Monthly Archives

July 2010

General, Responsible Breeding

What I am talking about – small differences

In my last post, Beth asked if how I could say that showing was a good way of assessing quality if judges have misconceptions about breeds.

This is what I am talking about.

To an expert on a breed, these two dogs look quite different. I have no idea what makes a good one–I believe these are Bracco Italianos–but I can see that they’re probably quite different both when stacked and on the move (the fit of the elbows is very different, the shape of the chest, the length of the loin), and you’d have a breeder saying “Well, the dog is better than the bitch” or “The bitch is to be preferred and I’d be mad if the dog went up over her.”

The difference between these two are the level of differences that breeders are talking about when they say that judges are putting up the right dog or the wrong dog.

General, Responsible Breeding

Open thread: What’s the biggest misconception judges have about your breed? How about the public?

This was posed on the Show Me yahoo group this weekend and I think it's worth expanding. 

I think most people know my particular soapbox on Cardigans: Judges think they should be a big, heavy, low breed – like a Basset with a little head or something – and we're left with dogs who don't look like they belong in the Herding Group at all. I'm very glad that a lot of breeders agree, but we need to make sure judges aren't looking for the bigger dogs at the expense of herdiness. 

Sarah Davis brought up a really good point the last time I talked with her outside the ring, wondering if judges hear that our breed should have flowing curves and think that the line applies to toplines! 

For me the biggest misconception the public has about Cardigans is that they don't need to be socialized. They're such wonderful easy puppies that they don't make you work – they're happy to just sack out under your desk chair. By the time you realize that they're spooking at trash cans, they're five months old and your work is fifteen times as hard. 

So what do you wish judges realized about your breed – Cardigans or anything else – and what do you wish the public/potential owners knew?

 

 

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If this was helpful to you and you'd like to help us rescue and foster dogs, here are Amazon links to the books and tools mentioned in the article – and thank you so much!

– Joanna

 

clue, Dog Behavior and Training, General, Juno, Mystery puppies, Responsible Ownership

Don’t buy a corgi

"I managed to teach him when it was OK to bark by smacking him in the face every time he did it unnecessarily." 

"I am squirting her in the face but she keeps barking."

"Where can I find a groomer who can shave down my dog, because the shedding is killing me."

"We're getting rid of the dog because she nips the kids. They can't go anywhere without her biting their feet; she's out of control and dangerous."

"Every time I walk with her to put out the garbage, she keeps getting in front of me. I try kicking her, but she still won't move."

Every single quote up there is (with names removed) real. 

Every single one is recent.

Every single one resulted in a dog being punished, rehomed, or euthanized.

I don't think it's any secret how much I love Cardigans, and my affection extends to Pems due to the brotherhood of short-leggers. I won't breed Pems because of the docking issue, but I think they're great little dogs. But perhaps in my enthusiasm for them I have not been clear about a few things. 

1) Corgis are supposed to bark a huge amount. 

Note that I don't just say "Corgis bark a huge amount." This is not a problem that you're supposed to solve by training or punishment. The constant barking is not a trick your dog is trying to pull on you. The chaos every time they hear a leaf fall is not a sign of rebellion. Hypersensitivity to things being out of place is a trait that was deliberately cultivated for hundreds if not thousands of years in these breeds. And since barking is just a sign of emotion that crosses a certain threshold, hypersensitive dogs bark. 

Clue is sitting on the couch about three feet from me right now. In the five minutes I've been writing this, she has barked 44 times and whined ten times. As I type this she is listening to Doug take the recycling out and is letting me know that he's out there by staring and woofing softly. As he turns toward the house, she whines and jumps off the couch, goes to the door, and whines again. 

Clue is a very quiet Cardigan. 

I really do mean that – as Cardis go she has a very low barking level. She's always modulated her tone for indoors and she'll go a couple hours at a time without barking. But still. Forty-four barks in five minutes. 

Clue's daughter Juno, on the other hand, has not yet learned how to filter any kind of stimulus (she hasn't learned which things are worth barking at) and she has an extremely high-pitched bark. She barks more and more as she gets more excited and happy and occupied, and the only thing that quiets her down is being completely exhausted.

We spend a LOT of time exhausting Juno.

If you are bothered by excessive barking, or you are in a situation where a lot of barking – and remember, "a lot" of barking means a level substantially above 44 barks every five minutes – will be annoying to your family, neighbors, community, animal control officer, or spouse, please DO NOT BUY A CORGI.

2) Corgis are supposed to herd things.

I think maybe people hear this and think "Oh, how adorable, those little legs running after stuff!"

Here's what falls under a dog "herding":

– Pausing, anticipating where your wife is going to be five seconds from now, and then running full-tilt and hurling himself into her ankles. While she's on her way out the door to work wearing new clothes.

– Trotting beside you, and then the moment you stop moving, jumping up and biting your love handles. Hard.

– As you carry hot coffee and two muffins balanced on top of each other, repeatedly slamming into your legs and trying to trip you.

– Running beside your walking feet, biting you repeatedly on your feet and ankles. 

– As your ancient and beloved Poodle totters across the lawn, bolting out and diving into her midsection.

– When your sister's kids, who are scared of dogs, come over, standing braced and barking in their faces as loudly as he can, then running and tackling them when they scream and flee.

Some of these behaviors you can adjust – I certainly don't stand by and laugh as my dogs tackle tiny kids – but every single one is natural to corgis and every single one is going to be attempted and attempted repeatedly. If you don't work very hard to adjust them they will become habitual. And even when you do manage to communicate to the dog that he shouldn't herd people, he's not going to generalize that to other dogs, golf carts, cats, horses, groundhogs, your neighbor's prize chickens, etc. He's still going to try every single one of them with each of those things. 

If any of the above would be a reason for you to dislike a dog, DO NOT BUY A CORGI. 

3) Corgis are supposed to shed. 

Every year, a corgi grows and then sheds out several million undercoat hairs. These hairs are very soft and light, like down, and they're kinked, which means they float on the air and then, when they land, burrow themselves into your boucle jacket and refuse ever to be disunited from it. Sweeping these hairs just throws them up into the breathable atmosphere. They stick to everything, instantly, and resist any attempt to vacuum them off. They accumulate in mysterious drifts above your china cabinet. They are found in the backs of your drawers and cupboards.

Clipping the dog short doesn't do a thing except allow them to shed shorter hairs with sharper ends. Now they're everywhere and they're prickly

It has been my experience that feeding a raw diet keeps the shedding to those times each year when the coat is letting go. So the shedding is confined to a week or two every four to six months. On the other hand, I now have six dogs, all on a different coat-blowing schedule. That means I'm pretty constantly dealing with obscene snowdrifts of corgi hair. 

The charming thing that nobody tells you? Every dog will spontaneously shed both hair AND SKIN when they get nervous. That means you can spend sixteen straight hours cleaning your house for your mother-in-law, and the moment she steps in the house your dog will dump three pounds of hair and big flakes of dog dandruff all over the couch. 

If the thought of cleaning up, eating, drinking, apologizing for, endlessly vacuuming, and transporting to work lots and lots of dog hair is a negative – DON'T BUY A CORGI. 

The tragic consequence of people getting corgis when they should not is that all of these behaviors become reasons to define the dog as bad and punish her. And they'll get endless sympathy from people saying "Oh, my, what a bad dog."

Corgis are many things, but they are GREAT dogs. It's OUR fault that we are asking a herding dog, a dog who was beautifully constructed to renew its down jacket every time it got raggedy, to live in a situation where they can't act like themselves without it being labeled "bad." 

The ideal situation is for people who can't live with barking to not get a herding dog or other dog who relies on barking to do its job. The second best, which is still acceptable, is to sympathetically work WITH the dog to minimize barking and minimize punishment, knowing that you're the weird one who can't have normal behavior, not the dog. There are lots of ways to do this, most of them involving praise and distraction and lots of exercise. I'm also very much in favor of debarking when it's done by an experienced vet, because debarking allows the dog to behave normally (bark a huge amount) without being punished or distracted.

What I think is not acceptable is labeling barking – or herding or shedding – as some kind of rebellion or bad behavior; saying that the dog "just won't be good." You'll get a ton of sympathy with that attitude, but it's not the right one to have. You are the one who bought a herding dog and who lives in an apartment or in a subdivision; you've chosen a lot more unnatural an existence than the dog has. So while we may work to change a dog's behavior in order to live in the community we've chosen, we should do so with a bit of apology in our hearts and try to make the rest of his life as much like his soul wants it to be as possible. 

 

 

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If this was helpful to you and you'd like to help us rescue and foster dogs, here are Amazon links to the books and tools mentioned in the article – and thank you so much!

– Joanna

Dog Health, General, Responsible Breeding, Responsible Ownership

Is your dog a throwback?

A Boxer with a long head? An Akita with a sparse coat? A Beagle with a sharp face? A giant Yorkie? These features – and you can fill in the blank for just about any breed – are often defined (and even delighted in!) by owners and breeders as "throwback" characteristics, or "old-style" characteristics. 

How do you know if that's the case, or if what you have is just a poorly bred dog?

Here are a couple of rules of thumb to know if you do NOT have a throwback dog:

1) The supposed "throwback" characteristic is one that affects the main visual difference between the breed and every other. 

For example, if you think about a Dalmatian, it's the round and separated spots. If you think about a Cocker it's the face and ears. If you think about a Collie it's the heavy coat. 

The reason those are the first things that come to mind is often because those are the traits that are the most unlike any other dog, the traits that took the longest to develop (for breeders) and are the hardest to maintain. Because they're so hard to maintain, as soon as you stop working so deliberately on them they quickly revert back to the more generic. 

An American Cocker with a long, pointy nose is almost never a throwback; it's just a poorly bred dog.

2) Breed-specific rescue is full of dogs that look like yours. 

Purebred rescue is the best place to see a whole bunch of poorly bred purebreds. If the coat on your dog is the same as the coat on thirty dogs that the national breed rescue is trying to place, what you have is not a throwback. It's just poorly bred.

3) There was no specific effort on the part of your breeder, and no criteria for rejecting the effort.

There's nothing wrong with deciding that a different style or conformation suits the job better and breeding toward that end. Right now we're on the leading edge of purpose-bred dogs for flyball and agility, which look like they'll follow the model established by the sport horse movement – dogs selected for a body and a brain that succeed at the highest levels of organized gaming. These will, I predict, be the forces that shape new breeds from now on, not the older jobs of hunting or herding or protection. 

If someone is building a dog for agility and wants something that looks like a cross between a Jack Russell and a Whippet, and are doing so by breeding taller and taller and taller purebred JRTs, more power to them, as long as they have criteria for defining success beyond "She's cute" and are rejecting the majority of their attempts as failures and making sure they're not being bred on from. 

Another great example is the development of the Cavalier King Charles Spaniel, where the English toy spaniel fancy had gone for very flat faces and then (thanks to a challenge in the Crufts catalog) good, passionate, interested breeders decided to re-create the earlier type and asked for the very best examples of longer-faced dogs to be brought to them so they could be retained as breeding dogs. In that case they did go looking for an older (and many would at that time have said plainer) type, but they were immediately putting the dogs back in the show ring and asking them to satisfy the requirements of sound type and good construction beyond the appearance of the head. 

If your breeder just happened to get Bichons without curly hair, that's not a throwback. 

Or, picking on my own dogs, Ginny looks very much like the REALLY old toy spaniels, Victoria's spaniels for example. She is thinner in bone and face than the modern Cavalier and has more color. But that is NOT because she's a "throwback" to a good old genuine type; it's because she's super poorly bred in a puppy mill from a combination of breeds. It would never be responsible to breed on from her, no matter how much I might personally like the way she looks.

Which brings us to the next question – 

You have a dog that somebody told you is the old style, or a throwback, or you personally think looks like the older style of whatever breed he or she is. Should you breed him or her?

The questions you need to ask yourself are the same as above.

Is there any benefit, beyond visual, to the characteristic you have? Is it available in any other breed?

If your corgi has really long legs and a really short body, do you understand what that means in terms of her herding style? Is she genuinely offering anything new or better that a person can't get by buying a Vallhund or even a Border Collie? Have you actually improved something, both biomechanically and in terms of the breed's unique function? Do others in your peer group and your orthopedic vet agree with you? This question must be answered with no thought to how much you may personally love her or how much you may enjoy the way she works – you have to separate her from her body. She may be a great little herder, but is it because her body actually works better than everyone else's body? That's the question you have to answer before you reproduce that body.

If the characteristic is coat – and it seems often to be – then are you offering something that actually doesn't exist? As you know, I have very little attachment to coat as a "must," but I think any coat should be functional if you're going to start actually TRYING to fall off the wagon of the established breed coat. If you have a very thin-coated Pekingese and you love it because it's easy to groom and no burrs stick in it, the only reason it would be worth deliberately reproducing as a characteristic is if it is ALSO better (not just for you, but for everybody) than the Pug coat, the Tibetan Spaniel coat, the Japanese Chin coat, the English Toy Spaniel coat, etc. If it isn't, then you should just send people who like your dog's coat to the national club for Japanese Chin, not populate the earth with weird-coated Pekingese.

Will the puppies offer anything not available in rescue?

There is absolutely no value in producing a ton of Poodles with really soft, sparse hair, if that's the characteristic that you like. Poodle rescue is choked with them. There's no value in producing long-legged Dachshunds; there are thousands of them in rescue. Tall, thin Yorkies? Old English Sheepdogs with lots of spots? Malamutes that are small? Danes with small heads? Labs with super long legs? Scotties with single coats? Long-legged short-bodied Pems? Blue-eyed ANYTHING? Every single one of these is available by the hundreds and thousands in rescue.

If you personally love the feature your dog has, and it's commonly found in rescue dogs, what a huge blessing, because you'll be able to keep rescuing dogs instead of ever breeding, and you'll be able to send others who like that feature to rescue too.

Are you making excuses?

If you love your dog, and you SHOULD love your dog, you need to be very careful that you are not letting your love for him make the decision for you. There's a tendency we have to do like we do with our kids, when we feel that they've been hurt or impugned; we gather them close against our sides and say "I'd rather have you than anyone else in the world – why would I ever want that dreadful Janice girl? Have you seen her teeth?"

If the dog in front of you is genuinely worth reproducing, you should never start a sentence with "I know he's not like those show dogs, but…" or "I know he isn't as hard-driving in the field as the dogs I saw last week, but…" or "I know he can't track like a Shepherd, but…" or "I know his topline is terrible, but…"

Those are pretty sure statements that you know you shouldn't be breeding this dog. Every dog has faults, but your first thought needs to be "I am so THRILLED with the looks/performance/conformation/drive of this dog; he's the best I've ever seen (in hopefully at least one characteristic) and I've seen a lot."

Do you have a plan and criteria for success?

If you decide that you really do have something – if your dog can do something uniquely well because of this characteristic, and his strength is not available commonly – then you have to have a plan not only for perpetuating that strength but for rejecting those offspring who don't share it. 

You need to identify if the strength you see in your dog is actually going to be reproducible – was it in his parents? His grandparents? If not, he's unlikely to have kids who share it. Can you find this or a very similar strength in a similarly well-bred partner? If not, you're going to be stuck breeding him and then breeding him back to his daughter, and I think that's a great way to wreck a breeding program even before it begins. 

How will you test this strength in front of your peers? How will you identify it reliably in the real world? What tasks will you be asking your dog's offspring to do, keeping in mind that in order to keep going they have to be able to do whatever it is BETTER than the purebreds that don't share this unique feature?

Do you have a way to place the many puppies you'll produce who don't have the desired characteristic, and are they going to be sound enough to produce with good conscience? 

Do you have the support of your peers – do others agree that this really is an improvement, and are they willing to partner with you and willing to test their own dogs on the same scale? 

Isn't this sort of a victimless crime? Shouldn't we be glad that people are proud of their dogs and want a better label than poorly bred?

Here's what prompted this post: A person who runs a site celebrating a breed that we all know and love posted a picture of a dog from the 1930s. 

The response to his picture was HUGE, and it was overwhelmingly of this type: "Wow, I thought my dog was a mix, but now I know he's just of the genuine old style!" "Wow, that dog is just like mine!" "Oh, goodness, I saw a dog just like him last year and he had a great temperament too!" "I used to worry that my dog didn't look anything like the dogs in the show ring, but this shows me that they're perfect!" and, my favorite, "Goes to show that a XX is an XX, no matter what he looks like!"

None of those people actually had either "throwback" or 1930s style dogs or field-bred dogs or working dogs. They had pet store dogs, puppy mill dogs, backyard bred dogs, and a few (thankfully) have rescue dogs. What worries me a great deal is that, given a response like that, both those people and a bunch of people reading the response (and seeing the fantastic reception given to dogs who look nothing like the standard) will think, when they see the breed for sale somewhere in the Wal-Mart parking lot or on ebay classifieds, that because it looks nothing like the dogs they'd seen on TV it is actually BETTER. It's truer. It's older. It's more antique or genuine. And they'll tell everybody they know how awesome it is that they were able to get an authentic whatever instead of those doofy-looking dogs at Westminster. 

It's a victimless crime when it comes to the humans involved – self-deception is nothing new. It's a TERRIBLE crime when it comes to creating a market for badly bred dogs. 

If you want to get a field-bred cocker spaniel, whose breeders are actually working the dogs, and in so doing you also get less coat, that's FANTASTIC. You do NOT have to get a show dog to support a good breeder. But a field-dog breeder is ALSO not breeding "throwbacks"; she's breeding dogs whose qualities are up front and in the last generation, not looking for something from 50 years ago to randomly pop up in a litter. 

buying a puppy, General, Responsible Breeding, Responsible Ownership

Puppies and the morality of the market (or Are puppies a derivative?)

If you've been reading anything within the blogs-about-blogs world this week, there's one dominant topic: WordPress versus Thesis (or Mullenweg versus Pearson). If you haven't been following it, it's a fascinating story and I think it's very relevant to the way we think about what we do as breeders and as owners.

Here's the short version: WordPress, which is the platform this blog exists on and also forms the architecture for a whole bunch of blogs and sites that are actually important, exists under what's called a GPL, or general public license. The GPL that governs WordPress exists in order to keep it open for users to change or modify or build on in whatever way they wish. That's why you can get inside WordPress's code and (on your own site) either break it or improve it or modify it as much as you want, whereas something like Microsoft Word forbids that kind of thing. 

Releasing a platform like WordPress under the GPL is a philosophical decision – it says that its owners don't agree with the concept of closed or proprietary code and believe that all users should be able to have free software – where "free" means freedom to use or change, not zero cost (though WordPress is free).

Part of the GPL says that if you build something that has its own function but uses code from the original platform – if you build a plugin for WordPress, for example – you have to also release it under the GPL. This makes the freedom inherited, and is – again – a philosophical choice. It says "Don't build for this unless you're willing to cede your power to the users."

Where the rubber has hit the road this week is in the issue of themes. 

Themes are what tell the blog what it looks like to you, the reader. They're deeper than "skins" but some people refer to them the same way. There are thousands, maybe hundreds of thousands, of themes out there that allow my blog to look different from Kate's blog or from Jeri's blog or from anybody else's blog. 

Themes can be as simple as instructions for the text to show up in a plain white box or as complicated and useful as their own little programs. The one I'm using right now allows me to, for example, easily display certain pictures in certain ways, or not have certain pages or posts visible, and it does this by adding code to what WordPress is already doing. 

The vast majority of all themes are released under the GPL, because their owners and developers consider them to be "derivatives" of WordPress. Plenty of those developers charge for the themes, especially if they add a ton of user-friendly functionality and support, but the deal is that once you own the theme you can tinker with it as much as you want.

So, for example, for this blog I started off with an off-the-shelf theme and then changed it like crazy so that it no longer looks like it did when I downloaded it. And I have the right to do this, even to go so far as to strip the theme of its identifying details (as being developed by Woo themes) and pretending that it's mine. And I could give my modified code to somebody else and they could install it and slightly modify it again and call it theirs. And so on. 

Developers who work under the GPL make sales for slightly different reasons than Microsoft or Apple does. You're not paying for the software as much as you're paying for their expertise in making it really useful and in supporting it if you have problems. So, even though I could legally e-mail you code, you're probably going to just go spend the $40 to buy a theme yourself because there's a high chance that I've screwed up the code in some way and there's an even higher – approaching 100% – chance that I can't answer the questions you have about how the theme works. 

Entering this arena is a person who did what many, many other developers have done – he built a theme for WordPress. It's called Thesis. And, by all accounts, it's a good theme. The huge difference is that he decided that his theme wasn't going to abide by the GPL; he was going to release it under a license a little more like Microsoft's or Apple's license. If you buy his theme as a single user, you must abide by his license terms. You can only have the theme installed on one website. You have to have his identifying footer. And you can't redistribute the code to anyone else. 

In the world of blogs-about-blogs, this issue has mushroomed to an astonishing extent. What themes are, what derivatives consist of, whether themes are new works, whether themes can stand on their own, the rather astonishing revelation that big chunks of Thesis code are copied directly from WordPress's, and so on. It's become a big fat hairy deal. 

I'm always interested by big fat hairy deals, but it would have remained on the edge of my awareness if it were not for the VERY unique response that Thesis's owner, Chris Pearson, gave to the accusations that he was violating the GPL.

He did NOT say "I am not violating the GPL, and here are my pieces of evidence one two three."

No, he said, "I don't care if I'm violating the GPL. The market has spoken."

In other words, because he was making so many sales, the market had blessed his decision and nothing else mattered.

I am sure there are people reading this nodding and saying, "Oh, an anarcho-capitalist," and I think you're right. In fact, I think you're so right that about the only thing that will ever resolve the above issue is litigation that tells Thesis's owner that he's not allowed to distribute under his own license; he is going to be completely impervious to any appeals to what is the "right" thing to do or what's respectful or anything else. 

The more I thought about this, about how amazing his response was, how gleefully amoral it was, the more familiar it sounded. 

How many times have you heard, when a terrible breeder is challenged on his or her practices, "I have a hundred happy puppy buyers." Or "I never have any trouble selling my litters." or "You're just saying that because you don't want me competing with you." or "People come to me because you expect them to jump through ridiculous hoops and sign their lives away."

These people will not ever actually address the issue – they never say "Yes, I do test my dogs and here's the evidence." Their response is one of market creating morality. Because they sold puppies, their actions are sound. Because they have no trouble getting checks made out to them, nothing else matters.

Michael Walzer, who has written a lot on how we think morally, said it this way:

Competition in the market puts people under great pressure to break the ordinary rules of decent conduct and then to produce good reasons for doing so. It is these rationalizations – the endless self-deception necessary to meet the bottom line and still feel okay about it – that corrode moral character. 

To you as a good breeder, this should be front and center every time you sell a puppy. You are selling a puppy under a very specific license, if you will. You are saying that the puppy is the derivative of your breeding program – would not exist except for your input and your framework – and therefore decisions made about its future must be made under a set of actions you've set. The puppy must never be bred, must be shown, must be fed a certain diet, must be mated to a certain type of dog. 

You are trusting that everyone around you understands the rules of the system, and wishes to work under your license. They've bought the puppy not because they couldn't get one free somewhere, but because you offer the predictability, education, and support that the free one doesn't come with. 

But out there are a whole bunch of people for whom the market establishes the morality. They will buy one of your puppies and they will do whatever you want, sign anything you want, say anything you want them to say, with absolutely no intention of following it if there's a chance that they can make some money. And, when and if you confront them, their response will be the same as we've heard so many times – "I didn't have any trouble selling that litter. You just don't want me competing with you. You're just mad because I'm succeeding at this and you've failed."

So my question is – what should we do, as breeders, knowing this reality? Is there a way to more accurately assess buyers? Are there any real legal recourses that will actually protect the dogs – not just give us some money for misbehavior? Is there a way to come together as a community and share common goals – to write our "Dog GPL," as it were? How can we act, within our system, in a way that shows respect both for the creatures that we love and respect for (but with the knowledge of the frailty of) human nature? I think we have adequate legal recourse – we CAN, after all, always sue them – but doing so doesn't protect the dogs in the first place. That has to be the definition of success, not that we got paid after the fact for something that wrecked a dog or a breeding program. Is there a way to genuinely establish a morality that is not the market?

Canine body language, Dog Behavior and Training, General, training

The importance of trusting dogs to understand metacommunication

Most unwieldy title ever!

What I am talking about is what we do when we move beyond the single commands – or perhaps even ignore the single commands – of sit, down, off, lie, etc. and move to commands or requests that are ABOUT that command but are themselves not commands.

So "go out" is a command. "Go out further than you've ever gone out before" is a metacommunication. "Move out" or "go right" or "come here" is a command. "Go go go go go!" is metacommunication that means "whatever I just told you to do, do it faster and faster and faster."

"Good" or a click from a clicker is a communication. "Keep going; you've almost got it" is metacommunication that means "Whatever you are doing, keep doing it and don't get discouraged."

How much are you communicating with your dog beyond the single words? How much are you trusting her to understand? How consistent are your cues not only to begin or end a behavior, but to shape an attitude about that behavior or to keep a line of communication open about how well or ill she is doing?

Here's my challenge for you: Give your dog a task that is not defined by a command you already have in your vocabulary, and don't shape the behavior by asking for it in tiny stages. An example could be "go up the stairs" or "find your bone" or "go way out ahead of me" or "come up on the bed and lie down." Now communicate with your dog at every second during the task, using words that don't indicate that the behavior is done. Don't stop talking. Don't be quiet and ask her to solve the problem. Keep giving her feedback about her attempts – use words that's she doesn't think are ending words, like "yes yes yes yes" and "not quite" and "go further" and "almost there" and "that's perfect!" 

You will feel like an idiot. I promise. It's the most un-cool process in the world. But it works.

What I want you to define as success is not whether the dog actually does the thing. I want you to get the magic moment when your dog decides that what you're saying means something, when you snap into a true cycle of feedback. All of a sudden the dog is going to start glancing at you every half a second, or flicking an ear at you, or is going to tell you "no" in a way that means something to you, and you're going to respond in a way that means something to them, neither of you shutting up. Three seconds of this is a huge triumph, and I guarantee you that it will be so addictive that you'll never want it to end. 

The reason I think it is so crucial to be able to reach this state with your dog – far more crucial than if the dog actually does the finished thing – is that this is the way dogs live with each other. You know that internal dialogue you have with yourself all day long, the one where you're saying "Hmmm, am I hungry? I guess I am; is there ice cream in the freezer?I could go there but it would mean stopping my work, which is supposed to be more important, but I'm pretty hungry" or the one that goes "She walks through the room and all eyes turn to her; she is looking faaaantastic" (and then you straighten up and adjust your belt and saunter in)? Well, dogs live that way too, only theirs isn't with themselves; it's with other dogs. They are like bats using sonar, constantly sending and receiving signals from their community.

As humans interacting with dogs, we must seem like big bricks to them most of the time. They flick communications at us and we do nothing back. When we do communicate, we dump a massive load of emotion and body language and tension or laughter and strength or weakness or confusion or frustration on them, and because we say the word "Sit" at the same time we think they should actually be listening to that instead of the seventy thousand other statements we just threw at them. 

What I want is for owners to begin to act in ways where dogs feel like they are getting even one percent of the feedback they expect, because even with that one percent dogs will find a way to strengthen that thread. And they'll be THRILLED to have that big brick they live with and love begin giving them the signals they haven't been getting. 

If you keep going with this, you will begin to realize when you are shutting your dog down accidentally, when your dog becomes confused, when your dog begins to get excited, and what you are doing to complete those feedback loops. You'll begin to trust your dog, because his communications will begin to become intelligible to you, and he'll begin to trust you.

This, for me, is what is the deep reality of dog ownership is about. I am a pretty sucky trainer when it comes to commands; I am not captured by a great front or a heel. And that's not a brag; I really do pretty much reek at training. But I love, LOVE communicating with my dogs; I get a charge out of it. And the one place where I do have success is that I can laugh when my dogs are laughing and I can play games that they understand (dogs loooove the "go go go go go!" game, because it's what they play together) and the hugest reward of all is when a really scared dog gives me that thunk of his head on my ankle because he has abandoned the tension that kept him from relaxing his muscles and making big movements. That thunk is worth a week of work for me.

So, this week, feel foolish with me and then come back and tell me what happened. I want to feel the moment that he actually LOOKED at you and the light went on. And I want to jump around and clap with you. Hooray!