Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Dog training is sexy

Tonight I tweeted: “Dog training is sexy. I wish more people understood how cool it is to train.” And then I thought: but who better than me to tell them?

So why is dog training so sexy?

  • Dog training is communication with an alien being. Dogs really are “other nations,” as Beston’s famous quote goes. They have their own understanding of the world. In fact, the world they live in is not the world we live in: they live in a completely different mess of colors (fewer) and smells (many many many more) and sounds. Their understanding of the world is different from ours, and we still have no real idea how they perceive things or what is going on in their brains. But we can communicate with them by gentle pairing of signals (“sit”) with actions (their butt goes on the floor) and consequences (cookies). And once we become really good trainers, we can start exploring their dictionary, maybe discover that the translation isn’t what we thought it was (we think “ball” is a noun, meaning that spherical thing, while they think it is a verb, meaning to get something throwable). We get insights into their brains, and maybe they get some into ours.
  • Dog training is brain remodelling. When I am desensitizing my shy dog to the presence of strangers, I am actually helping her form new connections in her brain. In fact, I am influencing which new connections form, and which old ones atrophy. I am modifying her brain. I am a brain architect!
  • Dog training is an art. My shy dog is afraid to leave the house, so we take very short walks on which I reward her a lot and make sure she doesn’t become overly stressed (in dog training geek talk, I am trying to keep her “under threshold”). She can be unpredictable, and some days keeping her under threshold is difficult. So I try different approaches: more food, more sniffing of grass, not so far from the house, moving more, moving less. I don’t know what is going to work for her on a particular day. Sometimes I don’t even know why I stop trying one approach and switch to another. It’s a gut feeling. I have been working with this dog for so long that it isn’t just an intellectual exercise. It is the art of playing with my dog.
  • Dog training is a science. In years past, we didn’t think of training as a science. We approached it with Just So stories, such as “Dogs evolved from wolves, and wolf packs have a dominance hierarchy, so the trainer should make sure to behave like an alpha wolf.” But then science started making itself heard. Trainers started geeking out on learning theory, using terms like “the four quadrants of learning” and “extinction bursts.” Read Don’t Shoot the Dog by Karen Pryor if you want a digestible but fascinating introduction to learning theory. Or Excel-erated Learning by Pam Reid. You can’t remodel brains without the proper tools, after all. You need good tools to create fine art, too.
  • Dog training deepens your relationship with your best friend. That is, if you do it right. Good training is fun for you and fun for your dog. It is not a chore, used temporarily to create a good dog and then set aside. It is an ongoing, integral part of a relationship that is built on communication between two very different species.
Training improves my life and the lives of my dogs. I love training my dogs, and they love being trained.

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Shelter makeover: porthole edition

Yes, that’s a shelter veterinarian using a plasma saw.
Shelter veterinarians wear many hats: they are infectious disease specialists, behaviorists, surgeons… and handymen? Actually, usually the plasma saw is wielded by someone brought in from outside the shelter, but this time we did it ourselves.

Like many shelters, this small county shelter had upgraded the cat housing in its public adoptions area, but couldn’t afford to do so in the back rooms, where cats lived before going up for adoptions. These cages were small, just big enough for a litter box, a food bowl, and a water bowl — not enough room for a cat to stretch out to her full length, or take a few steps. Cats sometimes lived here for weeks; when the shelter got full, these rooms became adoption rooms as well, and cats lost their chance to get moved up to the better housing. But the cages were built into the wall, so replacing them would be extremely expensive. When I walked into this room, my heart always hurt a little for the cats crowded into it.

The solution: installing portholes to turn single cages into double rooms. It is a stroke of genius -- just cut a hole between two cages, and suddenly the cat has twice the space. His litterbox can be in a separate room from his food bowl! He gets space to stretch out, to walk around a little. This can make a huge difference not just in a cat’s quality of life, but even in his risk for succumbing to infectious disease (and healthy cats get out the door to their new home faster than sick ones). As an added bonus, you get to use a plasma saw. Of course, the next steps include installing PVC portholes, so the cats aren’t walking through bare metal. Detailed instructions are online. My fellow shelter medicine interns and residents and I got to put in a bunch of portholes ourselves. It was fun, but the best part was seeing the reaction of the first cat who was moved into the new digs. He immediately stretched out on his side and began to knead with his paws in deep happiness.

But double cages for each cat means there is housing for only half as many cats. The first question I am always asked about this project is “Can the shelter close the portholes again if they need the extra space?” Yes, that’s possible (you can install doors), but it’s not recommended. Current thinking is that no one should be taking in animals which they cannot house appropriately — if you have to overcrowd, then you need to find some other alternative to taking in more animals. Do whatever you did before when you were full — hopefully that means running an adoptathon, contacting rescue groups to help transfer animals out of the shelter, or closing the shelter to intakes.

An interesting fact in the housing capacity controversy is this: offering up more animals for adoption doesn't mean you'll adopt out animals any faster. In other words, if you are adopting out an average of 10 animals a day, then that is the average you’re going to adopt out whether you have 20 or 100 animals on the adoption floor. There are ways to increase adoptions, but putting more animals on the floor isn’t one of them. In fact, adoptions may actually decrease when you have a greater selection, because of the Paradox of Choice: more choice can overwhelm people and cause them fail to choose anything at all. Meanwhile, those animals who are in the shelter, in overcrowded housing, not getting adopted, are more likely to get sick, or develop behavior problems from their long incarceration. Simply resisting the pressure to overcrowd can solve many of a shelter's problems.

It isn’t easy to say no to overcrowding, of course. There are so many animals out there who need help, that realizing that you don’t have the resources to help them yourself can be tough. Irreversibly reducing the number of housing units, and simultaneously increasing the size of each unit, can help shelters maintain their commitment not to overcrowd. Portholes are good things. When I stepped into the finished room with its newly enlarged cages, I felt an almost physical release in my chest. Being in a shelter is no fun for a cat, but these cats were going to have a much easier time of it from now on.