Adjusting Expectations

So yeah, this blog hasn’t been happening as much as I’d originally planned. Initially, I’d hoped to be updating here reliably every week, and maybe turn it into something I could use for an NSF broader impacts point. That… hasn’t been happening, and every time I tried to make myself write a blog post, I found myself wincing and putting things off. A few days ago, I acknowledged to myself that the blogging thing wasn’t going to happen, and then I suddenly got the desire to write again. Go figure.

Most of that is grad school. I’ve spent a lot of time adjusting in the last few months, which has left me with almost no energy to blog here. Almost none of what I’m dealing with has been unexpected–I don’t know my new system and lab as well as I’d known the old one, and I’m trying to learn new skills I’ve never encountered before. I’m teaching for the first time, and teaching a difficult biology lab in a subfield I have no experience in to boot. Everything is new.  I’m setting my expectation that I put in at least 40 hours a week on campus, when I used to just do things that I absolutely had to get done on campus there and then go home for the rest of my work. And then of course I’m dealing with the usual first-year grad student insecurities, like worrying I’m not doing enough at work and feeling incompetent as I try to teach myself brand-new things. Turns out that knowing that they’ll happen doesn’t meant they actually stop, which, fair enough.

It’s actually really funny watching myself react in more or less exactly the ways I had been warned I would. On the bright side, being forewarned makes it easy to lend a hand to my cohort-mates when one of them is feeling particularly in over their heads, because I have all the logical explanations about why we all feel freaked out and unproductive. And we all have different enough backgrounds that there’s always someone who does know what they’re doing and is grateful to help you out in exchange for feeling a bit less incompetent. I’m feeling okay right now because I really do have a lovely, solid grounding in the evolution and behavior sections of our year-long core course, but I suspect I’m going to be asking for a lot more help than I’m giving when I get to the ecology section. Which is fine, after all. That’s why I’m offering to help people with evolution and behavior now.

Tribble is adjusting, too–she’s not really happy that I’m going from on campus for about four hours a day up to eight or nine hours a day, but she’s dealing pretty well. The stuffed Kongs are helping, as are the twice-weekly park trips. I’m trying to balance socializing with my cohort and keeping her company, and I think I’ve almost found the sweet spot, but it’s pretty hard to pull off as a single person. It helps that my program is full of evolution/ecology people, so everyone likes doing things outside–I have a cohort hiking trip coming up this weekend, and she’ll be coming along on that. The main problem I’m having right now is that it takes 45 minutes to get from apartment to campus via the buses, and that’s just not a workable commute when I live only 5 miles away, so I’m trying to learn to bike to work. It’s been a challenge, especially since I hadn’t previously ridden a bike since I was about eleven, and even then only when forced.

Agility is going pretty well for both of us, even though the place we’re at now is a little small for us in the long-term. Eventually, I want to be competitive and dabble in trials, but we’re not there yet and until we’re a lot better at distance work I don’t think that that’s going to happen. Right now, we’re not much good at it–I keep having a terrible time remembering to point with all of my body where I want her to go, and we’re still working through Tribble’s tendency to take one look at certain obstacles (like tunnels) and decide to just bypass them entirely. Still, I’m pretty sure that with a bit of practice we’ll do fine.

Actually, I think that’s a pretty general statement for me right now: I’m not doing the best I can right now, but it’ll come with practice. And after all, what more can I ask from myself but that?

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What’s the Opposite of Reactive?

When I was looking to adopt a dog, it was really important to me that I not have a reactive dog. Oliver, the last dog I’d trained, was very reactive and had a very difficult time focusing around other dogs. Worse, he’d channel that stress into barking and lunging, and so when I worked with him I spent a lot of time trying to manage his reactivity and his focus to keep his attention on me. I actually don’t think I’ve ever worked with a dog without some level of reactivity to manage.

Tribble is definitely not reactive. Instead, when she’s stressed out or overloaded, she stops. When I was first getting to know her shortly after I adopted her, I noticed she’d often look very tense and upset when initially seeing a new dog larger than she was. She would stand there looking upset and then, if left alone for a few minutes, would relax and often solicit the other dog for play–but she needed that initial moment to think about it before she would approach the other dog. She’s displayed the same behavior since about other scary things–if I give her a moment to stop and think, she’ll willingly approach them, but without that moment she gets very upset. It’s almost the opposite of reactive–instead of reacting very very quickly and fast to a new stimulus, she usually reacts slowly, and her default when encountering something new is to stop and think.

I’ve never had a dog like this before! It’s a lot of fun to work with her, because it’s easy to keep her attention focused on me. It’s also really different from working with Oliver. Instead of spending all my training energy trying to keep my dog relaxed and focused, if anything I need to amp Tribble up and get her excited and happy. It’s a nice change!

The Tribble and I have started a basic obedience course as groundwork for agility (which is the eventual goal). Last week was our first class together, and she did very nicely! It was not hard to catch her attention in class, she caught on to “watch me!” very quickly and was doing it for seven or eight seconds by the end of class. The only thing she wasn’t so great at was “down” from a standing position, which we’ve practiced at home since.

The class is clicker-based, which is difficult for me because I’m used to shaping behavior without the “middleman” of the clicker. Because of that, I tend to fumble and try to get the treat to the dog immediately while also trying to click to mark the behavior immediately and end up not marking the behavior properly with either one. Not good! Tribble is also a little sound-sensitive and has reacted to clickers going off nearby by getting upset and shutting down before, so I get to use a verbal click in class instead. That’s working better for me because I don’t have to juggle a physical object, but it’s still hard to remember to say “Yes!” right before I get the treat. I’m getting better, though! 

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Taking a Break

As I mentioned last time, Tribble and I have been checking out the parks in our new city while I wait for my program to start. A brindle-and-white dog stands in a park, staring upwards.

She’s been having a grand old time with this new all-park-all-the-time schedule. Before the move, Tribble had been accustomed to a good run maybe once or twice a week, since I had work and it was just too hot to do things outside over the bulk of the day. Now that I don’t have much else to do but hang out at the park and talk to people, we’ve been going a lot more often.

In fact, we ended up going to the park so often that by the fourth morning I headed to the car with her, she made a terribly upset face, turned her head away from the car, and balked at the leash. I worried a little but immediately turned around and headed back to the apartment. It’s important to listen to what the dog is saying, and taking a tired cranky dog to a park full of bouncy happy dogs interested in playing is a recipe for disaster. After a day of rest and hiding under my couches, she was ready to hit the trails again.

I think it’s really important to keep in mind that while many dogs are underworked and underexercised, it is also totally possible to overdo it on the fun stuff. In Tribble’s case, she wasn’t used to the level of exercise I was offering her, nor was she conditioned to run around at high speed that frequently. By that fourth day, she was probably so sore from so much unaccustomed exercise that even the idea of the park didn’t sound fun anymore. What I probably should have done–and am doing now–was give her breaks in between park days so she isn’t completely exhausted.

I once knew a lady who got a Malinois puppy from good, health-tested, extremely drivey lines to be her next sport dog. She was so excited to be working with this puppy that she had the dog in classes every single day of the week. According to a mutual friend, she was drilling a four-month-old puppy on box turns for flyball and racing the dog over jumps, among other things. By eight months, the puppy was laid up with elbow dysplasia, despite coming from lines that were clear of the condition. My suspicion is that by being so excited to start working hard with the puppy, the woman ruined the dog physically by pushing a growing pup too hard.

A muddy brindle-and-white dog rolls around in the grass.I think you can also sour a dog mentally if you try to push training too far. Most dogs will let you know when they’re done by losing interest or not accepting their rewards or ignoring you, so it’s harder to get to the souring point if you’re doing primarily reward-based training. Still, it’s a possibility, especially if you’re routinely pushing a dog to the point that they get bored or stop wanting to work with every training session.

So it’s important to take a break now and again. After all, it’s important to remember to keep it fun!

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Settling In

It’s been a while since I’ve had time to really write anything for this blog. Whoops. In my defense, it’s been a very busy summer so far.

In the last few months, I’ve submitted a paper containing the results of my undergraduate research (no word back on that yet), attended my first major conference, and moved to my new city. I was at Evolution 2012 this year, where I gave my first professional talk.  Talk about throwing myself into the deep end!

Evolution was amazing. It was bigger than any conference I’d ever been to before–unsuprising, since it’s an unusually large meeting. There were so many talks my head spun, and I didn’t even really see a tenth of the posters at the two poster sessions.  I went with my lab group from my undergraduate institution as a sort of last hurrah and presented the research I’d done there. My undergraduate PI was willing to pay for me to go, which was really awesome of her, particularly considering that I was at that time leaving her lab. She’s been a really great mentor in general, and I’m sad to be leaving her group even though I’m excited about the new group.

The paper is still in peer review, so there’s not much interesting going on there.

And moving has gone fairly well so far. Tribble and I are settling nicely into our new city. It will be a solid month before my program starts, so we’re making an effort to socialize and check the city out before orientation begins. So far we’re investigating all the local off-leash parks, but we have plans to join a local pit bull walk and start trying agility soon. I’m excited!

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Making a Difference

Although I’m finished with my undergraduate degree, I’m sticking around my undergraduate lab for the summer so that I can finish up old projects and help turn my undergraduate thesis into a paper for publication. Right now, our lab is in flux–several recent ex-undergraduates like myself are hanging around until we go on to something else while other new undergraduates are starting out, and we have a number of people who are temporarily attached to the lab for the summer.

Two of these are AP Biology teachers who are working on adapting some of our work to their curriculums in an effort to teach evolution better to their classmates, and they are particularly interested in my current work because it involves creating video recordings and analyzing the behavioral differences between populations. That means they don’t have to bring live animals into their classes, but their students can still analyze raw data and come to a conclusion.

I am utterly delighted by this, and I have been trying to help them set up ideas as much as possible before I leave. I believe very strongly in good science education, particularly good evolutionary biology education. In part, this is because I love my subject and would like to see everyone get a chance to experience it, but I’m also excited because evolutionary education in the US is so very bad. (Recent polls say that 46% of Americans do not accept the theory of evolution, a number I find both unsurprising and terrifying, given that the theory of evolution underpins all of modern biology.) Seeing my work used to help try to make those numbers a little less awful for the next generation makes me feel a little better about them.

Besides, it’s just plain cool to see my work being used for something besides my own curiosity! Sure, it will eventually go into a paper for publication–and by “eventually” I mean “yesterday my mentor told me she’d like to submit our paper to the journal sometime in the next two weeks”–but that still doesn’t feel quite real yet.

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Enter the Brindle

About a month ago, I adopted a second dog.

I actually hadn’t planned to adopt another dog until winter of this year at the earliest. I had recently been accepted to an integrated biology graduate program in Texas, eighteen hours away from my current home in Athens, Georgia, and I was keenly aware that moving was going to be an issue, as was the stress of settling into graduate school. I had only just graduated with my bachelor’s degree. I was going to do the smart thing and wait to look for the dog of my dreams until I was firmly settled into my new city and my new life.

I was also very firm about the exact type of dog I wanted. I wanted a dog as close to 30 pounds as possible, since I live in apartments and 35 pounds is the most common size limit. (It’s also the same size as Oliver, my Barker, is.) I wanted an adult dog with medium to low play drive, who would not drive my wussy, spineless Barker up the wall with repeated demands to play. I wanted a dog who was athletic enough to do dog sports, especially agility, but who wasn’t hugely high-energy either; the whole point of getting the second dog was as an agility prospect. I had reluctantly given up on the Barker as a prospect some months before for a number of reasons, chiefly his history of knee problems and utter physical unsuitability for anything involving jumping.

I also wanted a dog who had a short, close, easy-to-maintain coat, after spending hours trying to keep Oliver’s unruly, linty mess of a coat free of burrs and mulch. I wanted a dog utterly free from any trace of reactivity, a dog who wouldn’t require the utter focus Oliver sometimes demands on walks. I wanted a snuggly dog, a dog who reveled in cuddling; I wanted a female dog, and I wanted my dog to be intelligent and human-oriented.

In short, I had a long and detailed laundry list I wanted out of my next dog. I figured it would take months to find what I was looking for once I started searching. Dogs fitting that very specific description don’t fall out of the sky!

Except sometimes, apparently, they do. One day I glanced at my local Animal Control’s site and noticed this face–and more importantly, the attached description. Here was a dog who met every single one of my requirements! I sighed, dreamt about it for a bit, and then moved on. This Animal Control does an excellent job getting its dogs adopted or out to local rescues before they have to be euthanized despite the fact that strays only get a five-day grace period, so I figured someone else would take her and she’d be fine. A vaguely pit-bull-shaped brindle-and-white dog sits in some mangy grass and grins upwards at the camera.

Then she showed up on the “urgent” list with no applications on her at all. Turns out the person who called Animal Control was very unclear about whether she had bitten someone (or possibly bitten someone), so they quarantined her for ten days just to be safe… and didn’t let the volunteers who help out at the shelter and run the website advertise her.

I thought, “what the hell. I’ll go take a look at her and see if she might work.”

I remember my first impression of her, wiggling and trying to climb out of her kennel, and dismayedly thinking “Oh, she’s ugly.” She is noticeably more bug-eyed than her adoption photo suggested, for one thing. But her face aside, her body was a lovely lightly muscled type and screamed potential athleticism–while the dog herself, after nearly two weeks in a small kennel run, was happy to stretch quietly at my feet. She didn’t react to being walked near screaming dogs, came when chirped at, and generally demonstrated everything I wanted to see in her temperament.

Reader, I adopted her.

Welcome home, miss Brindle.

The same brindle and white dog from above, curled on a green bed and clutching a rawhide in her paws. She is staring mournfully up at the camera.

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