Friday, July 23, 2010

Macaw Whispers

For 14 years Qantaqa, my beautiful malamute mix, was my constant companion; from Colorado to Cape Cod to North Carolina. She was self-possessed and opinionated and more cat than dog. She liked to lie in the sun or curl up under  the bed. She was responsive to requests, not so much to commands. She spent the days in her den (my Subaru Forester) and resented leaving it to go for a walk with *sniff* humans. She owned me far more than I ever owned her.
For some reason, when our severe macaw, Willow, joined our household 6 years ago, "Qantaqa" was the first word she learned and she said it for many, many months before her next word entered her vocabulary (a strident and very appropriately used, "Bye!!"). 

Qantaqa was still with us when Willow joined our house. She'd aged, but she remained stately, as beautiful as ever, and still prone to doing her own thing. She was an old lady and I really didn't have much cause to call her to me -- she came downstairs to go outside when it suited her, she came into the kitchen at meal times, and otherwise she denned up in our bedroom. So in actuality, I didn't use her name that often, and when I did I was much more likely to call her Taqa, Queen Ta or just plain Ta. I think Willow just enjoyed the sounds of her full name. For a brief while, all dogs became "Qantaqa!" (pronounced kahn-TAH-kah). It is odd, though, because our birds generally needed to hear a word numerous times over many months before incorporating it into their vocabulary, much less into daily usage. (With the Murphy's-Law caveat that if it was a curse word, it would be learned in one repetition.)

Qantaqa died 2 years ago. But Willow still says her name when looking at 3-year-old borzoi, Quill. It's all she's ever called him (though she appropriate calls our other borzoi Finn). And, in a way, she's been prophetic because Taqa's mantel has passed to Quill. He's the only being in the household to whom boss cat, Master Odin shows deference. He's a bit moody, opinionated, and cat-like in his own right, just like Ta was. He is, thankfully, marginally more amenable to training. Nevertheless, we often laugh that he's channeling Qantaqa. 

Last night I was feeding the dogs near Willow's cage. 

"Qantaqa!" screeched Willow, as I was calling Quill to his bowl. 

"Willow, dearest, his name is Quill." I said to her.

"Qantaqa!", she shouted again. 

"This is Quill," I said.

Then I heard her whisper, ever so softly, "Quill. Quill." under her breath. 

I looked over my shoulder and smiled, "That's right, Willow, it's Quill."

She looked at me, raised the feathers on her head, widened her eyes, and paused. Then she screeched, "Qantaqa!"

What could I say? She could be right; maybe he's Quill and Qantaqa.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Recall Synchronicity

Imagine your dog going out the front door, seeing a deer, and tearing off into the woods. Or that you're traveling far from home and your dog slips her collar and runs across a busy highway and into the roadside marshes. Imagine that someone left the gate open and your dogs are racing each other toward the busiest road in town. Or that you're in the competition ring doing a recall and your dog can't hear your voice for the lovely little hound he's watching beside the ring.

Each of these things has happened to me or my immediate family. And it's frustrating (if your dog's not in physical danger) or terrifying (if he is).

So there was no dearth of reasons why I signed up for my first ever non-veterinary e-course, The 5 Minute Formula to A Brilliant Recall with author, agility competitor, and blogger, Susan Garrett. As it happens, just the other day I was doing my homework making lists of things my dogs find distracting. On a scale of 0 (couldn't care less) to 10 (can't even think straight) I was rating each distractor. One of the highest on the list was running loose with another dog.

That night I got home and both dogs were lame. Quill was lame on three feet, poor guy. "What happened to the boys?" I asked my husband. "Oh, there's a tale to tell there." he responded calmly. (That's my husband, calm.) Here's the tale:

Tim came home mid-day to let the dogs out and have lunch. We have a large, fenced dog yard and, on a typical day, they happily zoom around for a moment and then settle down enough to sniff, empty their bladders, and enjoy the sunshine. Being borzois, and faster even than greyhounds, they love the zooming part. Well, once Tim had let them out, he noticed that the dog yard gate had been left open (something we never, ever do). We'd been having some construction done on the other side of the house and one of the workers must have entered the dog yard and not closed the gate again. Tim, panic in his heart, "My wife's gonna kill me." running through his head, went to the front of the house. 

One of the workers said, "I've never seen dogs move so fast!" and he pointed toward one of the busiest roads in town that is just over the rise, less than 1/4 mile from our house. Tim whistled in a way only he (and our African grey) can do and called the boys' names. He did this four times in quick succession. Back around the bend they came, hell bent for leather, joy and the wind in their ears. They raced each other up to him on the front steps. He had tears of relief in his eyes and his heart still in his throat. They had nothing but excitement and looks on their faces of "Did you see us Dad?! We were fast!"

Well, they had a good time but not without consequences. Five feet out of eight had torn and abraded pads severe enough to cause Quill to walk like he's crossing hot coals (picture a severely foundered horse). (Borzoi's note to self - Avoid lure-coursing on hot pavement.) But bandaging feet for a week is a small price to pay compared to what could have happened.

Thank goodness that Tim has conditioned the dogs to that whistle for the last two years -- likely it's all that could have reached them over the distance they'd run. And thank goodness for starting this recalling course and that it's already making a difference -- their recalls are far better than I realized.

I'm looking forward to the rest of the course. A recall can never be too fast. And never again will I complain about Tango, the African grey, hurting my ears with a perfect imitation of Tim's whistle.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Clipping a Lion's Claws

One day I was trimming Aragorn's claws. 

Let me tell you about Aragorn. He's a 1-year-old Savannah; in other words, one of his grands was a serval. This is hard for me to admit because, as a rule, I think hybrids (wolf- or cat-) are really difficult animals to live with and most people aren't prepared for how complex it can be. Let me assure you, my hybrid cats (I have 3) are a huge pain-in-the-neck most of the time. But that's my personality, I like a challenge. However, I would never suggest that someone get one of these cats. If they do, I'll be happy to provide the veterinary care for their new master. But I sure don't go out of my way to recommend cat hybrids to anyone.

So. Aragorn. He's stunning, peaceful, and huge. The peaceful part is so unusual for Savannahs that I've secretly wondered if he's a bit, well, slow. But the first time I trimmed his claws I saw the African veldt in his little eyes. He became an absolute lion. 

He was about 12 weeks old the first time. It was a struggle, but we got it done. Alas, I put off the next trimming until he was about 6 months old. (This was mistake number 1.) I set up everything in our bathroom -- a nice enclosed space. I asked Tim if he'd clip the nails while I held the 9 pound kitten. (Mistake number 2: don't alienate your husband by asking him to trim the claws on the lunging paws of a miniature lion.) By the completion of nail #0, I released Tim from his nail clipping duties. By this point, the poor kitten had growled and yowled several times, attracting the attention of Finn, the borzoi, who stood in the doorway to watch. (Mistake number 3: leaving the bathroom door open in the first place. Mistake number 4: not evicting the 95 lb dog and closing the door.) Nail clipping resumed, yowls increased in volume.

This brought big brother Odin to investigate. (Mistake number 5: never name your hybrid cat after the King of the Gods.) 

Odin. He really is Aragorn's half-brother. He's as wild and opinionated as Aragorn is laid-back. But by 3 years of age, Odin and I'd come to understand each other and he'd stopped lunging at me from hidden corners (just to see me jump), stealing food off of Tim's plate, swiping my socks and hiding them, and many of his other, um, endearing behaviors. But he still opens all of the kitchen cabinets for the other cats if his breakfast is late.

So Odin came running, reared up to full height, wound up for the swing, and swatted Finn (who was still standing in the bathroom doorway) soundly on the rump. Finn yelped, ran forward and wedged himself in a perfect tuck sit between the toilet (where I sat with Aragorn on my lap) and the wall. Odin came in as well and sat on the bathroom rug growling low in his throat which kept Finn in his sit-stay. (Mistake number 6: could I not have realized at this point that quitting was the better part of valor? No. I only had 1 paw left. Stubborn Blackmer.)

At this point, Aragorn was no worse than to start, Finn not withstanding. He was tolerating my nail clipping, but still swearing a blue streak. Yet, when I finished and let him go, he jumped peacefully on the bathroom counter and sat down to have a bath. He purred when I patted him. Fickle, cats. 

Odin swatted Finn once more, just because, and left. I released Finn from his sit-stay. Somehow I emerged unscathed.

I was grateful that my husband, the photographer in the family, had graciously left the camera downstairs.

Postscript: claw clipping is on my list of activities to clicker-train. Perhaps while I'm clicker training the cats to appreciate it, I could clicker train Tim to do it?

But then I'd have to take over cleaning the gutters. 

On second thought, I'll stick with claw-clipping.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

I Never Thought I'd Own A Clicker

I have to admit it. I bought a clicker.

I told a friend, not 2 months ago, "I'll never do clicker training. I can't stand the sound. I don't want to be tied to a clicker. And I sure don't want Tango (my African grey) constantly clicking!"

"Never say never."

Mother-of-mine, you were right.

It all started with Susan Garrett. She's an agility competitor, an author, a blogger. And her enthusiasm is infectious. I read her book, Shaping Success, The Education of An Unlikely Champion, in one weekend. It was a wonderful story about her training adventures with Buzz, the red border collie. Oh, did I fall in love with that dog. And clicker training started to niggle at the edges of my mind throughout that weekend of running with Buzz.

So, as is my way, I began my research. I read Karen Pryor, Patricia McConnell, Pat Miller, more Susan Garrett, and others. And I bought my first clicker and started clicker training some easy tricks with our two young adult borzois, Quill and Finn.

Training with a clicker is like having a lexicon to communicate with your dog. Scratch that. For you to communicate with each other. It's positive reinforcement training -- you're reinforcing the dog for giving you the behavior you want (sitting, looking at you, speaking) instead of punishing him for performing behaviors you don't want (jumping on you, chasing the cat, rushing out the door).

The click is meant to indicate to the dog that what he's doing at that precise moment is correct and a treat is coming. It's a very exact tool and your timing has to be spot-on. If you're paying attention, you'll learn as much from your dog as he learns from you. Quill, especially, is a master at showing me the error of my clicks.

To whit: in one easy session I taught Quill (inadvertently) to lick my hand whenever I turned it palm to him. My goal was to have him touch my palm with his nose. His "brother" is doing this beautifully and this type of targeting can be very helpful in training other behaviors so I wanted to teach it to Quill. But I was having trouble.

The behavior you get is what you have reinforced with the click. Clearly, at one point, I had clicked when Quill licked instead of when he touched, and that's what he continued to offer (and I, in my beginner fervor and poor timing, continued to click the lick, not the touch). Now I'm having an amusing time trying to get him back to a nose touch instead of a tongue touch. But what's really wonderful is that, instead of being frustrated by this, I'm fascinated by it. And it's not a hard fix. I just have to improve my timing.

Our dogs have always enjoyed training. But never have they tried to bust down the door of the training area to get in there to work. And my enthusiasm matches theirs.

Guess I'm just gonna have to put up with Tango clicking. I wonder when it'll start?