Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Chicken Sexing and Canine Body Language

Chicken sexing is a real thing. When chicks are born, commercial hatcheries need to know whether the chicks are male or female so they can decide what to do with them. The job of the chicken sexer is to pick up the chicks, quickly identify their gender, and divide them accordingly. The tricky part is, of course, that newly hatched chickens are virtually identical.

I've been told that the best chicken sexers hail from Japan. Starting in the 1930's, poultry breeds from around the world sent students to the Zen-Nippon Chick Sexing School to learn the art of vent sexing, by which an aspiring chicken sexer could learn to identify male from female quickly and efficiently by picking it up and looking at its, ahem, sexy parts. The trouble was that no one could explain exactly how to tell male chicks from female chicks by looking at them. The chicken sexing experts could pick up a chick, look at its rear, and simply know whether the chick was male for female. The chicken sexing experts where good, they were fast, and they were accurate, but they couldn't say exactly how they knew a chick was male or female. The knowledge just appeared in their brains.

Understanding canine body language is a lot like chicken sexing. The people who are really, really good at it have a hard time describing what they're seeing. Oh, there are books upon books and blogs and videos about body language, but I sincerely doubt that there are many - if any - people who are excellent at reading dogs who don't also go off what their "gut" tells them most of the time. I can tell you very quickly, efficiently, and accurately the moment when dog play flips to dog fight. But trying to explain it leaves you with a "well, the sounds change and their bodies tense and, um, the sounds change . . . " Which is probably why there are so many people who think that any noises dogs make when together are bad and should be stopped. It's what they were told.

Don't get me wrong, I'm not saying we don't know anything about canine body language or that it's useless to try. We know a great deal about important body language cues, from tails to mouths to ear position to eye softness. I'm sure the expert chicken sexers had an idea of which visual cues were important when sexing the chicks. Vent position possibly, or size, or maybe even the sound the chick made when it was picked up.

One of the most important parts of canine body language is context. One cue is meaningless: a forehead wrinkle means nothing unless I can combine it with other cues. Quite often, additional cues are what happened in the moments before. A dog staring at me makes little sense unless I know that it has been staring at me intensely for three seconds. This is one of the reasons it's so hard to learn canine body language from pictures, books, or blogs - the context just isn't there. The chicken sexers couldn't identify male or female for their students because it was more than just a picture's worth of information. There was something else involved. Something that was difficult, if not impossible, to describe.

This doesn't mean that it's impossible to learn dog body language or that you shouldn't try. The chicken sexers were eventually able to train their students even though they didn't entirely understand the process themselves: they had the students pick up a chick, examine its backside, and pick male or female. The expert would then tell them if they were correct or not. After a few weeks of this activity, the students' brains were trained to masterful - albeit unconscious - levels.

Learning by doing is possibly the best way to learn canine body language as well. Watch YouTube videos or go to a dog park or - better yet - adopt six dogs and watch them interact. Bring a friend or someone you know who's gut is good at body language, and talk about what you're seeing together. Or let the dogs speak for themselves. I believe the majority of my knowledge comes from just watching the way my dogs act around one another - and the ways they react to each other. Dogs, I have found, are always willing to teach us as much as we are willing to learn.

Photo by Paige.

Monday, August 5, 2013

Whoops, I Did It Again

So, I adopted another dog last week. That brings the census up to six, for those of you keeping count (seven, if you include the foster dog). While I'm sure all my facebook friends thought that I was being terribly impulsive, the truth is that we had been looking at adding another dog for almost a year.

"How you doin'?"

You see, the girls are getting older, and while neither of them is ready for retirement yet, between Rubi's back and Piper's knees, we're getting closer. Originally, I had thought to wait until Piper passed away before adding another potential therapy dog candidate to the herd. The longer I thought about this, though, the less I liked it. While pit bulls typically age better than boxers, at their current rate of decline, I suspect the will be retiring from dog safety programs around the same time - and, god willing, this will be a long while before they pass away. Waiting to add another dog would mean several years away from programming, and folks, I like doing that stuff.

Whenever people think about adding another dog, I always encourage them to have fun fantasizing. What would that ideal dog look like if you designed him or her from scratch? Long hair or short? Senior, puppy, or adult? High drive or low key? For me, obviously I was looking for a dog with therapy potential. But there is a wide range in personality type for therapy-type dogs. I mean, just look at Piper and Rubi - both get the job done, but they're entirely different to work with. Personally, I like high drive, high energy, high maintenance dogs. Middle of the line for brains. Little grooming requirements. Thirty to sixty pounds. More than a few screws loose. And of course, pit bull, although I do have a short list of breeds I would like to own some day. That list looks something like: more pit bulls, greyhound, Dutch Shepard, Saffy Bull, Boston Terrier, French Bulldog, even more pit bulls.

Once you have your list of ideal qualities, it's time to match that list to realities. So although I know I like high energy bitches, I also know that between me and Rubi, this house has all the bitch it can handle. I also don't have the time to work with another serious behavioral issue. So while I knew that I wanted another screwy sport dog, I needed a low-key, easy-going dog that was going to fit in with the rest of the herd.

In addition to my own limitations, I needed to consider the limitations of my home and family. For example, I have cats, so any dogs that come into my house have to be safe with those small, furry, somewhat suicidal monsters. And while I can maintain the training, exercise, and management of seven dogs, I'm not the only person in the house. Since a good chunk of my time is spent away from the house, dogs need to be manageable for my husband and roommate as well. Not to mention the fact that any dog I bring into the house needs to be at least tolerant of the other dogs, not all of whom are, ahem, socially eloquent.

Once I'd defined what I wanted and what I needed, I settled in to wait. I wasn't in any hurry to add another dog. I mean, I'm not that crazy. And the fun part about rescue is that you never know what's going to show up next.

For example, a one year old, neutered male French Bulldog with no significant behavior issues. Score!

Just hangin' out, bein' awesome.

So without further needless rambling, I introduce Cannon McMeatball. Cannon came from a hoarder up near Leech Lake - and if you're about to make the joke that not much has changed for him, rest assured that everyone ever already has, thanks just the same. So far, Cannon has been a lovely dog. He's mildly intimidated by the cats, pleased as punch to see the other dogs (no playdates yet - Two Week Staycation first!), and he's an absolute touch junkie. Which works out well because everyone wants to touch him.

I mean, really, why wouldn't you?

Chillin' with Friend Crystal.