I’m about six weeks into the six-month KPA Dog Trainer Professional Program. This is mostly an on-line course, and it entails both  theory and hands-on training. In order to take the class you have to have access to a dog that has not yet been trained. That means that I can’t use Lily. Luckily, I do have a dog at home that has not been taught much of anything. Scooter.


Yes, he’s house-broken, and he has some manners, but I’ve never trained him to do anything, not even a basic “come” or “down.” Why bother? For the life that he has here at home, he’s perfect. It’s come as a bit of a shock to him that he has to work for yummy things, but he’s getting enthusiastic about the program. So far, he’s learned to lick his nose when I say snack. There’s a point to this exercise – it’s an opportunity to learn how to capture an innate behavior and put it on cue. Besides, it’s cute. I taught Lily to do it, too. Now, when I say snack! both dogs lick their lips. I’ve also taught Scooter to sit (which can be quite a challenge for a tiny dog built as he is) and go lie on a mat, and go into a travel crate. He also jumps into a box. I’ve managed to teach these behaviors and put them on cue despite the fact that Scooter is truly, I do not exaggerate, a dog of little brain. Hence the need for frequent sun-bathing breaks, as seen in the above photo. I don’t want to stress him out.

Along with doing the on-line program, I’m part of a small group that will meet four times. We’ll be training together, and working with an instructor. I’ve no idea how Scooter will react. Each time, he’ll be away from Lily for two days. He’ll be around other dogs. He won’t be sun-bathing. But, he’ll be getting lots of treats and attention. At these workshops I’m supposed to be show off all that he’s learned. However, he’s not a dog that goes places with me. He stays home with Lily. I’ve been teaching him in the familiar surroundings of our house. I fully expect that the behaviors won’t be as solid at the group session, but I’m hoping that at least it will look like I’ve done some training. I’m not sure how much Scooter’s little brain can hold. Our first group session is today and tomorrow. Wish us luck!

As the course title states, it’s focused on dog handlers, but good training methods are applicable to all species.  Sometimes, you can learn a lot about your own skills, when the emotional baggage that you carry around and attach to your dog is removed. One class exercise is to train a species other than a dog to do a behavior that it already does, but to do it when asked, on cue (this is another “capturing” lesson). These training methods rely entirely on positive reinforcement, which, for this exercise, I would have had to use anyway, as I trained a fish, and you can’t exactly punish a fish that isn’t doing what you want. Here is a video.

Another exercise required that I teach a non-dog species to do a behavior using the technique of shaping. Shaping is when you have a trick in mind, and you break it down into very small components, and then you build up and reward each step. There’s no luring. There’s no placing the animal where you want him. It’s all about observing the animal and rewarding incremental movements until you shape the whole behavior. I trained Caper to stand on a plywood square with his two front feet, and to wait there until released. Caper is a genius and he is totally fun to work with. He’s engaged, he’s cheerful, and he never gets frustrated. He works for pieces of carrot and an occasional peanut. (Whole with the shell. Crunch.) Here’s a video of Caper being brilliant.

If I could do the course with Caper, I’d be done by next month. But, most exercises are to be done with a dog. In my case, with Scooter. This little dog is quite the challenge, but he’ll make me a better trainer!

Scooter and Lily

(In case you’re wondering, Lily is not left out. I do some training just for fun with her after I work Scooter. She puts her toys away, crawls, does a figure eight, bows, etc. etc. I haven’t worked with her in ages, and she is thrilled to pieces that I’m dusting off the old tricks. Also, FYI, the next time there’s a non-dog behavior to teach, I’ll use Tonka!)



Lovely word, isn’t it? Last week I had a chance to use it.

I drove out to the Berkshires, which is a corner of New England that borders Massachusetts, New York and Connecticut. I was there to take my son to the Lime Rock Race Track. This is not bucolic, but it is where you can take your teenager for a one-day driving course, during which professional drivers put your children into situations that you hope they’ll never face. But, if they do, they’ll be ready.

driving course


This is my third son to go through the course. It truly does turn them into excellent drivers. However, there’s only so much watching my boy spin out on a skid pad that I can take. I went for a drive that didn’t involve squealing tires.

The Berkshires are truly bucolic.



When I see a sign like this I stop.

farm sign

I  bought brisket, hot dogs and ground beef from the Whippoorwill Farm Stand and had a nice chat with the farmer about her cows.

I drove past this sign. The Old Farm Nursery looked promising, so I turned around and pulled in.

old farm nursery


This is what traveling serendipity is about. The Farm Nursery turned out to be one of the most spectacular garden centers I’ve ever been to. First you see this:



There were plants that I would have loved to bring home. I was taken with this green coneflower.

green coneflower


There are shade plants.



The ferns were nice to look at, but what was spectacular was the pergola. Look at the patterns, color and light!



There was a white garden. This planter was a centerpiece.

white garden


There was a magenta garden.

magenta garden


And there were borders with all colors.



There was a formal pool.



If someone had been serving iced tea and cakes, I’d never have left.

There were garden ornaments.



I loved these locally welded plant supports. My least favorite springtime gardening task is setting up the peony cages. These would solve that, and look beautiful, too. Alas, they were out of my price range. However, that boy tearing around the track at Lime Rock has learned how to use a welding torch. I know what I’m asking for for my birthday.

peony cages


And there was this clever idea at the shop entrance – chicken wire on the wood porch to prevent slipping when wet.

chicken wire


It was time to  go back to Lime Rock. As I drove, I tried to absorb that bucolic feeling. It’s good to carry a little bit of it inside of me, especially with a teen driver by my side.

dirt track

Frog and Toad

We take notice of very little of what surrounds us. For one thing, we’re limited by our senses. We don’t see the entire spectrum of light, and at night we see even more poorly. Step outside and there’s a cacophony of animal and insect noises, and yet block out the sounds and ignore them. Animals traipse through our yard, leaving pungent scent messages that our noses don’t detect.

We’re also limited by our busy days. After dinner, do you stand in the yard, looking? And not just looking out, but looking down and looking under? Do you stand there, swatting mosquitos, being delighted by the flashes of lightning bugs? If you do, and you live in America, on a spot of ground where there is damp earth and a pool of water nearby, you’ll likely see this hunter: the American bullfrog.

bullfrog in grass


They can be long-lived (a decade!) and get very large. Here you can see the size in comparison to Steve’s hand.

bullfrog size


We humans see smiles and project personalities onto animals. This frog can’t help looking cheerful, but who knows what it’s really thinking? A frog this size needs to hunt up insects, and even mice and snakes, for it’s supper.



After night falls, we go outside to say hello to the American Toad that has taken up residence by the back porch. I’m happy to see it there. I think that it’s a female, because of the pale coloration of the throat.

American toad


She sits, buddha-like, in the same place, night after night. I love seeing toads. They are voracious consumers of bugs that I’d like to have gone from my garden. My son feeds her beetles.

I challenge you to go out into your familiar landscape and become aware of some living thing that you hadn’t noticed before, then come back and tell me about it. I’d like to know what I’m missing!

(FYI, all photos were taken at night with a flash.)

Anise Hyssop

I have containers planted with flowers, a cherry tomato, some mesclun, and herbs at the back porch door. The compositions are nothing formal. I fill the pots with mostly useful plants, with full knowledge that most of what is grown there will not be harvested, which is fine. They’re pretty to look at. The herbs, especially, are fragrant, their flowers beloved by bees and butterflies, and they tolerate my erratic watering. Once in awhile I use a leave or two, or find a ripe cherry tomato. Somehow, that’s deeply satisfying.

This year I looked for a tall plant to anchor a large pot. I found an anise hyssop at the nursery, which is not something that I was familiar with. I read the tag. Tall, purple blooms, edible. I brought it home. I lucked out. This member of the mint family tolerates drought, dissuades deer, and thrives despite my lack of consistent care. The leaves are delicious. I often pluck one to chew on as I go about my chores. It’s sweet, with a light licorice flavor.

The flowers are also edible. But I’m leaving them for the bees.

anise hyssop

Anise hyssop

The Broody Hen

A broody hen is sight to behold. She’s perpetually in a furious mood.

Here is Onyx in the nesting box. Note the erect feathers and the flattened posture.

angry broody


Compare her to Ruby, who is in the box, laying an egg. More pleasant, isn’t she?

laying hen


A broody hen will get out of the box, at least once daily, to eat, drink and dust bathe. She’ll still look angry.

broody eating


Don’t be alarmed if you notice that your broody hen has pulled all of her feathers off of her chest. She’s not molting. She’s exposing her skin so that her body heat will be directly on the eggs (that is, if she did have eggs, if she was actually going to hatch eggs, which Onyx is not.)

bare breast


Removing your broody hen from her nesting box will do nothing to break the broody spell. She’ll plop down, in a huff of implacable feathers. The other hens will not be intimidated, in fact, they’ll beeline for the broody and peck at her head. Chickens hate changes in the flock, and a broody upsets their social structure. They’ll let her know it.

pecking the broody


If you want to break your hen of broodiness, you’ll have to use an anti-broody hutch. I’ve written about that here.

Right now there are two broodies in the Big Barn, Onyx and Pearl. Pearl is a cochin, which means that if I break her broody spell she’d go right back to it. So, I ignore her. Onyx is a Barnevelder, and it might be that if I put her in the anti-broody coop that she’d snap out of it and go back to laying. But, honestly, I’m feeling lazy and don’t want to do the work of taking care of her separately. I’m collecting enough eggs from the other hens. So, she has a bald chest, she’s taking up a nesting box, she smashes an egg on occasion (I had to hose yolk off her the other day) but, I’m leaving her to it. That’s what happens after twenty years of chicken keeping – you can relax and let them be.