I am a writer, poet, teacher who loves the natural world and photographing insects. You can see some of my photos of insects on bugguide,net and my writing on my blog. I'd rather laugh than not, and rather dance than almost anything else.
When I moved to my new home two years ago, I recognized some of the plants in the yard. Out back, wild grape and Virginia Creeper climbed the trees in the small wooded area. A familiar green carpet of Periwinkle spread out under the biggest trees. Out front, my childhood friend, Lily of the Valley, filled every nook and cranny not taken up by the Hydrangea and ferns. But my ability to memorize has never been great. Even the identity of the scrawny tree that just started blooming this week at the border of the lawn might have eluded me except for a tool friends recommended – SEEK by the folks at iNaturalist.
I downloaded this free ID app on my phone April 22nd, and since then I have used it to identify twenty-two plants in my yard. Some I knew, but got more information about, like the Periwinkle, which is Lesser Periwinkle, Vinca Minor. Some I’ve probably seen for years but never sorted out just what they were, like the Cukooflower, Cardamine pratensis. Some I might never have identified using my guide books, like Hedwig’s Fringeleaf Moss, Hedwigia ciliate.
I have a goal to maximize the number of native plants in my yard, and SEEK is a big help with that project: using the app, I can quickly find out whether the plant is a native or not. Here’s a list of natives I’ve been able to identify so far: Chokecherry, Prunus virginiana; Wild Strawberry, Fragaria vesca; Common Blue Violet, Viola sororia; Green False Hellebore, Veratrum viride (photo); Hedwig’s Fringeleaf Moss, Hedwigia ciliate.
SEEK has great pedigree: iNaturalist is a joint Initiative of the California Academy of Sciences and the National Geographic Society. The app is a great addition to my collection of go-to guides, but it hasn’t replaced my books. Every time I pick up a guide book, I wind up browsing past my starting point and I always learn something I wasn’t expecting – that’s a pleasure I won’t abandon.
It is great, though, to get a quick possible ID with SEEK. I’m really happy to have discovered this tool, and I’m equally glad to pass this recommendation on to you! In case you missed it, here is the link again: SEEK ID Tool
When dogs first come to the Potsdam Animal Shelter, they typically spend about three weeks in the intake wing for assessment and essential care. Gils, a two-year-old who arrived at PHS the second week of November, spent two months there. Why that long? Here’s the description of Gils on the shelter’s Facebook page,
“Gils came to us underweight, starving and with an understandable mistrust of the creatures known as humans.”
He needed the extra time to get used to the idea that people can bring good things into his life. The staff mentioned him as a dog I might like to work with. Given Gils’ rough start, the plan was that I’d meet him with a staff member along.
I suppose this is where I’m supposed to build suspense about that first visit. But given Gils’ sad start, I’ll jump right to the good news. Check out this video of Gils in the Annex. to see for yourself how far he has come. Then check out the photos below.
Bu that’s not the vibe Gils was giving off when I first saw him. His adoption kennel is right next to Teddy’s, one of the two dogs I usually visit these days. Here’s a reminder of who Teddy is –
At first, whenever I’d stop at Teddy’s kennel, Gils would bark wildly as though he were trying to scare me away. If you don’t recognize this behavior as possibly a coping strategy for dealing with stress, it can be a very convincing show of ferocity. But I ignored the show, and he soon learned that when I stood in front of his kennel and asked him to ‘sit,’ I’d give him a treat when he sat. He was still barking some, but the serious tail wagging when I turned my attention to him was a give-away that he was learning I could be trusted. (And I don’t mean the slow wag that can signal anything from “Hi,” to “Mmmm, what’s this person up to, maybe I’ll bite them.” I mean the kind of tail wag that’s got the velocity of windshield wipers set on high).
This week I got my chance to do more than talk to Gils from the other side of his kennel door. I happened to come in with Teddy at the moment a staff member discovered Gils’ kennel had just turned into a poopy mess. I offered to take Gils outside to make clean-up easier, and she got him out of the kennel and we did a hand-off. Gils was happy to go with me; I was happy to discover that although he was a puller when it came to leash behavior, he wasn’t too powerful for me. We headed for the Annex where play and good times commenced.
Gils has lots of personality and with all that extra skin he sometimes has the look of a plush toy dog.
When I started volunteering at the shelter, I had some early success in training dogs in the basic cues that would help them be more adaptable in a home environment and therefore more adoptable: sit, down, wait, leave it, look, touch. I could teach them to take treats gently and to greet me without jumping up. I knew how to do that from the obedience and agility classes I completed with my dog, Gudgeon. But I also needed reminders that would help me fine-tune my training, and I needed new information that would help me advance it.
For online inspiration, I turn to Victoria Stillwater, a high-profile trainer whose popular “It’s Me or the Dog” television episodes condense the path to great results into what she acknowledges are deceptively short time frames. Still, for a dose of cheer leading and excellent basic guidelines to dog training, the show works. Her website offers a greatly expanded window onto the wisdom she has to offer.
But when I have a training issue to puzzle over and want the step-by-step-by-step path to great results, I look to the McCann Dogs website.
Of course, both of these links will lead you to ample opportunities to spend your money – but there are also many, many free videos that you can easily access online. Here’s a link to free videos by McCann: McCann Videos.
I’ve visited with several dogs at the shelter who’ve made progress in their behavior and/or in reducing the level of stress they experience. For some of them, like Belle, Cedric, Dorito, Donnie, Mowgli, and Teddy, I think it’s fair to say they made progress in part because of the time I spent with them. That’s not because the conditions are ideal or because I have any training secrets up my sleeve. I just work on my training skills and try to offer the dogs positive guidance to better behavior. I also work to fit in some quiet, loving time to help them feel more secure.
I love dogs, but believe me, nothing I do besides offer affection comes naturally. When I encounter a behavior that stumps me, I scour my books and the Internet for ideas on how to improve my training.
Any willing person can make a real difference in the life of shelter dogs. (Or cats, if you’re a cat person.) If you think this kind of volunteering might be for you, I hope you’ll contact your local shelter and give it a try. And if you have a dog and aren’t sure how to deal with a behavior or move beyond teaching them “sit,” I hope you give those free videos a try. And, of course, I’ll be glad to hear about your experiences with training and to get your recommendations for the training resources you’ve tried.
I don’t know how others were spending the last couple of days of 2021. But I can tell you how I was spending part of them – more time with the pups at the shelter! I usually spend about an hour at the shelter, visiting two dogs, one at a time. But these are holiday times, and the day before 2021 ended was a three dog day – I hung out with Pepper, Teddy, and Lizzy.
I’ve already introduced you to my sweetheart, Teddy. let me introduce you to Pepper.
When I take her to the shelter dog park she stays about 5 feet from me at first and then ventures further. I thought this was a sign about how people-oriented she is. And while I still think she is very affectionate and will make somebody a loving companion, I got a different idea about her when I took her up to the Annex for the first time. Check out her reaction to the park bench with its dog sculpture –
She’s the first dog who has reacted to that wooden dog as though it were a dog. Now I think when we’re in the park she sticks close because she hasn’t had much life experience. She was dubious about the agility tunnel as well, but she knew just what a metal folding chair was for – dog perch.
Pepper is a friendly, not very big dog. Makes her a good candidate for adoption . . . here’s hoping.
Next up was Teddy – he’s pretty business-like in the dog park, if you catch my meaning. I did get him to do a few zoomies before we headed to the Annex. And there – well, Teddy hits that room like a kid hits a play ground. He galloped a wide swoop then charged through the tunnel and to the park bench where he spun circles under the bench then popped to the other side of the bench and did circles there before galloping back in my direction. For Teddy, the Annex is FUN. A few minutes of that and then he’s ready to settle in for some serious cuddling. He is one sweet boy.
On the way back to the shelter building we met another woman coming out. She is an amazing human being – she sets a chair by a kennel door and reads to the dogs. Teddy wanted to go to say hello to her, and she was all smiles. “He’s so different on leash!” she told me. And it’s true. If you walked the kennel hallway and that was your only sight of Teddy, he’d be just another shelter dog going bonkers at the sight of people. You’d only get a full idea about him if you got him away from that setting. Fingers crossed that someone takes the time to do that.
Last but not least, is Lizzy. This photo gives some sense of what she looks like, but you’d have to see her in person to appreciate the subtle blush of red that runs through her coat.
In earlier posts, I’ve compared hanging out with the shelter dogs to teaching. Here’s another way they are similar – as a teacher, there’s no guarantee that you’ll ever discover if you made much difference in any one students’ life. But sometimes, you’re pretty darn sure you did. I’m sure the woman who reads to the dogs makes a difference in their lives, and I’m sure the time I’ve spent with the various dogs has made a difference in their lives. I find myself wanting to give a sales pitch for hanging out with shelter dogs, but I’ll leave it at this – I hope in 2022 many more people discover the pleasure of visiting animals at a shelter.
Okay, I may say this a lot when I start working with a new dog, but I love Teddy! Besides simply showing me his sweet personality on our first visit, he checks off a lot of the “I could adopt him” boxes – he’s mid-sized, he’s pretty good on leash, he’s affectionate, and there seems to be a limit to his energy level. These pluses don’t erase the barriers to my adopting a dog – for starters, I’m away from home a lot, and I have a yard with a shape that doesn’t lend itself to fencing. But those barriers are no defense against falling in love, and I just have to toughen up and focus on helping Teddy get to a place where he can make a good impression on someone else.
I think Teddy’s been in some version of dog pound / shelter since October, but he came to the humane society where I met him in November. Dogs spend some time in the intake kennels before they are available for the public and volunteers to meet. I didn’t see him when he first came in, but the shelter photo of him offers some idea of his past.
Whether he was so skinny because he was mistreated, or was lost and not finding much to eat, or was too stressed out to eat isn’t known. He’s gained weight now, and looks like an entirely different pup.
The Annex building is a pretty recent addition to the shelter facility. On days the dog park is too muddy, or the weather is too cold, or the wind keeps us out from under the big trees that surround the dog park, the Annex is a blessing. The dogs get to run and we all get to stay warm and dry. There’s some agility equipment in the room, and to my surprise, on our first Annex visit, Teddy headed right over to the tunnel . . .
Teddy really likes the tunnel. I think he likes to be be enclosed. On our third visit, the tunnel was resting against the park bench and Teddy went to crawl under the bench by going behind the tunnel. The tunnel rolled away and Teddy seemed very surprised. He recovered though, and settled down under the park bench.
When I first saw the park benches in the dog park, I figured they were for the people. I definitely use the benches, but I learned that the dogs had their uses for the benches, too.
As far as Teddy goes, I think he likes the security of being in the tunnel or under the bench. Once he gets to his true home, I suspect he’d like a crate as a home base. In the meantime, I’ll visit, work him through the commands he already knows, “sit,” and “down,” and continue working with him on waiting at doors – he’s already pretty good at this and has quit using his nose as a battering ram to get on the other side. We’ll work on “look,” and work on getting him to move further when I cue him to “touch” my hand.
Because he came in with no history, for some cues I can’t be sure what he knew already and what’s new. On our last visit I discovered he’s very reliable when I ask him to “sit,” and then “wait.” I walked the full length of the room, and he stayed put.
Whether the cue “wait” was new to him or not doesn’t really matter. The lesson I take from the time I spend with Teddy is that he’s attentive to verbal and visual cues, he’s treat motivated, and he’s a loving dog. Despite that Boxer/Pit Bull tough guy façade, Teddy is very affectionate. He flashes a wonderful smile that communicates his pleasure in hanging out with a person. But capturing that smile with my phone in one hand while I pet him with the other is proving tricky. I’ll work on it!
I’ve been working with Mowgli since the beginning of August. We had a short interruption when a couple took him home but discovered he was not the right dog for them. The manners Mowgli had gained over time fell apart a little – and that’s no surprise given the rapid changes in his life. His good humor remained, though, and his manners got right back in line and were improving.
While I was worrying that Mowgli wasn’t going to find his person, someone else was keeping an eye on him. She arranged to come meet him, and, to everybody’s delight, she took him home to live with her!
Mowgli is a shy dog, especially with men, and he lacks confidence – he is not a dog who will run to you looking for affection when he first meets you. While he does need someone who will take the time to earn his trust, his friendliness and intelligence shine through during training sessions. Fortunately, the woman who came to visit him saw his potential.
Mowgli is an intelligent, spirited companion with a great sense of humor. Hopefully he’s found his true home.
Time’s been getting away from me a bit, so here’s some catching up –
I met with Paisley six times. What a sweet girl! She was clearly stressed out by being in the kennels, and my wish that she wouldn’t be there long enough to have to adjust came true! Paisley’s been adopted – yay! I didn’t work with her long enough to teach her to play with a ball, but I bet she’s learned by now.
I really liked Paisley, but there was just something about Cedric that really got to me. Maybe it was that he was so afraid when I met him, but he had the bravery to match that fear and the spirit to learn to trust someone.
It’s probably pretty common for shelter volunteers who, like me, have no intention of adopting a dog, to have a little “what if” tally system going on when they work with a dog. As in, “what if” I were to adopt a dog, how likely would this be the dog I adopted? I won’t be adopting a dog, but if I were to adopt a dog . . . yeah, Cedric would fit the bill. I met with Cedric six times, too, and I’m now out of danger of taking him home – because, more good news! Cedric’s been adopted.
And what about the other dog I’ve been working with? Well, a couple who came to look at Cedric wound up taking Mowgli home instead. But it wasn’t the match they hoped for, and Mowgli’s back.
I thought it was hard when I found out that Mowgli had been adopted – but it was harder when I found out he was back.
The day Mowgli was adopted was the day of our 17th visit. That’s by far the most I’ve worked with a dog. (The previous record was held by Belle, and I met with her 9 times.) So of course I felt a bit of “Oh! Mowgli!” when I heard he’d been adopted. But I think that reaction of sadness when I hear a dog I’ve been working with has been adopted will be forever tempered by the memory of the regret I felt when I heard he was back.
I understand why Mowgli wasn’t a match for the older couple who adopted him, but I don’t understand why Mowgli hasn’t been adopted by someone. He is shy at first, and I suppose many folks are looking for an instant connection that tells them ‘this is the one.’ They won’t get that from Mowgli. When I first met him he was very aloof – I think he would have spent our 20 minutes checking out the dog park and not checking in with me at all. But I set about teaching him to not be so aloof – and that effort paid off. But how do you sell “he’s great once you get to know him?” But I know potential does pay off – look at Cedric. I’m betting he didn’t cuddle right up to the people who took him home. But another strike against Mowgli is that he’s big. Maybe people can imagine a shy, small dog will warm up, but can’t quite see that in a shy, big dog. Whatever the reason, I’ll keep working with Mowgli – I’ve actually already worked with him ten more times. I’ve been working on a post just about him, and I’ll get that posted soon. Till then – thanks for reading.
On my third visit with Cedric, I sat on the floor and we embarked on him giving me the sniff test and me gently rubbing the side of his face for short sessions. He took treats more easily, and it seemed that we were starting up where we left off, not starting over.
I decided to move on to hooking the leash to his collar. He stood still for that, and I took the time to loop the leash under his chest and back up through his collar. I knew the extra handling this involved would add to his discomfort, but the prospect of Cedric slipping his leash while we were outside and launching his shy self into the world wasn’t one I was interested in. If this maneuver set us back and delayed going outside, so be it. He stood well enough for it, but when I was done, he backed off to the safety of his bed and averted his gaze.
I averted my gaze as well, and spoke to him quietly. It didn’t take him much time to look me in the eye and let me know he was still game for what came next.
I wasn’t sure that he still wouldn’t decide against bravery, but when I stood up, his response was clear. He stood up too, and joined me at the kennel door. On the walk to the shelter dog park, he was a little swervy on leash, but never tripped me up or jumped up or forged ahead. In the park he did some zoomies, and when I ran, he ran with me. He looked very happy, and even playful for a small window of time.
But his zoomies tended to take him far from me, and he went to the park gate to go back well before my twenty-minute timer would have gone off. My response was to join him at the gate and get him to reengage in play by running so he’d run with me. He was, I’m happy to be able to report, willing to be drawn back into happiness. I take that as a sign that, with experience, Cedric will build up some endurance for having a good time.
Cedric’s one of a group of dogs that were surrendered together. In theory, he’s related to blue-eyed Paisley. With that wiry hair, coloring and size, he certainly looks it. But there are big differences between the two. While Paisley trembled in fear, she stayed close to the kennel door, and when I entered her kennel and squatted down, she quickly came over to snuggle.
When I opened Cedric’s kennel door, however, he backed away, barking. I sat on the floor to see if that might calm him, but he looked so unhappy I decided it was my turn to back off. I left his kennel and told the staff I’d try again next time.
The next visit, I was prepared. I brought an old jacket with me to sit on, and I told the staff I was ready to just sit in his kennel and let him get used to me for our 20 minute visit.
That morning I got to the shelter early, so there were lots of noises as the cleaners went about their work. Cedric paid anxious attention to every clang and bang. But he also sniffed my hat, sniffed my jacket, sniffed my face. Eventually I reached up gently and touched the side of his face. I watched him closely, looking for any signs that this was too much for him. We did okay, and he even leaned into my touch just a tiny bit. At one point the cleaner stopped to tell me he was going to hose down the hallway, and to warn me that Cedric was afraid of the noise. He was afraid of the noise, but he also allowed me to gently touch the side of his face in a massaging stroke while the hallway was being hosed down – a tolerance that I took to mean that he found my presence reassuring.
When the timer went off, I stayed a few more minutes and then got up to leave. We’d had several rounds of Cedric coming over to me, me giving him some time and then giving his face a little massage, and then Cedric going to check out something in the outer kennel. When I stood to leave, Cedric retreated to the outer kennel and I left. I was content that we’d made small but significant progress, and as I walked away I was curious how our next visit would go.
The most helpful cue we can teach a dog is probably “sit.” It’s pretty easy to teach, and it’s very handy. Another cue that should be in a dog training starter kit is one that lets the dog know you want them to lie down . . . also very helpful and pretty straight forward. l’ve taught lots of dogs to lie down on cue, starting with the three puppies my dad brought home when I was pretty much a puppy myself. I confess that when I was a kid I did it by telling the dog to “lie down” and giving them a little push on their rump to give them the general idea. The results were mixed. Some dogs got it quickly, others couldn’t imagine what the heck I wanted. If it took more than 2 or 3 attempts, things could get frustrating – sort of like a weird arm wrestling match in which the contestants are evenly matched and no progress is being made. The person doing the ‘training’ is left with the problem, “What do I try next?”
I’m glad to say that some years ago I learned a simpler method that has a key benefit – it’s the dog who’s left with the question, “What do I try next?” For a long time, it always worked. Simply ask the dog to sit, then show them a treat in your hand, close your hand and lower it to the ground in front of them. When the dog lowers its head to stay close to the treat, move the treat out – so your motion is the shape of an L When the dog has reached as far down as it can, it takes the next logical step and lowers itself to the ground. Give your verbal and/or visual marker of success, (mine are “yes,” and thumbs up) and give them the reward. So simple, so effective. Belle, the second dog I worked with at the shelter, learned the cue “down” very quickly.
The simple method worked every time – until Mowgli. I’ve said in an earlier post that I thought the shelter’s description of Mowgli as a big puppy simply meant that he was untrained. And he was untrained when I met him, but there’s something else about Mowgli that I now recognize as making him a big puppy: I don’t think he’s had much experience thinking things through.
To be clear, he’s not stupid – he picked up on how to have fun chasing a ball and invented his own version of fetch. Mowgli packs a lot of fun into every toss. It goes like this – chase the ball, grab the ball, run with it, toss your head and send it flying, chase after the ball, pounce on it, start running back to the thrower, but toss your head and let the ball fly. Repeat until you’re done with that round, then run back to the thrower and drop the ball on the fly so it rolls within their reach.
It really is something to watch. That, and the speed with which he picked up better greeting manners show just how smart Mowgli is. But he’s the first dog in my memory who did not figure out “down” in one easy session.
Instead, he got very frustrated. I didn’t necessarily think that was a bad thing. I often told my eighth grade students that frustration was a sign of learning. But faced with the real deal – Mowgli’s frustration – I wanted to be able to break the task into smaller pieces to help smooth the way. I hit the Internet and searched for how to teach a dog to lie down. I didn’t particularly like the best advice I found – let the dog figure it out. Just do the same thing over and over and they’ll get it. Ouch. In other words – don’t smooth the way. That wasn’t what I wanted to hear. But I also came across this advice – catch them in the act of doing what you want, and give them the marker of success. Of course! I’d used this before; it simply hadn’t occurred to me to apply it in this situation. (Evidently not all the problem solving is on the dog’s side.) All I had to do was catch Mowgli lying down, say “Yes!” and reward him with praise or a treat.
It wouldn’t be hard to “catch” Mowgli lying down. When he was ready for a break from the action, he headed for the well-worn groove under the park bench. A few digs here and there – sometimes a major rearrangement of dirt – and down he’d go. Perfect. Except . . .
But I did my best. Once we’d been through that a few times – me saying “yes” in a likely moment and Mowgli getting what I thought must seem like a free treat – I tried having him sit very close to the bench and giving him the cue to ‘lie down’ there. It worked. I gradually moved a little further away from the bench and suddenly, Mowlgi had it. In any location, the “sit” followed by “down” combo worked.
Of course, just like I didn’t take something I knew very well, catch them in the act, and generalize it to a new situation, it’s not a given that a dog who knows what “down” means in one situation will know it in another. And part of the situation is the trainer’s posture. Mowgli knew “down” when I was standing, but he might not know it if I were sitting in a chair or sitting on the ground. I was ready to move on to training from each posture, but Mowgli didn’t need it. Instead, we moved on to adding “wait” while he was lying down. We started with very short periods of time and distance and built as we went along. He transferred that cue as well.
Not just “good dog,” but smart dog! Hats off to Mowgli.
This morning when I went to the shelter I worked with a couple of other dogs, but before I left, I wanted to say hi to Paisley. Even at the door to her kennel I could tell there had been a big change. Instead of cowering and hesitating, Paisley was bouncing around, happy to see me and ready to join the world.
The wary, afraid girl has been replaced with a happy dog. She’s affectionate and playful. I thought she’d get there, but I didn’t have a clue that she’d get there so fast. Yea! Paisley’s come around, and I expect to hear soon that when someone sees those good looks paired with that happy pup, she’ll be adopted. Well done, Potsdam Humane Society.