know how he got there, but there wasn’t a way out that I could see, even after getting the hood up. Eventually, my friend who was coming over to go out to lunch with me, arrived, and yup, she said, there’s no way out unless you start taking things off the top of the engine. We thought we would go to lunch and think about it, and if we couldn’t come up with anything, I would go to the car dealership and ask for help. It was a cool day.
The poor guy. Now he was getting blown by the wind at 45 miles an hour as we were driving down the road. Then he had to wait while we had lunch. A woman came out of a shop as we were coming back to the car and asked me if I knew there was a bird in my grill. He was not suffering in silence.
In fact he was a really tough little guy. My friend took off for home and I went to the car place. Sure they said, we can get him out for you and we won’t charge you anything either. I told them when they got him out, not to let him go– I wanted to return him to familiar ground. Maybe his parents were even around, although he was pretty big and at least half grown. They took the car into the back where I couldn’t go, so I hung out and waited inside. And waited. And waited. Finally they came out and told me they were having some trouble getting to him and they needed to put the car up on the rack and get him from the bottom. I waited some more. And more.

I’m into this for over an hour and a half now…finally someone brought him out in the little plastic box I gave them, and said it would take about 20 minutes to put my car back together. They had to take things off the underside of the car to get him. And then he got away from them and they had to chase him around the garage. Apparently he couldn’t fly, although he looked healthy and strong. Poor guy—really not having a good day!
I wanted to give him some water while I was waiting for the car so we got a little paper cup and I put it into the box — he pecked and pecked at my hand. People had been doing horrible things to him all day and he was really pissed by now. On the way home I drove by the wildlife center because it was obvious he couldn’t fly and I couldn’t turn him loose. “ Oh, we don’t take robins, but there’s another place in the next town that just takes songbirds…they’ll take him.”

I had had enough by now. I wasn’t driving to another town at this point, it was close to dinner time and I had animals to feed. He was just going to have to spend the night with me. I got out a cat crate, put some hay in the bottom, and a plastic dish for water. He hopped onto the water dish and perched there–nothing wrong with his feet or legs. He still wasn’t happy. So now I had to figure out how to feed him. After the day he had he needed some nourishment. Robins eat insects. And worms. With a big sigh, I got out the shovel and dug several shallow holes, until I found 3 big fat worms. I knew they needed to be alive for him, so I had to handle them gently. That meant putting them in my hand. I’m running back to the crate going, “Ick, ick, ick!!” I know, nature girl doesn’t want to hold worms. I hate spiders too.
Totally invested now, I was determined he was going to survive. And no problem, really. This is one tough bird. He was active and energetic and making it known he wanted out of that crate. I left a phone message at the songbird rescue place, and took him to class with me the next morning. The dog training class I was teaching was fairly close to the sanctuary. They called after the class was over and I took him to his new temporary home. They weren’t into chit chat, and ushered me in and out pretty quickly. No long, drawn out good-bye for us. I wished him luck. He stared at me with those little beady eyes. I think he was cursing me, actually. Impressive facility though.
Earlier this week I was talking on the phone to my friend who is an expert birder, and I described this HUGE black bird who was sitting on a fence post out in the pasture. Definitely a raven she said, not a crow. As I continued my chores I noticed the raven was on the ground now, dancing around behind my old ewe, who was laying down. He hopped closer and closer. She got nervous and got up. He never did get up the courage to go in for it after she stood up, and flew away a few minutes later. It’s spring, so one of these days, I promised myself, I’m going to have my phone out there with me so I can shoot a video, or take a photo of the marauding, wool stealing ravens.

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Good-bye to “Mama”

The large animal vet  came today to put down a special old sheep for me.  She was 17 years old.   I’ve lived long enough to say good-bye to so many animals–it’s never easy, and always seems to lead to an examination of my  life and memories while they lived with me.  (Sometimes that’s not so easy either.)  Anyway, I’d been giving her anti-inflammatory drugs in some grain every day for a few months, which helped her move better, and helped her wheezing.  But the time had come.

I loved this old girl.  I called her, and her twin, my ‘miracle babies’ 17 years ago.  I had moved onto a small , sort of “ex-farm”.  There’s a lot of those around here.  Used to be real ranches where sheep and chickens and cattle were raised by real farmers.  Now there are still plots of land with pastures, chicken houses collapsing, but the people who live in the houses are city people now, who have moved here from other places.  It will be a long time before it really loses it’s country feel, but it will happen.

For several years I had been doing a lot of training and trialing at sheep herding events with my Belgian Shepherds, and had started breeding my own sheep at this place.  I bought a young, 6-month old Barbados ram.  He was so small I brought him home in a dog crate in my car.  I thought he would be too young to breed his first year at my place, but don’t ever underestimate the determination of a ram, no matter how small.  He got them all pregnant, except this very old Suffolk ewe I inherited when I rented the place.  She was grumpy, pushy and was not going to be moved by any dog, so she was kind of a pain.  Couldn’t herd her (if you know Suffolks you’ll understand why–you’ll never see a Suffolk at a herding trial), and she was in my way when I would try to work my dogs on the rest of the sheep.  I was always trying to move her somewhere out of my way.  If Suffolks had a mantra it would be “I shall not be moved, I shall not be moved”… it was an interesting relationship.

I determined, when she didn’t get pregnant with the rest of them that she was just too old to breed.  Imagine my surprise the second year when she came up pregnant!  “Oh my God,” I thought,  “I’ve killed her!  She’ll never survive this.”  She got bigger and bigger, and one day she simply stopped moving around in the field at all.  She was staying in a small area, mostly laying down, and finally, just not getting up.  She was HUGE!  Every day I took her little piles of hay, and buckets of water.  Over this, we bonded, finally.  And one morning I came out to see two gorgeous little babies that she had brought up to the fence closest to the house, I’m convinced to show them to me.

She was a new woman!  She went from this old derelict ewe hobbling stiff-legged up the hill to the feeder, to running up the hill, and running around the pasture.  She was feeling so good!  Wow.  Hormones.  She was a great mother, better than most.  And, almost to the minute those babies were weaned, she laid down and never got up again.  She had had her moment, taken care of her babies, and enjoyed it immensely.  I was happy for her.

This old girl that had to be put down today was one of those twins.  She had a couple babies of her own, and was the matriarch of the herd for most of her life.  After the vet left, I was waiting for the guys to come and take away her body, and I looked out there and saw the other sheep, including her daughter, lined up, sniffing her through the fence (she was in a separate pen).  Then each one, in turn, walked away.

 

 

 

 

 

                                    allie under trees

I have lived twice

at the edge of paradise—

once in a small beach town

where you could smell

if not see, the ocean from every street,

walk to the beach from any part of town,

not wear shoes for days.

 

And later, in the mountains,

an even smaller town

with only three side streets,

one gas station and seven bars.

Mountain peaks so close

it looked as if you could touch

their smooth granite sides,

run your hand down

the soft curves of the forests

in their crevises.

And when you came out of the drugstore

with your aspirin or bandaids

you might see a single bison

staring at you, breathing white puffs

into the morning air, or

a prong-horned antelope grazing

a few feet from where you parked your car

by the laundromat.

“You’re so lucky to actually live here!”

the tourists would say, their eyes shining.

 

Now I live in a place

surrounded by farms and chickenhouses

where I sometimes have to stop my car

and wait, while dairy cows are escorted

across the road to milking barns.

No tourists here, no one

to tell me I’m lucky

except the voice in my head that says

you’re so lucky

to be alive, after the cancer,

the hospitals and doctors,

after waiting so many hours

in small curtained rooms

with sinks and needles,

stunned and mute.

 

And now a tourist myself

in a life I almost lost,

I walk outside

with my black and white dog,

move the sheep through the pasture,

watch the wind blow

through the tops of the pine trees,

look at the faces of my sheep

see the questioning look in their eyes

and the patience.

Well, it’s been a long time between posts.  I got a new puppy in February and  I’m in puppy love!  She has been keeping me VERY busy!  But more about her later.  I’m going to post the blog I had ready to go last month.  I’ll write more about poor nameless pup next time!   And maybe by then will have figured out how to get the photos of her into the blog. (Yes, I’m a computer idiot.)  And maybe by then I’ll have thought of a name I like for her.

 

 DOG BITES–THE OCCUPATIONAL HAZARD…

 

I’ve been bitten four times in my 30 plus years as a dog trainer.  Guess that’s not too bad.  The first time was when I was just starting out as a young trainer, and was stupid enough to stick my hand into the crate of an American Eskimo Dog, who went at my hand like a little buzz saw.  Guess I hadn’t learned from my experiences as a six-year-old kid in Pennsylvania.  Then, I was sure every dog I met would love me, and, in fact, had about 20 dogs in the neighborhood I would regularly visit on my solitary walks through the streets and alleys of my town.  And one of those dogs, who probably gave me plenty of warnings, bit me on the lip one day.  Didn’t deter me at all.  I still thought, (and probably deep down, still do, because that little girl is still in there,) that dogs were safer than humans!

 

The second time was also in my first year or two training when I was bitten on the hand by a Rottweiler.  Looking back, with the knowledge I have now, I can see I wasn’t reading that one at all.   I reached down to touch her shoulder while she was sitting in the heel position next to her owner.  Without even breaking her sit, she turned her head and sunk her canine into the fleshy part of my hand—just one bite.  “Don’t touch me” the bite said.  I still have the scar.

 

Now, the last two bites were much more recent.  And interesting for me.  There were many years and much learning between then and now.  These two were fascinating to me, though, as if I were an impartial observer, watching events from the outside.  Now, I have learned a lot since I first dragged my dolls down the street on their painted wooden faces, demanding that they “heel!” But I do believe that you never stop learning.

 

From the time I started training professionally my goal was to learn as much as possible.  I went to many, many workshops, clinics, seminars, did private lessons with the best trainers I could find.  I kept studying, and some of it served me well. And it took me a while to realize that some of those trainers were quite one-dimensional, unnecessarily harsh, and really not very innovative or intuitive.  But that alone was a kind of learning.  On the other hand, some of them were absolutely amazing, and I just tried to suck up every precious word they said…

 

About a year ago, I was doing a consult at someone’s house with their newly adopted, rescue Bloodhound.  He was less than a year old.  They already had four Basset Hounds, and thought they would branch out.  Very kind people, wanting to do good by adopting rescue dogs.  Only problem was, one of the family was afraid of him, and with good reason.  So, in I came.

 

When I walk into someone’s house I get a flood of information, just watching—from the door-answering, to what all the dogs are doing, how they’re interacting with each other and with the owners of the house.  I was pretty sure in about 4 minutes that these people were in over their heads with this dog, after the sweet lumbering Bassetts that they had had for years.  And I could tell he was an adolescent, testing and pushing boundaries, an “alpha wannabe” for sure.

 

By now I had learned a lot about reading the behavior and body language of dogs, but something new happened for me.  I had never gotten to watch the eyes of a dog turn, and suddenly go hard and cold.  I was sitting at the table, petting and talking to the dog one second, and I watched those eyes go hard, and had literally two seconds to realize I was in trouble, because with me sitting and him standing next to me, we were at eye level with one another.  Two seconds is not long enough to react—it was enough time to think, “Uh- Oh “–and he went for my face which was inches away from him.  The interesting thing was that he inhibited his bite, and just nicked my lip.  He could have sunk those teeth in to the bone (Luckily it wasn’t that Rottweiler from years before).  I was fascinated by the turn of those eyes.  I had never gotten to see that happen before.  It was amazing.  And, of course, I was grateful that he chose not to demolish my face. I also knew that the only reason he didn’t, was because he was young and inexperienced and still just testing.  This was a dangerous dog—especially for these people.

 

I’ve learned over these many years to let people make their own decisions. I told them that I thought he would probably do well as a working search dog, with people who knew how to handle him.  It only took them a couple days, a couple more incidents in the house, and they decided to return him to the rescue organization where they got him.

 

Recently, I met a female German Shepherd Dog, a two-year-old rescue who was found a few months before, tied to a tree in central California.  Now, technically, this was not a bite, which was one of the most interesting things about it.  When this dog’s fear is triggered, she tries to convince whoever is there, that she is the most ferocious dog on the planet. And it’s a pretty impressive display I can tell you. I really thought the first couple times she did it, that she was going to bite me.  And that’s what she wants people to think.  But, I quickly realized she absolutely does NOT want to bite anybody, and is totally inhibiting her bite, even while she perceives an extreme threat.

 

 She actually, while barking and threatening me, hackles up all the way down her back, grabbed my leg between her PAWS and held on. No teeth were involved. Scraped my thigh with her nails, but made no attempt to bite.  Her owner left me at the door and started to walk away, thinking she was going to be okay because she had taken a few treats from me.  So now she was left with this stranger by the door, who had—oh my god—come into her territory and there she was with no backup.   She was actually trying to shove me out the door with her paws. Guard dogs—you gotta love ‘em.

 

After that entrance, we sat down and talked for an hour and a half.  I left them with many things to start working on, to help the dog (and protect the innocent). It included a crate in the living room and no more door greetings for the dog, thus removing the pressure & stress of having to guard the entrance to the house.  I do think she’ll improve, but they will always have to use good management with her. They are observant, and young, and willing to do whatever it takes.   It amazes me how much some people are willing to take on; and sometimes, with much less serious problems, how little other people are willing to tolerate.  (There were the “divorce dogs,” for example, but that’s another story for another day.) 

It is a fascinating business, though, this dog training gig!  And really cool.  I feel so blessed because I get to do what I love for a living.  It’s not work.  That’s the secret.  Who knew, when I drew up all these plans for my “ranch” when I was in the 4th grade (The barn will go here, and the dog kennels there, and the horses there….) that it would all come true?   

And now I have a new puppy for the first time in 17 years!  And I’m going to do agility and nosework, and sheep herding with her.  I’m in heaven.  Every day I wake up smiling when I look at her, and she makes me laugh out loud several times a day.  I think I was growing old along with my old dog, China, who died at 17.  Now, I’m going to be young with my puppy!  I get to play again.  What fun! 

 

It’s not the dogs who can’t adjust to this interspecies relationship, it’s us.  They have no problem reading, adjusting and fitting into our world.  We, on the other hand, seem to be, oh, I don’t know, so arrogant, set in our ways and convinced of our superiority that we can’t do one simple thing –think like a dog.  We apparently don’t even think we should. 

Too many dog trainers, and owners, still think it’s all about bending the animal to our will, not letting them “get away with things”.   Excuse me?  They’re just dogs.   And as such they  just want to know a few simple things—what are the rules of this pack, where do I fit in, who is in charge, and when is the food coming?  Believe it or not, there is not a canine plot to take over the world.  After training people and their dogs for 35 years, I’ve come to the conclusion that most of the time dogs are trying really hard to understand (and not be confused by) their owners.  And that keeps them pretty busy. 

When I start working with a new dog and person team, what I’m looking at is their relationship.  And, what I often see is dogs making a monumental effort to do the right thing, even when the communication is so bad they can’t begin to get it.  They fail over and over again, and they keep trying.  It’s heartbreaking.   People are asking the wrong question of dog trainers.  It’s not “teach me how to train my dog”, it should be “teach me to understand and communicate with my dog”.  It is not the same thing. 

The funny thing is people think it’s a “miracle” when it happens.   When the pieces start falling into place and the communication is working in both directions, it’s the halleluiah of all halleluiahs.   Or they don’t get it at all.  Then it’s like banging your head against a wall.  I know a trainer who keeps telling his students, “You’ve got to think like a dog”.  Sounds simple, doesn’t it?  It’s the hardest thing for us to do.  But we owe it to them to keep trying.  

 When people think about abuse, they think about beatings and starving and terrible living conditions.  Yes, that happens.  But there’s another kind of abuse, more subtle.   I see it all the time, in big ways and little ways.  And mostly it is not intentional at all—people do mean well.   I’ll see a dog trying so hard to do the obstacles on an agility course, and failing to get the owners badly timed and poorly communicated signals.  Some dogs get so anxious and stressed they can’t do anything and they stop working–they seem to fall apart, sensing their owner’s frustration and anger.   Others just shut down and start ignoring their owners, wandering off, sniffing—there are many ways it manifests.   It’s called self preservation.

Many years ago I saw something that still haunts me.  There is a Coast Guard Station near here, and they used to leave a back gate open, so people like me would go in and use the pond and the picnic grounds.   The pond is huge, with an island in the middle.  We used to take our dogs there and let them leap off a bridge of sorts.  (It was our version of dock diving, before it became a sport.)  One day I was looking across the pond and saw a Dalmatian puppy about 4 or 5 months old running down the bank towards the water.  His owner was further up the hillside, behind him.  They had obviously had many wonderful times there before.  The puppy was so happy they were going to that fun place, and as he ran down to the water, he never forgot his owner, kept looking back to make sure he was still behind him, so pleased that they were going to have some fun.  As the man approached, the puppy was jumping up and down, wagging his tail, could hardly contain his joy.  The man grabbed him by the collar and started hitting him.  He had been calling and calling the puppy, getting no response and was obviously angry.  Did that puppy have any idea what he had done wrong, or why he was being punished?     Inter-species communication certainly wasn’t in play that day.  And I’m not even going to talk about what happens to the trust. 

 I recently heard about a trainer who handles dog aggression by putting a hood over the head of the “aggressive” dog, a shock collar around its neck, and then lets other dogs circle and sniff around it, shocking the dog if it reacts in any way.  That’s not just abuse.  It’s torture.  And this is a professional dog trainer.  A very busy professional dog trainer. 

We all make mistakes when working with our dogs.  Nobody’s perfect—we have bad days, legitimate reasons to be upset over the challenges in our lives, days when we just can’t focus.  Dogs have those days too.  I once found myself getting angry at a dog who wouldn’t come out of his crate for me.  Very angry.  I was more concerned with being “obeyed” than with what was going on for the dog.  And then the fog cleared in my brain and I heard the gunshots in the distance.  He was terrified, and I assumed he was being stubborn.  (I’m still apologizing to him for that).  When things are going badly, and your dog is acting like he never heard the word “sit”, all I’m saying is stop.  Look around you.  Listen.  Try to figure out what is going on– is it you, is it him, is the moon in Sagittarius?  Most importantly, should you keep going, or should you quit for a while?  Take a break.   Think, instead of reacting.  Your dog will be grateful, and your relationship with him will benefit by it.