Sunday, September 19, 2010

Training Opposite The Tendency/Theory of Opposite Action

Yesterday at at the barn where I take riding lessons, my instructor, Mary Flood of Wildfire Farm was telling a student to "train opposite the tendency" because her horse had a tendency to raise his head when she stopped. Rather than trying to fix the halt, they worked on the horse's tendency to raise his head by training him to walk with his head lower. She pointed out they could practice halting over and over but likely that would mean only getting 1 out of 10 correct. The net result of that would be practicing wrong most of the time. The raised head was a symptom (I think a symptom of being out of balance but I'm not 100% positive). So it was important to fix the problem, not the symptom by training opposite the horse's tendency.

This caught my ears, since there's a psychologist, Marsha Linehan who has created a therapy for people with extreme emotional and behavioral problems which extensively uses the Principle of Opposite Action to get people to change their emotions. In a nutshell, this is billed as a skill the patients learn to do (one of many skills; don't worry, this is not their only recourse) such that they engage in behaviors consistent with the opposite of an unpleasant emotion they feel. For example, if you feel overwhelmingly angry you act like you aren't by smiling and offering to do a favor for the person who has just irritated you and remarkably eventually you don't feel so angry anymore.

Although that may seem a bit trite & gimicky it turns out that humans at least with respect to facial emotion expression actually can feel pleasure when they are made to smile. Experiments have shown that if you can hold their cheek muscles up or give them botox so they can't frown their mood will change just from the physiological feedback their brain is getting from their face.

This is then coupled with the social feedback they get when they don't look angry (people no longer afraid to approach the grouch=more pleasant social interaction) and their negative mood improves even more because of how people are treating them.

So this made me wonder to what extent the same thing is happening in horses or dogs with training. Many of the postures a dressage horse learns look like the postures of a confident stallion. Does practicing this confident posture increases their feelings of confidence? And conversely if one is overly confident but has to submit repeatedly does this reduce his dominance?

When I took Ivan (my terrier) to work on his aggression issues, we trained him using an electronic collar to fetch even though he already knew how to do a play retrieve or a prey drive motivated retrieve. The idea was that Ivan learned to comply quickly to avoid pressure by first holding, then taking and holding, then taking holding and giving back an object. Even though he's not a retriever and retrieving goes against his nature, the idea was that we would have a more livable dog-owner relationship if Ivan did my bidding by bringing and relinquishing stuff to me. The force fetch is definitely training opposite the terrier tendency if ever there was one. Ivan's loves to carry things around but its in a very proud "hey look what I killed today" kind of way even if its only his sister's bone that says "bitch" on it.

I have had terriers my entire life (off and on) and have had a very ambivalent relationship with them because they are smart and curious and cute and they are also little killing machines. If you take umbrage with that characterization, please understand I don't think there's necessarily anything wrong with killing machines. Back in the day, the farmer needed a small dog to kill vermin that got into feed and went after his chickens. The horse breeder still needs the groundhogs exterminated so his pastures and riding venues won't be full of dangerous holes where horse can break their legs. The city dweller needed a critter to rid warehouses of rats that spread plague. Terrier type dogs had to be extraordinarily fast and kill quickly or be bitten, get infections and die. If you are a rat and you are going to die its probably a lot better to die from a quick shake than to die of slow poison.

However killing machines can be difficult for the average person who doesn't have a lot of time to devote to training a pet or the average person who wants to train but doesn't know how to train to to live with; just ask Dorothy from the Wizard of Oz. The reason Dorothy had Toto in the first place was because she lived on a farm where his killing machine tendencies were valuable. The reason Toto was on death row with the neighbor and the sheriff forcing Dorothy to run away to save him was Toto was a terrier and he didn't discriminate between rats in the corn crib and Mrs Gulch's cat. If you think about it, the entire driving force behind one of the most popular children's books and movies of all times was a terrier. Being a terrier is being a force of nature and to an extent being at the mercy of your nature. It is "bred in the bone".

Interestingly, practicing the retrieve as well as other obedience exercises using very low levels of electronic stimulation for noncompliance has made a world of difference in the life of Ivan. Surprisingly, it has not made him fearful. This summer I took him to our office picnic and he got tons of attention which made him wiggle his butt till I thought it would fall off. He adores attention more than anything except maybe trying to kill small objects. Everyone exclaimed over how wonderful he was and he heeled on a loose lead and sat calmly and had treats and had fun. I even took him to get my food at the buffet and he didn't pull or act like an idiot as 100% of the other dogs had done. Previously he would not even eat when other dogs were around (a sign that he was if not fearful at least on edge) but at the picnic he did his tricks and ate barbecue and was as good as any labrador retriever or border collie or poodle.

He was almost too good. One woman wanted to buy a dog just like him to which I had so say, "Oh really you should not. He is now a wonderful dog but it was sooooo much work to get him to this point. A normal family should never buy a dog like this!" (To be fair to the breed, Ivan is not neutered which certainly has contributed to his issues and he had a negative experience with an older dog as a puppy due to my lack of forethought which has also contributed to his defensive tendencies and because he was easy to train using positive methods as a puppy I mistakenly though that he would be easy to keep under control once puberty hit; Wrong! Once puberty hit he didn't care about food or toys so exclusively positive methods were fruitless. Most male Jack Russell type terriers are going to be like this without a ton of training. It is my opinion based on living with 3 of them and observing countless they are not the ideal family dog despite what My Dog Skip and Wishbone seem to imply!)

When I finally broke down and approached a trainer about training with avoidance methods I felt tremendously guilty. At times I still hear echos of my Catholic School ethics teacher saying that the ends can't ever justify the means. However, having been in the riding world for the past year it is clear to me that the vast majority of training horses receive would be classified by dog trainers as "negative" or based on avoidance principles. In riding the aids range from the slightest tap to an outright kick or flick of the whip. Horses naturally move away from pressure and the idea is to use the smallest amount necessary so it registers with the horse and then to immediately reduce the pressure once there's compliance. Its simply not safe to have a riding horse that only does what he wants when he's in the mood to get a cookie or to be petted. Clicker training from the back of a horse is not practical. A warmblood gelding might always be in that mood. A thoroughbred stallion around mares might be in that mood never. A 1400 lb skittish animal that does not obey can also be a killing machine. While being ridden and being led obedience by a horse is simply essential.

Additionally, watching my friends with their children over the years it occurs to me there often is a good deal more correction than praise. This is very much like real world adult life. At work and on the highway and in our relationships we do a lot of what we do to avoid sanctions and the anger of others. My decision to use the electronic collar with Ivan came from a Dorothy-like place of desperation. I had heard that a dog Ivan was related to had gotten into a fight with another dog and bitten off the other dog's toe. The owner of the two dogs simply took the offender out back and shot him. It seemed like if anything ever happened to me, many prospective owners would not be nearly as tolerant of Ivan's antics as I was. Out of control terriers do not lead a happy lives; at least not for long.

So the upshot of this overly long post is even though its not comfortable to do, sometimes correction and avoidance training are all we have to help a child, person or creature become a good citizen. This is probably one of those laws of the universe or laws of the jungle. I'm not saying this to justify child abuse but I'm saying it because the world does not soley dole out candy and pats on the head. I do agree entirely that the least noticeable aversive should be used and pressure should be removed as compliance is obtained. It is a signal the animal or person has done the right thing and it is also in its own way a reward. With regards to ourselves and the individuals we train, sometimes trying the same thing over and over in an attempt to get it right is self-defeating. Sometimes we must go back a few steps to see what it as the root of the problem and work on that rather than risk practicing incorrectly and inadvertently reinforcing the problem. Of course it really helps to have someone who knows what the problem is. Sometimes when we're stuck with have no idea. The outside perspective of a Mary Flood or a Patrick Nolan can make all the difference. If we are working with adults or simply trying to fix some personal problem or habit, sometimes working completely counter to our emotions at the time can do the trick. Working Oppositite the Tendency is not simply a mental trick, although it starts with telling yourself to try acting a way you don't feel like acting; but then doing those behaviors result in physical and social consequences that can produce lasting change.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Its not willpower! It’s the ice cream I had stored in my butt!

Willpower. How I do hate that word!  Some thin people love to look down their nose at fat girls and pity their lack of self-control. They think, “I have willpower and she doesn’t. If only she had my moral fortitude i.e., “willpower”, she might be able to be thin but she is just a lazy sucker and she is fat and deserves bad things whereas I am thin and therefore awesome and in control.”  

What a bunch of crap! When it comes to dieting willpower is a myth pure and simple. 

Let me tell you something. If you are overweight you have 3 choices.

  1. You can commit for three days to severely restrict your carbohydrates until you enter ketosis at which point you will be treated to GOBS of self-control and the ability to continue to chose to eat the right things (and by the way you will only achieve this by eating regular protein and fat). Once you have gobs of self-control making better choices will seem easy. 
  2. Or you can severely cut your calories but still eat regular protein and get into ketosis at which point you will still be treated to self-control although you may still struggle being bumped out of ketosis on occasion by certain carby foods at which time you may succumb to high risk food and blow your diet;
  3. Or 3 you can try to restrict your portions eating inadequate protein and feel extremely hungry and then binge and then flagellate yourself and again try to starve yourself into submission and end up on a rollercoaster of restrict, binge, restrict, binge which in the long run even if you become bulimic and puke up 80% of what you consume will still probably result in a gain because spiking insulin which occurs early when the first parts of the binge get digested will cause you to not burn whatever food you keep down. 

When I have done #1 and to a lesser extent #2 I have succeeded. #3 has been the path to hell, repeatedly, pure and simple. I have also observed this in others including patients I treated on internship with eating disorders.   

People say over and over “I don’t know how you lost 100lbs you must have incredible willpower. ” And I think “yes I know because you never took the first step of getting into ketosis.” When you are not in ketosis you think cutting bread, and pasta and potatoes and ice cream or living on 1400 calories a day must be a death sentence. You think losing 100 lbs must have meant I went through 2 years of hunger. You can’t imagine eating 1/3 less than you do right now because you eat what you need to feel satisfied and eating less would logically mean feeling less satisfied and so you think I somehow conquered feeling unsatisfied for two years.

Let me tell you something else. The only voluntary way to lose weight and stick to a diet is to satisfy your nutritional needs. Your body will get what it wants; it is in charge of you because it is you; not the other way around. I lost 100 lbs over 2 years because I felt satisfied eating enough protein and fat and eating so little carbohydrates that my blood sugar was not driving me into a frenzy of hunger EVER.  When one is in ketosis, one is not hungry because one is living off of one’s own fat stores.  Think about it, if you’ve stored 2 years worth of ice cream in your butt, and suddenly you’ve found the code that unlocks the ice cream stored in your butt, you aren’t hungry because you have access when you need it to the ice cream stored there so logically you won’t be all that hungry when you see actual ice cream!!! Why would you be when its all right there in your butt.  

I’m not saying there weren’t times during the 2 years when I saw ice cream or smelled cookies or pizza during my 2 year odyssey and I didn’t want them. But wanting to taste something when your nutritional needs are being met is very different than wanting to eat something because your blood sugar has just spiked and then fallen and you are starting to shake and get a bit panicky and you just know with every fiber of your being that that Krispy Kreme Donut, hot fudge sundae or birthday cake available on every corner in America will get you back to feeling normal.  It is normal to eat when your blood sugar plummets and eating a fast fix is what we’ve learned to do. Its generally everyone’s first resort when one hasn’t figured out how to live off our fat stores.

It is very odd to me that nobody sits down and says “Gee, fat happens for a reason and so does thin.” Its like its a big mystery to people. Here it is as simple as I can make it. We get fat because we can store fat and we can store fat because if we had not had this ability the human race would have died out a long time ago whenever there was a famine or a flood or fire that wiped out all the supplies and people had to walk way far to find food someplace else or people had to wait way long (a New England winter) for there to be bountiful food again. All those parents telling kids to clean their plate knew winter might suck and things might run low so you better put on a little extra if you’re going to get by.  And women get breasts (fat) with the onset of puberty because if you’re going to put 9 months into the project of creating a baby you need to be able to withstand walking a fifty miles to go get some food for the kid if the kid is born during an economic downturn or sheep flu or long winter.

Its only been in this modern era that we have food continuously and stlll only in certain places is there no shortage of food. Now some of us can afford to be thin because in the middle and upper middle class in the US and Western Europe and a handful of other lucky spots we no longer need to store ice cream in our butt because if we really need to walk to the next village to get food (say the grocery store in our town burns down) we can usually drive or take the bus so we don’t need to have all those stores. However the mechanism if we wanted to use it is still there. Nobody has told thousands of years of evolution that we don’t need the extra storage lockers. If we wanted to we could pretend tomorrow that there is a famine and I could walk 50 miles and use my fat stores; thank you bipedal ancestors who did it all before my time.

Thin on the other hand can happen when there’s no shortages. Thin happens when there is adequate protein. The highest SES individuals have the lowest waist to hip ratios because they get enough protein and yes they actually do eat more protein even if they’re all running around claiming to be vegetarians in reality they are generally sashimi slurping, gruyere munching, truffle chomping, oophiles.  They can afford it and they aren’t hungry all the time because they had an omelet for breakfast and morels for lunch and a big ole hunk of raw fish for dinner. It is not hard to turn down ice cream after meals with adequate protein because you aren’t that hungry anymore. So they can. This is also why until people started shoplifting the ingredients for meth, meat used to be the #1 most shoplifted item; Think about it; if you were going to shoplift something its not like meat is convenient to slip under your skirt or tuck inside your shirt. Its clammy and bulky but its so luscious and fills you up and its expensive so “Beef, its (what’s stolen) for dinner.  Thin also happens as a result of starvation and it has the amazing effect of making the starved person or creature at least initially more proficient at walking or chasing down a meal. The difference between ketosis on an adequate protein and fat low carbohydrate diet and starvation is during ketosis the protein we eat keeps our muscle mass including our heart intact whereas in outright starvation we lose muscle mass too. 

So I challenge those of you who want to lose weight but think “I could never give up carbs” to make a conscious decision to trim them a lot just for a few days while at the same time making a point to eat 3-5 meals with protein and non-starchy low carbohydrate vegetables.  See if getting into ketosis is that bad and see if you don’t drop a stone or two in a very short time. See if its as hard as you thought to keep going. See if you don’t have gobs of willpower. And if I’m correct see if you can re-label "Willpower"  “The ice cream (bread, pasta or whatever your carby thing is) I had stored in my Butt!” Realize the next time you see someone who is overweight that she isn’t better or worse or weaker or stronger or more or less awesome than anyone else. She probably just hasn’t found the key to her own personal ice cream freezer.  When she overeats she is being driven to it by hunger the way herds of wild animals migrate in search of food and the way our ancestors migrated following herds of antelope, buffalo and other migratory beasts.  It is hard for us to not chock up our accomplishments to our own moral superiority but in the end we are animals and there is no willpower that can keep us from addressing our hunger. 

Saturday, March 7, 2009

Better Than an Astronaut Phone

My husband was the 7th person in line at the AT&T in Reston the day the original iPhones were released. He adored it and turned into the iPhone ambassador to the world. His aunt bought his uncle an iPhone for Christmas on the strength of my husband’s recommendation and I’m sure they were not the only people he swayed because he treated everyone everywhere to the iPhone tour made all the more compelling by his photo album of birds which now resides both on the phone and at


Steve Jobs should have been paying him commission. At one point I got really sick of it. I felt like he was trying to lord his iPhone over me which was jut silly since I just didn’t have the iPhone jones. I bought him his first iPod and it had been a bone of contention ever since because he wore it constantly and I had to yell whenever I wanted to talk with him. It was my gift and my fault so I had no one to be annoyed with besides myself and Steve Jobs for creating this product he appeared at times to love more than me.   Because of my anti-Ipod feelings in part, I made a deliberate decision not to wait for the iPhone. Also I was desperately searching for a way to get more organized (a constant struggle for me the ADD poster child.)  So  after missing a doctor’s appointment yet again and paying for it yet again, I decided that June to purchase a Cingular Smart Phone 8525 with all the bells and whistles even though the iPhone’s much anticipated release was imminent.  I needed a way to make lists on the fly and wanted Bluetooth and a keyboard and windows applications which while possible to work on with the phone ended up being too tedious in reality for me (did I mention I’m the ADD poster child?). I also wanted 3G which the original iPhone didn’t have so I didn’t wait.


When he got the iPhone I really couldn’t see the big deal. I am not a music person and maybe if I had been an iPod person already, I would have been jealous. Eventually the fabulous new discoveries about the toy that happened on a weekly basis started to  annoy me so much that every time he touted his iPhone’s virtues I said in my best Stepford Wife voice, “Yes dear. The iPhone is the coolest phone in the world. Its even cooler than an astronaut phone.” At first I’m not sure he understood that I was making fun of him. He tried to tell me it wasn’t cooler than an astronaut phones  and then he said astronaut didn’t have phones which is true but they can talk with people on earth from the moon and that is pretty close to a phone while being so beyond what an earthly phone does its not even funny. Anyway finally it dawned on him it was more of a a metaphor since astronauts get many things made for them first before anyone else does and every little boy wants to be an astronaut so anything cooler than an astronaut phone must be the coolest thing EVER. Of course we all know somethings the astronauts get may be cool but in the end aren’t that good. Like Tang. But I digress.  In his glass is half full way he took it as a compliment, which only made the whole thing more irritating.  And while the features were nice and better in some ways than my Smart Phone, I still did not really get what was so special about the glorified iPod besides the pretty screen and the two finger stretch view.


At the same time, I hated my Cingular 8525 from the moment I got it. It was heavy and hard to open and you needed to open it to access the keyboard which meant I was usually always having to to use two hands to do anything. I was always just fumbling around with it. It promised a lot of things including voice dialing but the online materials explaining how to do everything were, in a word “lame”. I could have gone to upteen support sites to figure out work arounds and  maybe if I had 50 hours I would have learned to used the features but I was too busy which was why I got the phone in the first place. Every direction could have at least been in a manual but apparently that was too hard for the people who made it. Occasionally I used it to surf the Internet which it was pretty good at but you had to resize the windows with the stylus and they had to reload which took time. I used it for a phone calls mostly and that was basically it. Even though it was windows compatible right after I got it I found out it was not supported by my government IT even though it was Outlook capable.  So I only got emails on it through the internet email and was not able to use regular push email. The interface for the internet email was a nightmare. You had to go through several steps to open the email and then you had to manipulate the width of several sections of the window to be able to see the messages. The screen was a reasonable size but it turned on and off on a timer and if you wanted to make a call you had to press a button to get the keyboard to show up and that messed up the dialing of the phone. I was also told it would function as modem for my laptop but I never succeeded in downloading whatever was needed to make that work and after about 8 hours, got sick of trying.


When iPhone 3G came out I decided to replace my (not so) Smart phone.  By that time the ITunes App store was in existence and I saw the writing on the wall as far as more and more applications being able to be downloaded. I didn’t know what would be made available above and beyond phone, internet, ipod, and apple email features but clearly there would be many possibilities. Sometime during the year I also had the privilege/curse of being given a Blackberry upon which to obtain my office email. To be honest the Blackberry sits in my laptop bag and I generally refuse to look at it. If I’m home and teleworking I have my laptop for email. If I’m home and not teleworking I feel I shouldn’t have to constantly be responding to the office. They have me 50+ hours a week as it is. There’s no way I would have clean laundry or trained dogs if I was answering the Blackberry push email every time it came on a Saturday or weeknight.


To say the iPhone 3G grew on me is like saying Barack Obama grew on American youth. I loved it the minute I got my paws on it and it had nothing to do with the Apple logo or the sleek case which I promptly covered with a colorful skin.  Here’s a list of reasons I like the phone:

  1. It makes clear calls.
  2. It is just plain easy to surf the internet. Making objects on the screen bigger by stretching with two fingers could not be handier (unless I could just say stretch and the phone would do it). Tipping it switches from landscape to portrait and back again in a flash so I can read most things without needing to stretch them.
  3. Because its thin its lower center of gravity means it slides around less on my dashboard.  It is easy for my small hands to grasp and lighter weight so I don’t get hand stretch fatigue if I hold it for an hour
  4. It knows how to behave. If I’m dialing my office voicemail and have to enter a passcode the phone intuitively puts an icon for the keyboard on the screen and I punch that which then allows me to punch the buttons. On my old phone I had to hit a button to get the keyboard to come up but that put a number in that I then had to erase. Probably this isn’t a good explanation but suffice to say it just works better on my Iphone.
  5. I am probably the only person in the world who doesn’t listen to music on the iPod part of her iPhone but I do have an audible account for when I get stressed out by listening to the news on the radio when driving so I can listen to science related podcasts or recorded books.  The iTunes interface makes downloads pretty simple.
  6. I’m not an app queen but I have several Twitter interfaces which allow me to feel solace at being able to rant at Senator Warner via Twitter to fix the Northern VA infrastructure when I’m stuck for hours on the Washington Beltway. Because of Twittering on my iPhone I’ve gotten a few “rescue calls” from friends.  While not getting me home any faster a friend calling while your stuck in traffic can soothe road rage by being a pleasant distraction and sometimes letting you know no matter how bad it is, it could always be worse. And I don’t feel like an idiot by calling to complain about the traffic. They volunteer to be in contact knowing full well my plight.
  7. I also really appreciate the YouTube application. If I want to hear a song I can call up the YouTube video and listen to it or if I’m really stuck in traffic watch it.  You would also be amazed at how much you can learn by listening to videos. I like hearing dog training videos and sometimes listen to them over and over so I can memorize the steps they use and the words they say and their tones of voice before trying their approach on my own beasts. 
  8. I am much less lost now. Literally. The maps and GPS work well. Mind you iPhone doesn’t shout turn by turn directions like a stand alone GPS navigator but there’s something to be said for not having to listen to the annoying voice every few seconds especially if you have someone else riding with you. Its not that difficult or distracting to glance down at the marker on the maps that move along in the direction you are going. Living in Northern VA and working in suburban MD and DC (a sprawling metropolis if there ever was one) means I have the potential to get lost every time I  do a semi-annual errand like going to the dentist or the jewelry store.  Showing dogs around the Mid-Atlantic presents more than a few opportunities to go to a new fairground or horse show grounds always leaving late, frequently forgetting to bring the directions. I can easily call up addresses over the internet and plug them into my map application and generally arrive on time with a minimum of stress from anywhere. I adore the current location feature. All you have to type is “C” and the first option you get is for creating a directions search is current location. GPS figures out where you are and plots directions from there and tells you were to go from there to get to your intended location. Because of this I don’t need to preprint directions to and from home before I go someplace new.
  9. The app store has infinite potential for turning my purchase into a value added machine. I’ve already mentioned the twitter app. My husband and I both also have a sound machine app which we use to block noise in hotel rooms and in our bedrooms (we have 7 dogs who frequently think they need to get up earlier than we think we need to get up). We also use the alarm clocks (I am fond of waking to church bells). I record lectures on it or notes to myself and email them home so I don’t forget profound ideas that strike me at odd moments.
  10. I love that by pressing the bottom button you leave an application instantly and return to a main screen where you see all the other options laid out before you. This is very different from a windows based system where you have return to a main window and find a programs folder and then find a program and then find a file. It might not seem like much but the less time you spend looking the more time you spend doing. Also having unique square picture icons for each ap really helps with this. The iPhone display doesn’t force you to read tiny little drop downs that say “documents”, “settings”, etc…. Rather you see a nice square with a picture. Twitterific is a bird, Notes is a notepad, my voice recorder is a Microphone. This may be cool but its also so middle age friendly for people whose eyes are starting to go. The icons are recognizable because of their shapes and colors so people won’t need to wip out their reading glasses to see the name of the icon to pick the correct one. 
  11.  You would think that the more apps I get the more crowded things would be but Apple handles this by allowing a flick of the thumb to run you to another screen full of apps. Its like dragging a huge window sideways into the phone frame so you are always looking at between 1 and 16 squares of icons. Maybe I’m not explaining this well but imagine having the ability to see every shoe in your closet because inside there’s a rotating shoe tree which you just spin and it always presents you with a manageable number of shoes at a glance from the doorway. If you don’t see the pair you want, you spin to the next view.  I have a friend who has 100+ apps but she feels this is manageable because whenever she looks at her screen she zips though that page and if she’s not on the right page she flicks it and comes to the next set and so forth. The beauty is you can keep expanding your “shoe tree” with more and more apps and the phone has so much storage most folks will never feel they need a bigger closet.
  12.  I also love that I can tap a phone number in safari and it will dial my phone for me instead of me having to copy and paste or heaven forbid remember the number. This works for email as well.


I have a dear old friend who is a stay at home mom who tries to be responsible with her money. She would like an iPhone but in the current economy she doesn’t feel she can justify it. Everyone has to make their own choices and I am not in any position to know or comment on her finances. But if she can stretch to get one, I sure won’t judge her. I think some people who haven’t tried iPhones may hate them or may yearn for them because they perceive them as cool little gadgets or status symbols. They are pretty, sleek, and very expensive. But in reality it takes using one to realize calling them a phone is like calling the Space Shuttle a airplane. Although it leaves a few things to be desired (like the government IT not supporting it and less than powerful speakers)  the existing apps and things that have been added for very little money from the app store have added so much functionality to it that overall the price seems more than worth it. And as I ad more the average overall price drops.

Maybe I don’t truly need some of the things I use but in the next few years I would most likely have bought a replacement sound machine, a GPS, and a new alarm clock etc just to make my life better. Now I have them all in one device. And the last time I was running late in downtown Baltimore at sunset  and made a wrong turn and was running on empty, I really felt I NEEDED to know where the closest gas station and closest exit was so I could get the heck out of that bad neighborhood. Unlike my frustrating old phone, I have never once have I wanted to hurl my iPhone through my window because it wasn’t doing what I felt it ought to or because it was confusing, tricky or annoying and it has always taken care of me. 

I cannot see the future and I don’t know what if any phone will rise to the top in the great communications arms race but currently it seems to me that Apple is very much ahead with their infrastructure-ITunes and the App store as well as their iPhone interface. 

I can say that that a day is coming when blind people may rely on handheld devices instead of dogs to tell them exactly how many steps to take to the corner.

A day may be coming when you plug a sensor into your roast beef and you get a call or an email on your gaget that tells you when it reaches the right temperature.

There are already wristwatches that can monitor blood sugar. You don’t need a crystal ball to envision a day when diabetic children  may be wearing a device which signals their caregiver’s mobile device to tell them to give an insulin injection to address spiking blood sugar or some juice for too much insulin.  And its not a huge leap from that technology to other devices that will make parenting easier. One of these days a sensor may literally count down the minutes a parent has before a toddler will melt down in the middle of Toys R Us, Church, or Dinner and send a text to mom so she can get home before their darling angel turns into a box o’todder rage.


Experiments are already going on to extinguish drug craving in virtual environments and they are are already getting reminder calls that use unique cell phone ring tones that have been classically conditioned to these extinction sessions so they have the experience of not craving out in the “real world”

Serious Games addressing health issues are of growing interest for teaching medical and health behavior skills because people like to learn through play. 

One of these days your phone may call and tell you to compliment your spouse and it might even know what you ought to say. That alone might be worht it my friend by saving her thousands of income over her lifetime by helping her avoid a costly divorce (not that she's in any danger but close to 50% of marriages end in divorce and marriages in trouble have way fewer positive interactions for each negative interaction. A compliment generator might be just the thing to help Moms/Wives hold it together. 

Its my feeling that the iPhone and other devices like it are currently suffering from a misperception which is that they are phones. iAlot, iEverything, iCan’t live without it. iTSureMakesMyLIfeEasier are just a few names to consider rebranding these devices. As a consumer I can’t wait for the future and as a wife I'm happy my husband and I are now on the same page with respect to our current device of choice. 

If you read this and you are a health behavior researcher please check out for more ideas of ways mobile devices might help people in the future.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Do Not Sniff Interesting Smells: Do not Watch Dora The Explorer: Retrieve Directly To Hand:

Happiness is a Stuffed Bear!

Alternate Titles: When a Dead Ball Retrieve is the Same as a Dumbell Retrieve, You Can Be Sure It’s a Trained Retrieve

Or: Flyball Lessons from the Retriever Trainer Man  

Preamble: If you don’t kow what flyball is check out this link before you read this blog or it won’t make much sense:

I spent my whole Valentine’s day weekend working the flyball score table. Mostly this meant watching flyball, recording flyball scores, shuffling papers and pressing the button to restart the flyball clock (Ok yes I forgot to do this part alot. Thank goodness I'm the tournament director's wife and they couldn't fire me on Valentine's Day). I also spent much of the time being irritated at Ivan Z Terrierable my beloved Parson Russell Terrier. Ivan, to my embarrassment, has not managed to play a lick of flyball even though he’s 2 ½ and can do the flyball sequence perfectly, but only when he is the sole canine present.  Around other dogs Ivan loses his mind. The problem is so bad people won’t let their dogs play with Ivan, and we won’t even risk our own dogs to see if he’s making progress with his issues. Ivan's issues forced me, wife of one of the gurus of flyball (at least on the East Coast), to pursue professional help far a field from the flyball ring. Specifically since August we’ve been taking private dog training lessons from Mr Pat Nolan of Ponderosa Kennels at

"Mr Pat", as he is known to Ivan, trains practically everything including waterfowl retrievers for field trials and hunt tests, scent discrimination dogs, family pets, and just downright ornery dogs.  He used to be into falconry and trained a deer for a commercial many years ago. Rumor has it he’s secretly training cats to do detection work commercially for really small countries that can’t afford dog food (but one ought never believe everything one reads on the internet).

As I was feeling grumpy with Ivan, one of Mr. Nolan’s ads crept into my mind, one that starts, “Do you love your dog but have trouble liking him?” It seemed fairly apropos for being sidelined on Valentines day. To be fair I don't know why I expect this to be so easy. I am not a guru by any means.  Prior to Pat Nolan (I am now dividing my dog training understanding into two epochs Before Pat and After Pat or BP and AP) my dog training experience consisted of watching jerk and pop classes with Clancy our first Soft Coated Wheaten Terrier when I was seven year old (he failed 3 courses and then my father stopped taking him), followed by no training of any other dog (despite having dogs in our family for the past 30 years) followed by acquiring a lovely smattering of cavalier king charles spaniels that I clicker trained to do most things EXCEPT retrieve, followed by an insane amount of clicker training of Ivan and his sister Veruca resulting in dogs that know alot of tricks but only do them when they feel like it. 

Now in life AP, I’ve learned that all dog trainers and all dog training methods are not alike. I’ve also recently learned that there’s things retriever trainers pay attention to like steadiness, visual cues, disobedience, and understanding the point of an exercise that might make it possible for some dogs who have been trained using exclusively food and play reinforcement fancied by clicker trainers to participate in flyball and other canine sports despite their emotional reactivity and lack of interest in food and play in the presence of other dogs.

Lets start with today’s lesson. But first I must digress to say what we've done so far. In six months Ivan has had some basic remote collar conditioning, probably on average 1-3x a week including about twice monthly trips to train in private lessons with Pat or his proteges. The Dogtra remote collar we use for training has contact points that send variable stimulation to Ivan’s neck and the level of the stimulation is controlled by a transmitter that I hold so I can use the minimum amount that he notices in any given situation. When he is angry or anxious at the presence of another male dog a higher level of stimulation is usually required but Ivan tends to notice stimulation at a very low level (around 8-9 on a 120 point scale).  In early lessons Ivan learned he could turn the stimulation off when he walked toward me. Then he learned he could turn it off when I said “here” and he walked toward me and the faster he did this the faster he turned off the stimulation At times when he complied speedily the stimulation did not even turn on. Next he learned he could jump onto a platform and turn off the stimulation. Now he knows he can run from me to this target many feet away when I say “On” or “Kennel” to turn off the stimulation. He also knows “sit”, “down” “stay” and “heel” and performs those behaviors relatively quickly and/or reliably (I’ve never seen a quick “stay”) in order to turn off stimulation or keep it from coming on in the first place. He learned all of these things without stimulation as a puppy for food treats, but he never learned he had to do them when he wasn’t interested in the food treats. Now he knows he must comply with these basic commands which is fortunate because since puberty hit Ivan has not shown much interest in anything when other dogs are around other than the other dogs. 

At first I didn’t like the idea of “commanding” my dog to do anything but the fact is that Ivan is a dog and there are reasons for his own safety that he needs to comply with the rules of the people. For example if a strange aggressive dog is approaching, if his leash breaks in a parking lot or (this actually happened to his sister this past Fall and it was a very close call) or if the house is burning and I need to get him out pronto, he needs to take direction.   There are people in the world who think you can teach reliable behaviors solely using food or play motivation based methods and that even mild aversive training techniques should be avoided. I would wager that none of these people have ever trained multiple terriers. A food only approach is probably fine for a dog that is highly motivated to have human contact, a dog that feels its owners’ disappointment keenly like my other favorite breed the Cavalier King Charles Spaniel.  But a dog that was bred to slaughter rats and scare foxes from their dens through the sheer force of its personality is more likely to be so fascinated with its own misbehavior that if he notices his owner at all screaming desperately for him to  return at all he probably thinks the owner’s just joining in the hunt along side him. Dealing with Ivan and his sister Veruca from puppyhood and observing my huband’s 12 year old Parson Bitter has shown me that if these dogs accept anyone else as their leader it won’t just be because the leader provides food and praise. In saying this I’m not saying that its ok to be abusive or to use the old Jerk and pop method of obedience. But I am saying that avoidance conditioning used in a thoughtful incremental manner teaches dogs who respond poorly to appetitive motivation to act reliably in ways that are essential to their longevity. Some easy going terriers might not need these methods but I know of enough terriers that have been put down for aggression that I think its likely that purely appetitive training will not work for all individuals within any of the terrier breeds and from what I observe of certain other breeds I would not be surprised if the majority of breeds contain some proportion of individuals who need to understand that bad things will happen if they fail to comply because it is simply not in their nature to comply just because they like their owner.  It would be nice if the Disney and Lassie stories all were true and dogs loved us unconditionally and did our bidding unconditionally but as fabulous as they are many dog breeds came to be because of their scrappy, independent natures. I have accepted this thing I cannot change and am doing my best to humanly motivate my pal Ivan so we can have a safe and hopefully fun life together.


After working on the basic e-collar conditioning for a few months Pat declared Ivan ready to start the “trained retrieve”. A “trained retrieve” is different from a play retrieve in which motivation for bringing back an object is to get to chase it again or an “exchange game” retrieve in which the dog is rewarded for retrieving an object with an even better treat or a chance to tug on a toy. The “trained retrieve” teaches the dog to voluntarily open his mouth when an object (a dowel or dumbbell) is placed in it, to open for on the cue “fetch”, to reach for the object when it is presented an inch away then a few inches, then to reach for it on the ground, and to hold it until the owner takes it. The end goal is a dog that retrieves the object to hand several feet away and only releases it when he’s told to release it and the handler takes it away. The trained retrieve involves avoidance because once the dog is taking the dumbbell he learns that remote collar stimulation is turned on when the object is presented and then ended by taking the dumbbell. Unlike an “exchange game” retrieve where the dog is rewarded each and every time for spitting the object out, the “trained retrieve” rewards the dog for opening his mouth and taking an object he would not normally pick up.  If you think about it there is no way other than petting (which is also used liberally as a signal during the trained retrieve that the dog is doing the right thing) to reward a dog while he has something in his mouth; you are always rewarding spitting something out if you offer food or something to play with because the dog can’t hold something in his mouth and eat something else or play at the same time.


If the dog drops the object while learning the “hold” part of the exercise stimulation is resumed until the handler puts dumbbell back into the dog’s mouth. The dog builds up his ability to carry around the object during the hold training and his is taught to walk with the object in his mouth and to jump on and off surfaces while holding the object. Thus over time the dog learns that his job involves taking or picking up, holding onto and then relinquishing the object to the handler’s hand. I have a distinct memory that when I was six years old my mother sent me upstairs to get things her hairbrush so she could do my hair before school. That is essentially the level of skill a dog with a trained retrieve is exhibiting. He goes to get something, he returns straight away without dilly dallying or getting distracted by Dora the Explorer or some strange smell and he waits until you take it. He is responsible for showing up with the object only marred, if at all, by a bit of saliva. Presumably this method of training is good for straightening out strained dog human relationships. Certain family therapists use a similar principle in which parents are instructed to place themselves at the top of the hierarchy and to start treating the kids like children. When this happens, messed up families often improve because the children don’t have to feel responsible for running things which children tend not to do so well anyway. It is my hope that after acting like a retriever and seeing he benefits from being the dog who brings stuff to the human, Ivan and I will establish a similar understanding that he is the one who turns things over because he must and I am the one who watches out for him and helps him have fun in exchange for his compliance.


Flyball itself is all about fun. Training tends to rely on prey drive but it is hard to teach a dog in prey drive not to prey on others if he is so inclined. When training normal dogs for flyball (I know the speech by heart because my husband has given it so often) “we try to use our happy voice because the more they have fun the happier they will be and presumably the faster they will go. You almost can’t have too big of a party for a dog who brings his ball back.” In the strictest behavioral sense flyball is a behavioral chain. The reward for running down the lane over 4 jumps, ejecting a tennis ball catching and running back past other dogs doing the same thing and a dog on your team passing you at the start and finish line is the dog getting to run its owner down to get fun treats or fun prey objects in exchange for the ball. If you are a lazy adult human being with a few extra pounds around your middle this might not sound too rewarding but most fit dogs love to run and chase. Because the exercise is taught backwards each part becomes the reward for the next part. According to the rules of flyball, the ball can really be dropped any time after the finish line so people frequently don’t even bother scooping the ball up, they simply grab Fido any way they can catch him and sometimes the dog drops the ball for his treat or chase object or he holds onto it for a fierce tug of war.  Elementary school children are often employed as “ball shaggers” like ball boys at tennis matches to keep the stray balls from going back up the lanes. But it stands to reason that a dog that actually returns a ball to hand cannot munch on another dog. A dog that has learned to go to the flyball box and return immediately without watching Dora the Explorer or following a smell or visiting with the box loader, or chasing a dog in another lane, is actually a dog that “gets” that flyball is a retrieve.


So today, even though Ivan knows how run down a flyball lane, cross 4 jumps, hit the box and catch the ball and run in my general direction while I throw a party, because he has little interest in attending my party and tends to run amok, we started retraining Ivan to do flyball and this time we are aiming at getting him to view it as a retrieve exercise. There are some who might argue that if he doesn’t like doing flyball for flyball’s sake I shouldn’t bother him with it. I’ve decided that even though flyball is supposed to be fun, this training experience is akin to training a child to play piano. Until he learns how fun it is to play Greensleeves well, how can he really decide he doesn’t like it? Even if there’s some unpleasantness involved in the training, it is my hope that Ivan will dig flyball once he “gets” it.  Ivan digs retrieving toys in the bedroom. He digs retrieving balls in the yard at home. He actually is doing a right speedy dumbbell retrieve after very little work on the trained retrieve. Its possible this is only because he dislikes the remote collar stimulation and knows if he’s complaint he won’t experience the stimulation. But he doesn’t look upset when he retrieves. His tail is erect his ears are erect and he appears confident like a kid that’s learned to ride his bike without training wheels.


So today we tried to apply Ivan’s new found knowledge of retrieving to flyball. The first exercises Pat had us do were kenneling and recall exercises so Ivan knew to go to his folding box and then return to me. Then we put the dumbbell on the box and had him retrieve it from there. Next we threw the dumbbell towards the box and had him retrieve it near the box. The few times when he got confused I brought him up to the dumbbell and also started placing the dumbbell rather than throwing it. When placing it I took him up to the dumbell to be sure so he would know where to go. This is also different from how flyball is taught. The dog usually doesn’t see the ball get placed in the flyball box. The dog hears the box loader screaming “get your ball” and in the beginning the loader might point to or tap the top of the box to indicate where the ball is but that’s really different than taking the dog up so he sees where the ball is in the box and SMELLS THE BALL and then dragging the dog back to the start but letting him take his eye off the ball the whole time so he understands the box (which looks much smaller from far away) contains an actual smelly round fun object AKA his ball.


I think the reason why Pat suggested this technique is that retriever training (and all I know of it I’ve gleaned from observation these past 6 months) relies heavily on teaching the dog to make the most of visual information. It is much more efficient for a dog to mark visually where a bird falls than to have to give a dog complicated instructions to get to an area and then hunt with his nose for the fallen duck. Dogs do learn to be handled so they can be instructed to find ducks they didn’t observe fall, for example if the hunters hit several birds at a time and one falls in a spot the dog can’t see. But it works best if the dog is learning from the early stages to watch the sky so for most retrieves he is working off visual landmarks or better yet if he sees the actual fallen bird.  The dog that is jumping around in the blind like a march hare can’t really see a bird fall so retrievers are taught to be “steady on the line”. This means they wait at heel position in a sit staring in the direction the handler faces until they are released. A barn could be burning down and housecats could be raining from the sky but the dogs are expected to stay at attention so they can be ready to see guns and the ducks fall. When dogs start to learn directional signals (casting) visual landmarks such as piles of bumpers are often used to make it easier for to learn the signals to move to the right or left (in teaching casting sometimes the handler throws a bumper towards a pile of bumpers to the right or left and in such a manner the dog learns the exaggerated reach toward the right or left means he should travel towards the handler’s left or right). Also when teaching retrieving, taking a dog who is struggling right up to a bumper or a dumbbell he can’t see or is not sure if he sees at least in training is potentially more helpful than calling or pointing to the area. Later a dog might be assisted by having a bumper thrown in the general direction of a downed bird. Regardless of the exercise, the emphasis most of the time is on learning from visual information because presumably dogs don’t need to be taught to use their noses and if they are not taught early on to use visual cues they will rely too much on their noses which can really slow things down.


After a few successful dumbbell retrieves we switched over to retrieving the ball. Ivan did a wonderful job of going up to the box and fetching his ball off the box and returning it to hand. Instead of having a “boxloader” put the ball on the box, Pat had me walk Ivan up as I placed the ball and then asked me to pull him back with me to our “start” line. This served a dual purpose of getting him jacked up to get the ball but also ensuring he knew the target and the speediest route (a straight line). When I let him go he was pulling to get the ball just like dogs do in flyball.  However,  the fact that he kept the ball in his mouth all the way until he got to my hand told me he “got” that the exercise was a retrieve and the same rules of going out quickly and coming back and delivering to hand applied even though the object had changed. Practicing “dead ball” retrieves (AKA retrieves of a motionless ball) off of his “kennel” box made the ball as the target for the retrieve completely obvious. At no time in this process did I need to use collar stimulation. He seemed just to get that a ball retrieve and a dumbbell retriever were the same request (we did change the command from “fetch” to “get it” just so it would be clear that get it referred to the ball whereas fetch referred to the dumbbell).  I am still surprised he changed from one object to the other so quickly Dogs tend to have a hard time generalizing from one context to another. But here, the context stayed completely the same and only the object changed; plus it was an object he has always been comfortable pursuing. I consider it one of the great ironies of Ivan’s life that as a 6 week old puppy he retrieved a tennis ball which is how he weaseled his way into my husband’s affections in the first place and yet now at this age flyball is a struggle.


The next time we train with Mr. Nolan we are going to take an actual flyball box and work the dumbbell retrieve from the flyball box so he understands the retrieve applies around the flyball box. We are going to work on distractions around the box so that if he gets corrected, at least initially he is being corrected for dropping his dumbbell rather than his ball. It is our hope we will be able to transition to the actual flyball exercise rather seamless as soon as Ivan “gets” that he needs to retrieve to hand without detours from the flyball box.  It is my sincerest hope that next Valentine’s day I will spend the day both loving and liking my dog and hopefully running him in an actual flyball tournament rather than sitting behind the score table forgetting to push that reset button. 

Monday, February 9, 2009

When You'd Like to See Less Of You-A Tool For You

Have you ever noticed that many people in the world of dogs are overweight? I find this ironic considering how active most puppies and young dogs tend to be. We have a 12 year old Jack Russell who has been kept svelte through careful portion control and sprinting at flyball. He is almost as active as a puppy which just goes to show you than neither adult humans or adult dogs have to become fat as part of adulthood. So what gives? Why are there so many overweight people in the world of dogs?

Quite possibly this is just a by-product of so many people in the WORLD being overweight. Quite possibly its simply that  most people showing dogs in conformation, agility and performance events are women and women tend to struggle with their weight more than men simply because estrogen gives women extra fat, less muscle proportionally and thus lower metabolisms, (thanks X chromosomes-how we appreciate you!). I suspect a few folks have good enough relationships with their dogs that romantic relationships with adult humans don’t feel necessary. I’m not suggesting anyone has ever consciously thought I’ll neglect my husband because my dog is so cute. However, scientists have recently found that when dogs look at their owners their owners release Oxytocin the same hormone responsible for pair bonding, trust, and parent-child bonds. Petting a pet can also release endorphins. Possibly we don’t actively seek out our human partners or care as much about what they think about us when our tactile and support needs are met to an extent by our pets. Additionally I’ve observed and its well documented that marriages are often stressed by having children. Its not from a lack of caring or trying but because children demand so much attention from parents that there’s not much left to contribute to one’s spouse or partner by the end of the day. As one who has been raising canine children in the form of Jack Russells for the past 3 years I can attest nothing kills the romance like puppies with diarrhea at 3 am.  So maybe caring for the needs of dogs like caring for the needs of children forces us to put ourselves and our adult relationships lower on the priority list. Some people may realize they’ve let themselves go and just simply don’t know how to get back to being their attractive vibrant pre-baby, pre-puppy selves.

Regardless of the reasons for weight gain amongst people in the dog community, I feel compelled to address weight loss on this blog which heretofore has been maniacally dog oriented. I’m taking up this special segment of the population, dog women with weight problems, chiefly because I have so many friends in dogs with significant weight problems and many of them are prohibited from meeting their goals because they experience problems either getting around the show ring or competing in performance venues. It might not always be they can't handle the tasks physically but perhaps they don't look as good as their competition or they feel miserable the next day. If you are not a dog friend, just a friend-friend with a weight problem hopefully some of this will be informative and beneficial. Most of what I have to say is based on my own research and successful weight loss but I have a special place in my heart for my fellow dog gals and would like them all to enjoy their dogs to the fullest.   

I maintain that the vast majority of people who have weight problems would really rather not have them. Society likes to portray overweight people as lazy and immoral but its always been my experience that overweight people, women especially are completely motivated 98% of the time regarding their weight. Sure they may be demoralized when they fail to lose weight and its times like those when they head for the dog show donuts figuring one more in the grand scheme of things isn’t going to do much damage. However, generally they get back on that horse and try again and again and again. Generally, they are acutely aware of how socially and physically their weight has a negative impact and I can see and know first hand from a time when I weighed 226.5 lbs (I’m 5’4”) that I would have done anything to lose weight if I knew it would actually work.  Unfortunately, like the chimp with two sticks in the cage who doesn’t realize he could reach the donut outside the cage if only the put the two sticks together and made one big long stick, people with weight problems tend to give up in frustration when diets either don’t work or drive them mad with hunger. Most people with substantial weight problems don’t know how to lose weight.

Perhaps you’re feeling skeptical now. You think, "what dumb fat idiot doesn’t know how to lose weight? All you need to do is burn more calories than you consume and if people would just shut their mouths and get off their butts they would lose weight."  Well, actually, if you’ve been paying attention you would know I already mentioned that something else shapes our bodies beside calories. Its not just what we eat but what our HORMONES do to us that give women fat on their thighs and rears and breasts. Just starting from the basic premise that women have different fat deposits and proportions than men because of hormonal differences you can understand that its not entirely CALORIES that control our shapes.  

Once people become overweight they battle another interesting problem, HUNGER. Our physiology is such that we feel hunger when our blood sugar drops and when we feel hunger eventually we are compelled to eat lest we starve. Simple sugar can raise your blood sugar levels as we see in the famous beauty parlor scene in Steel Magnolias where type I diabetic Shelby gets frantic because she has too much insulin on board and her mother gives her juice to rapidly boost her sugar and give the insulin something to do. Most people with normal insulin control could eat nothing but sugar all day and feel ok as long as they had enough to keep their blood sugar normal and replaced their loss fluids and electrolytes. Sucking down sugar (in the form of Gatorade and glucose supplements) is essentially how ironman triatheletes get through a marathon, 3 mile swim and 50 mile bike ride (I'm guessing here about distances and don't have time to look that up so please don't spam me-really its way farther than I ever care to go and its impressive). Sugar released into the blood stream is used or stored. Insulin is the hormone that stores sugar when there’s too much sugar around. Overweight people generally have insulin resistance which means their receptors respond less well to insulin prompting their bodies to make more insulin than normal in response to eating carbohydrate laden meals. This produces a vicious cycle where people feel hungry more and eat more and are less well able to regulate blood sugar. 

There is a way to correct insulin resistance. Fat and protein have negligible effects on insulin. And our bodies can make the glucose our brains need from protein. A low carbohydrate way of eating such as the Atkins Diet or Protein Power diet can dramatically reduce the bodies need for insulin and the body’s production of insulin. When calories are reduced to below what the body needs for maintaining weight, a low carbohydrate diet which severely restricts insulin production will literally open the fat cells so people can burn fat to live off of. Burning fat for energy is how animals live through the winter where food is in short supply.

The amazing thing about fat is it curbs appetite. If you think about it, many people have starved during times of famine and war but starving people don’t typically resort to cannibalism. You might think this is just because of a social taboo but even other starving carnivorous or omnivorous mammals don’t just start killing and eating each other when times get tough (I’m pretty sure they have no such taboo). My hunch is they don’t do this because we all have a built in mechanism so that during starvation we aren’t driven out of our minds by hunger. Even if we are starving we aren’t actually all that hungry if we have muscle mass to cannibalize and our own fat to provide us with energy. Obviously starvation is a problem. Protein that makes important parts like muscle cannot be replaced without food sources of protein and during starvation we are basically eating our own muscles. But animals can and do hang in there during times of famine or shortage provided they had enough muscle and fat to start with and the situation doesn’t go on indefinitely.

What does this have to do with weight loss? Recently research suggests that low carbohydrate diets spare muscle by providing extra protein and at the same time allow people to live in a relatively hunger free state that is similar to what is experienced by people in starvation by stabilizing insulin and blood sugar and letting hunger be taken care of by fat in food as well as fat burning from our own energy stores.  Low calorie diets can do this as well but most people with insulin resistance find these diets more difficult because carbohydrate continues to raise insulin levels and keep people on a blood sugar roller coaster. Also it can be hard to maintain low calorie levels with adequate protein and fat necessary to keep muscle intact and keep hunger at bay.

It is counter intuitive to “diet” and not restrict portions but in the early days of a low carbohydrate diet the aim is to keep hunger at bay via frequent meals of adequate protein and fat and sharply curtailing carbohydrates. I know. I did this for 23 months and lost a total of 101.5 pounds. It was not easy but I can assure you if I had been driving nuts by hunger it would never have happened.

I have found many people find this story inspiring but few people believe it enough to give it a try. People are generally convinced they will “die” if they give up bread, pasta, sweets, potatoes, breakfast cereal, corn, soda, whole grains or ice cream. Unfortunately starches break down into sugars and most of these folks consume far too fat and protein to feel sated. High blood sugar is actually toxic and so many folks are exposing their nerves and vessels to a bath of toxins such that they will literally die or at least die much sooner if they keep eating bread.

Also I’ve found so many people have bad associations with low calorie “balanced” diets because on those diets they were literally starving. If you say diet they just can’t believe something as simple as holding carbohydrates low will keep hunger at bay and so they don’t even want to start. Its one of those things like getting a puppy or I suppose having a child that you can’t really imagine until you cross over into that state and are actually experiencing it. During fat burning a chemical called a ketone is product of weight loss actually boosts heart metabolism by 25% and provides much more efficient brain functioning. Many people report that being in this state, known as ketosis gives them a state of heightened mental acuity and energy. I personally never felt better than the weekend I lived a 4 day National Specialty Weekend on nothing but Ruth’ Chris Steakhouse Porterhouse steaks (what can I say they were good and fast and I could use the leftovers to bait my dogs in the ring). I’m convinced there’s no way I would have made it through the sleep deprivation of all those 8 am ring times without being in ketosis.  Ketogenic diets are even being tried for childhood epilepsy because it is believed they prevent seizure activity.

The final benefit of this diet that I think should really appeal to female dog owners is that after the first couple days in which the body uses up its glycogen stores fluid retention drops dramatically. For me this meant being able to walk again. For many months before I hit my all time high I literally couldn’t make it 1 block without grabbing for the pain killers due to pain in my shins. I stopped taking my dogs for walks and I was embarrassed about how I looked in the show ring. There’s no way I could have done flyball or any performance activity with my dogs but after 1 week steadily adhering to Atkins I walked a mile pain free. From there it was only a few months before I was running. Many other people have experienced similar improvements in their ability to walk and run because insulin and glycogen produce fluid retention and low carbohydrate diets drop water weight quickly.

I am not a medical doctor and I don’t play one on TV. This blog does not constitute medical advice just my perspective on my personal story and a boiled down plain language version of what I believe I've read on how calorie storage and weight loss on low carbohydrate diets work. For more information about low carbohydrate diets consult or and do a PubMed search for clinical trials on low carbohydrate diets. Medical science is finding that blood chemistry and weight and fat and metabolism change for the better with these ways of eating. If you seriously decide to pursue this way of eating BUY A BOOK. Seriously Dr. Atkins New Diet Revolution, Protein Power by Michael Eades are two excellent places to start.

Finally, as a dog trainer I know that the best predictor of future behavior is past behavior. When I finally started my low carbohydrate approach I vowed to maintain it until I reached my goal weight no matter how long it took. Dog people often commit to getting titles on their dogs no matter how long it takes. Should you treat your body any differently than you would a promising young pup? You already  know that reinforcing a behavior leads to more of that behavior. It was the same for me with the diet. I thought losing a pound a week for two years would just be too slow. On average that is what I ended up doing. But so much weight came off at the beginning I really did not want to backslide. And buying and having new clothes as I lost weight and having people compliment me meant the process was not nearly as bad as I had feared. Every day I was more and more used to eating the way I was eating and every time I refused something while ketosis kept me from not being controlled by my hunger I got proof that I could bypass sweets and potatoes and live to tell about it making it easier the next time. Seven years after I started my weight loss journey I still have times, sometimes months at a stretch where I’m not as on top of my eating as I would like to be but on the whole I believe I have a tool that can get me and other people to a place that is healthy and happier.

We in dogs are famous for our tools be they, clickers, slickers, bait, e-collars, whistles, guns, white shirts, showleads, professional handlers, range rovers, blinds, or cute suits and practical footwear. Our tools help us meet our dog goals whether its turning out a best in show performance, a high in trial or just bringing back a duck for dinner.  I once showed a toy dog to a sporting dog judge and his words to me were “he’s lovely but I’d just like to see less of him.” I know so many of you who are so lovely and if you’d like to see less of you, I hope you consider my tale, find it inspiring and take it on faith that if the low carbohydrate diet "tool"  worked for me it can also work for you. If you don’t owe it to yourself to take the first steps, just think of your puppy dog’s eyes. You know your dog will thank you if he can be with you as long as possible even if that means seeing less of you. 

Monday, January 19, 2009

A 12 Step Program for Photographing Dogs

My New Year's Resolution last year was to take a good photo of my dog if it killed me (what can I say I'm a woman of modest ambitions). Fortunately it did not kill me. It did not even kill my wallet. It did not even drive me to drink although it may require me to join a Step 12 program for people addicted to photographing dogs.  I am not saying I'm the Man Ray of dog photography but I do feel like I've made some progress in the portrait realm. Previously there was something wrong with every shot I shot and often more than one.  Now at least 1 shot from every session comes out fairly useable and sometimes many more.  A few like my black corded puli are best sellers on iStockphoto and  those people are beyond picky. So here are a few tips if you would like to take better than average pictures of your bundle of fluffy joy. 

#1. Shut up and train your dog to stay...The longer Spanky or (insert your dog's name here) will sit or lay still the better your prospects for a nice sharp shot. More shall be revealed about training the all important "stay" in future editions. Yes I know it sucks to have that as the #1 thing I write and then for me to say "stay tuned". But unfortunately the stay is a whole other lesson. Hopefully you can paw through this other stuff while you work on the stay and then put everything  together at the end, Ok? 

#2. Shoot where there's lots of light. Dogs move fast even when they're sitting still. You will need BOTH a high shutter speed and an aperture of 5.6 or so to get the dog's face in focus from nose to eyes and get a sharp shot. Lots of light means at least a bright overcast day, at best early morning or late afternoon light casting its Hollywood glow across the countenance of Spanky. Lots of light does not mean direct sunlight at noon unless you can move into the shade. The more direct the sun, the more shadows to contend with and in photography unlike say watercolor, shadow=not good.  You can use flash if you must but please consult someone like Strobist about getting the flash off the camera so you won't have scary dog eyes. Nothing ruins a dog portrait faster than green eyes of the hellhound.  And remember how much you don't like flash. Dogs don't either. If you must shoot indoors light from a window and some reflectors or cool lights are probably a better bet than flash with your dog. 

#3. Use an SLR which won't suffer shutter delay. It is almost impossible to get the shot you want of a dog if there's shutter delay; they are just too fast.

#4. If you're going to hand hold the camera try a 50mm prime lens. That might sound scary and expensive but its not. They used to call the 50mm the "normal" lens because its so basic and for alot of other reasons that are too techy for this blog.  The beauty of this is real inexpensive lens that's really nice, really easy to use and really sharp. And did I mention CHEAP!  And its so tiny not even a chihuahua would be intimidated by it.  Also its very light weight so your hands will shake far less and your pics will be far sharper than with some zoom that has to work hard to focus and is stuffed with heavy machinery. At a 50 mm distance with the dog filling most of the frame you will be close enough to the dog to praise, reward or chastise him/her as needed.  A tripod is almost always better but tricky because as soon as you have it set it up and focused the dog will likely move. Even a dog with a good stay needs breaks even if its to catch a cookie or two before resuming posing. With dogs even with autofocus you just don't have time to futz around. 
#5. Get at Spanky's level. Again step #1 comes in handy here because if Spanky doesn't have a stay he will most likely saunter up and lick your lens if you're on his level. This is cute but not so good for getting a good shot. Placing Spanky on some sort of platform can help with this but make sure s/he's trained for a table. A happy dog makes much better pics than a dog needing Xanax and dogs can be afraid of heights. Also dog's can be full of daring-do and can jump off tables and break or tear things like legs and anterior cruciate ligaments.   So teach the stay first. Then teach the stay around the camera. Then teach the stay on the platform and then teach the stay with the dog on the platform and the camera nearby. Did I mention that if you hide your eyes behind the camera Spanky will think you can't see him/her and will break the stay (Spanky may be a dog but he has social skills and he thinks he knows when you aren't looking).  Either try to shoot using a remote release so your eyes aren't hidden or train the stay with your face covered by the camera. 

#6. If you shoot in aperture mode remember the higher the f stop number (eg the smaller the number) the shallower the depth of field (ie., fewer inches of the field of view that will be in focus). It can be really challenging  to get a nose, eyes, and the back of Spanky's  head in focus if you shoot at a small f stop especially if you follow the conventional wisdom of focusing about 1/3 of the way into your shot. Really where is 1/3 of the way into a dog's face if you are looking right at him? Its somewhere behind the nose but in front of the eyes and most likely covered up by the muzzle and impossible to focus on. With dogs with long muzzles,  I just waste the depth of field, bite the bullet and focus on Spanky's nose or the hair right behind it.  This also means using an f stop of more like 5.6 rather than the lovely 2.0 you could use with a flat faced person and which would really blur your background. 

#7. Try to find a neutral background. Ideally the dog should be the focus of the shot and everything else should blur nicely. You've already given up some of that potential by wasting depth of field focusing on/near the nose. Don't make things harder on yourself by having  a busy background too.  If you can find a solid colored background that contrasts with the dog you are barking up the right tree.  You can make a light background appear darker in your photo by moving the subject further away from the background. Just beware it might have to be a pretty tall wall if you want it to place Spanky far enough away from the wall to make it appear black while still having it fully surround him. 

#8. Start with a clean dog. Few things are more frustrating than a fabulous shot ruined or made into a photoshop day of hell because the Spankster has a dirty face, eyegrime, tear stains, seeds in his/her beard or grass on his/her tongue etc...

#9. Try to get Spanky to look at you. Portraits need to be focused nose to eyes AND they need catchlights in the dogs eyes. This is where shooting with a remote and tripod can come in handy because you can stand a bit above the camera which is at dog level and direct the dog's eye contact upwards hopefully resulting in the all important lively catchlight sparkling in Spanky's eyes. Remember no catchlight and Spanky will look like Taxidermy.  As you focus, fill your frame with Spanky. The more you fill, the more tail wagging good detail you'll end up with in your shot. 

10.  Bracket your exposures. This is very important with white dogs and black dogs. Trust me. Take several exposures around what you think the correct exposure is. You won't have time to check your exposure as you go (Spanky's not known for his patience) so bracket! I can't explain bracketing here but read your manual, figure it out and do it. You'll thank me later. If you don't bracket you can rest assured you'll end up with your camera metering off your pale dog and making everything too dark or your dark dog and making everything too bright.  Please bracket. 

#11. Press that button quickly and often. You almost can't take too many frames per second.  If you've gone to the trouble to scout a spot with a good background, teach Spanky to stay, AND given him a bath you might as well make use of every scrap of time you have for this little project by shooting as many frames as you can. It took me over 333 frames to get one useable pic of 2 terriers in a chair.  Shoot as if your life depends on it.  

#12. Keep the sessions short. Spanky will be alot more willing to participate next time (and practice makes perfect) if you finish before Spanky's attention wanes. Maintaining Spanky's attention may also be mitigated by the liberal use of treats. Cookies tossed near but not at Spanky (unless he can catch in which case fire away) will keep Spanking inclined to remain firmly reclined where you plop him.  Starting with a hungry Spanky and using Chateaubriand can be helpful. Whatever you do, don't make him come to you for his cookies! He is supposed to be staying (remember rule #1) so take the vittles to the model! 

Lest you think this is an insanely long list you can always take Spanky to a professional photographer if you want to preserve his likeness for posterity. Or you could always bring him to see me; I've got this portrait thing semi-licked AND I charge amateur prices. But should you give this a go remember its a two-fold project. Not only will you have the fun of mastering your camera and portrait photography and possibly end up with some cheap really nice pictures of your BFF, Mr Spankenstien, but you will also give Spanky lots of short sessions on his Stay. And that as they say in the world of credit, is Priceless!