Which pair of dogs seen below shares a household?


Please enjoy this New Year’s Day vignette out of See Spot Run’s exercise yard.

© Ruth Crisler and Spot Check, 2013.

I chose this year to cook my first Christmas goose. Didn’t realize I’d need a trussing needle. Live and learn.

Happily, my husband has a small machine shop in the rear of our loft space, and I remembered an unopened packet of barbecue skewers in a low drawer. In the time it took me to finish chopping the sage and mixing the stuffing, my better half had successfully machined one into a proper needle.

I am a lucky woman. And my goose was duly trussed.

Trussed Goose

By the way, I highly recommend the method of boiling the unstuffed goose for one minute and then drying it completely, prior to roasting. The recipe suggested 24 to 48 hours in the refrigerator, but a hair dryer works, too. We stuffed it with a simple dressing made of bread, onions, celery, apple, thyme, sage, and an obscene amount of butter. Then we seasoned the skin with salt and pepper and dry roasted it.

In other Christmas news, we witnessed some remarkably heinous behavior on the part of a motorist, as we exited church following midnight mass around 2:30 AM. Apparently incensed by the temerity of these churchgoing pedestrians using the crosswalk at such an hour, the pickup truck driver deliberately charged the stream of people filing across Chicago Avenue, then paused in the middle of the intersection to fling open his door and shout obscenities at them, and not garden-variety obscenities, either. I guess I should be glad this particular lunatic didn’t have a gun.

Twas the night before Christmas, when all through the kennel
Not a creature was stirring, save one wiggy spaniel.
The leashes were hung in the office with care,
Waiting for owners to return from afar.

The dogs were sacked out after a day full of play,
Stretched out in their runs and dreaming away.
My Lab and my pit bull following my lead,
We headed upstairs for some much deserved sleep.

When out on the curb there arose a commotion,
The kennel erupted– a bark-fueled explosion.
Down the stairwell I flew, and tried to begin
The impossible job of quieting the din.

Then unlocking the door and peering outside,
I struggled to take in a startling sight.
What to my eyes did appear through the storm,
But a sled and eight dogs parked in our loading zone.

Said I to the musher, “Please pardon me, sir,
You can’t leave that rig here, it’s creating a stir!
Besides, there’s two inches of snow on the ground.
Your sled will get towed, your dogs sent to the pound!”

He shook his head sadly and spat with a frown,
“Each damn year it gets harder to park in this town.
I’m beginning to think your Mayor makes laws
For no other reason than to fuck with Old Claus!”

Ruth's dog Atlas

Here is my dog Atlas inside Ken Foster’s new book I’m a Good Dog.

Just saying.

Actually, I know a bunch of the dogs featured in the book, because nearly all the photographs were taken by Karen Morgan, a talented photographer friend who’s been involved with pit bulls for years, and has done a lot of work with clients of ours.

Below is a portrait of Roxy with her owner Wanda. They live right here in the neighborhood and attended See Spot Run’s Basic Skills & Manners class not too long ago.


And here is a portrait of a pit bull named Mila. I mentioned her in an earlier post regarding my choice to forfeit renewal of my CPDT-KA certification. Mila played a central role in that decision, and I never regretted it. She’s posing below with her owner’s father.


© Ruth Crisler and Spot Check, 2012.

I’m married to a physicist. Usually, that means scintillating conversation about the missing matter of the universe, or tales from underground laboratories involving desiccated bats.

On Thanksgiving, it means a friendly treatise on relative packing fractions, inspired by claims found in a turkey brining recipe regarding the weight of Kosher salt versus table salt.

It is commonly claimed that table salt is up to twice as heavy as the Kosher variety, presumably due to its higher packing fraction. My husband has always been skeptical of these assertions. Anyhow, here are the results of last night’s measurements.

Kosher salt: 1 cup = 8 3/4 oz.

table salt: 1 cup = 10 1/4 oz.

CONCLUSION: Whereas the brining recipe calls for 50% more Kosher salt than plain table salt, that represents a major overcorrection. Rather, 1 cup of table salt equals about 1 1/8 cup Kosher.

Glad we cleared that up.

My daughter was invited to the circus last week by a classmate celebrating her 7th birthday. The circus comes regularly to a very nearby venue, but I’d successfully avoided it up to this point. The kids all enjoyed themselves, of course, and were especially excited to see real live elephants and tigers. I remember my own awe as a child being exposed to such creatures.

To say I felt conflicted would be an understatement, especially while watching the lions and tigers perform. It’s hard to know exactly how much of such an act is scripted versus accidental. But a number of those big cats looked genuinely pissed, and the third time one of the females balked at a cue and then ran at the trainer, it did not look choreographed.

Likely all part of the show on some level, but is that even any better?

My three-year-old son pretty much summed up the absurdity of the evening when he exclaimed quizzically, “Look, it’s tigers on stools!”

Why yes, my son. This is how men demonstrate their physical prowess and mental superiority over other living creatures–by making them sit on stools.

Or, in the case of the majestic killer whale, by housing them in fishbowls and training them to splash tourists.

The maiden post to this blog was in response to the death of trainer Dawn Brancheau at Sea World’s Orlando park. It was the third death associated with the bull orca Tilikum, known to tourists as Shamu.

That post was flip in some respects, but the business of keeping killer whales for fun and profit is not. It does speak directly to my problem with gauging the humaneness of a training program purely according to which learning quadrants happen to dominate. And sadly, it speaks to the power of money to distort our judgement.

I think it’s well established that a higher percentage of clicker-trained killer whales actually kill their trainers than do dogs trained by any method. I do not mean that as an indictment of clicker-training.  I mean it as a challenge to the dual myths that A) killer whales are a model of reliable behavior compared to dogs, and B) their handling is a model of humane training.

What we do to killer whales is an atrocity without moral justification, in my opinion. They suffer lives of abject deprivation, void of any genuine opportunities to self-reward. They are prisoners of our selfish desire to engage with an intelligent species that wants little to do with us, absent our trapping and keeping them like lab rats.

Positive reinforcement based operant conditioning has proven utility both within and without the confining walls of zoos and amusement parks. I don’t deny that. I deny the legitimacy of extending the analogy between dogs and killer whales to the point of suggesting the best tools for engaging the latter must also be the best choice for training the former. And to the extent I personally find the level of management involved in captive marine mammal training to be abusive, I think there is some danger associated with modeling dog training practices after that example.

© Ruth Crisler and Spot Check, 2012.

[The following was written for Animal Behavior College in response to a request for an article on balanced training.]

I’m not big on labels, especially empty ones. Tags like positive or balanced don’t signify much, in my opinion, beyond the public image a trainer wishes to project. These are marketing terms, not definable training methods. Yet all of dogdom seems to have settled into the opinion that every trainer is either one or the other.

The more serious trainers I get to know from both sides of the supposed divide, the more I reject this idea. But if pressed, I do identify as balanced, and will continue to do so going forward, regardless how the scales of positive and negative or punishment and reinforcement truly fall within my programs. Balanced may not go a long way toward conveying what I do, but it’s not inaccurate, and I like to think it evokes something of what I actually mean when I use it to describe myself and my colleagues.

To my mind, balanced trainers are by and large pragmatic. We approach tools and methods sensibly, unfettered by politics or ideology. We do what works, within an ethical framework involving fair expectations, clear communication, and respect for the dog in front of us. This may mean building a foundation of understanding and enthusiasm via positive reinforcement, then layering instructional corrections overtop to enhance reliability and steadiness under distraction. It may mean choosing negative reinforcement or positive punishment first, if so doing resolves a problem safely and efficiently. In all cases, it means remaining flexible, reading the dog at every turn, and keeping all options on the table.

Balanced training is unapologetically results oriented. Results matter, both to the client rightly expecting some deliverables, and to the dog, whose quality of life may ultimately depend a great deal more on whether his owner may walk him confidently in public or take him hiking off-leash, than on which quadrants of operant conditioning happened to land the dog such opportunities. Good results also represent the most reliable indicator that a given method is sound, which is not to say ends justify means. Means, particularly highly aversive or costly ones, are justified by the knowledge and experience that they represent the optimal path toward a good result, not the mere hope of achieving one. Being results oriented is not about being a cowboy. It is about being open to both new and traditional tools and methods as long as they have practical utility, and being prepared to do some amount of internal calculus before settling on the best approach.

Photo courtesy of Lionheart K9

Balanced trainers acknowledge that the deliberate inclusion of aversives within a training program is neither inhumane nor unscientific. Our commitment to canine welfare and fostering healthy relationships between dogs and people does not inhibit us from taking ownership of those aversives we employ. We focus our energies on applying them productively and responsibly, whether via electronic collar or head halter, with maximum efficiency and minimal risk. Denying their legitimate (and largely unavoidable) role in training and behavior modification both constrains trainers unnecessarily and inhibits frank discussion of how more socially acceptable tools and protocols actually work.

There have been some major shifts in dog training culture over the past several decades. On the upside, there’s been a great surge of interest and innovation, along with a new emphasis on ethical standards and humane methods. On the downside, it has become highly politicized, and lousy with specious claims driven by competition over market share. Balanced trainers recognize their work as existing on a continuum with what dog men have been doing for centuries, not as a departure so radical as to deny their influence and contributions to our field. Even if our approach bears little outward resemblance to the training of old, we refuse to reject traditional tools based on popular trends, and balk at the arrogant dismissal of generations of skilled and accomplished trainers as backward thinking relics.

In the end, it’s a matter of devotion to craft ahead of devotion to methodology.

Does every trainer currently advertising himself as balanced conform to my private definition? No, but I think it holds true for the balanced trainers I know best and attempt to model myself after, including a number who do not identify as such.

Whether positive trainers will mainly sympathize with or feel excluded by the above, I cannot guess. But I invite them to rethink the utility of defining ourselves according to terms that are ultimately more divisive than descriptive, and to help move our industry away from empty labels and toward an honest discussion of what we really do and why.

© Ruth Crisler and Spot Check, 2012.

Check out this old footage from a dog training club in the Netherlands. I’m guessing it’s close to a hundred years old. By the way, there are three Bouviers in it.


See Spot Run trainer Nick Rodriguez carved this frightening specimen out of an unsuspecting pumpkin. Kinda reminds me of a smallish bull terrier I trained once.

© Ruth Crisler and Spot Check, 2012.


spot-check: to sample or investigate quickly or at random

My Thought Exactly

"There's facts about dogs, and there's opinions about them. The dogs have the facts, and the humans have the opinions." --J. Allen Boone

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© Ruth Crisler and Spot Check, 2013. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Ruth Crisler and Spot Check with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.
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