An Apple A Day

As we did last year, we hung some juicy apples in a barren apple tree that sits at the corner of the corridor (a 200 foot long lane between two sections of new growth scrub and mature trees) and the alley (which is a mowed area which sits next to what was once our herding arenas and is now quite over grown with tall weeds.) The apple tree seems to be a stopping point for birds moving through the open spaces of the corridor and alley, so it’s a good spot to sit and wait for avian visitors, especially during migration.

After a couple of days during which, in my opinion, the birds stay back and observe the new situation for potential threats, we captured a few takers on a trail cam. A Tufted Titmouse and three female (or young male) Rose-breasted Grosbeaks visited the tree and checked out the fruit, but only briefly.

The following day I endured the 15 mph winds and much cooler weather to wait for activity. It turned out to be well worth my time. A juvenile male (in transitional plumage) arrived and took his time to nosh on the sweet treat.

It made me happy, especially when the sun came out and illuminated the bird’s beauty.

Nature’s Color Wheel

In a high school art class many years ago, I learned that colors which sit opposite on the “artist’s color wheel chart” tend to complement each other.

My favorite color is purple. It’s known to enhance creativity which is why the walls of my office are a soft shade of lilac. I love seeing splashes of purple around our farm; like the deep purple color of the the native Ironwood that grows wild, here.

Purple’s complimentary color – the one that sits across the color wheel – is yellow! Yellow is such a cheerful color, that I think it compliments nearly every other color. Still, pairing it with purple is often a magical combination.

How splendid that I have an image of a yellow butterfly on the deep purple Ironwood! I think they do look great alongside each other.

Another purple wildflower which is more traditionally referred to as weed, as it can become quite invasive and isn’t pleasant to encounter as it has some irritating thorns, is this Swamp Thistle. Still, i find it very beautiful, thorns and all.

I took a few shots of a bee on a blooming Swamp thistle. I find it dramatic with the back-lighting of the late, sun highlighting it’s spines.

Speaking of bees, here is one that looks amazing on the Goldenrod that is in bloom all around our farm at this time. Although my inner animal-self is beginning to feel the impending shift to winter, seeing all this brilliant yellow quickly takes the edge off those thoughts.

And, speaking of colors that create an emotions response, look who sneaked in for a cameo! This wasp dons colors that evoke a bit of fear in me – regardless of how amazing I think it is in so many important ways. Maybe that’s because (per https://tvtropes.org) “Black and red. In western culture, these are the two most sinister colors, as red typically conveys the meaning of blood or anger, and black is that of darkness or death… Sticking to these two colors is common for designers who want to create something as sinister as possible.”

The color pallet of nature has clearly impacts our emotions. Colors have also influenced our sense of design and how we can influence an audience by using certain hues to convey a mood. Nonetheless, I strive to see the importance and sheer beauty of that wasp, regardless of how he is dressed. But, I’m not gonna lie. It’s hard work after having been stung when I was filling a hummingbird feeder earlier this summer! Those colors tell me, “steer clear” and I will happily oblige.

Mr. & Mrs. Christmas Greeting

This lovely pair of Northern Cardinals visited our feeder yesterday. I thought they would make perfect holiday greetings!

Winter

This handsome Blue Jay brought forth feelings of winter’s impending arrival.

Window Watching

Two years ago, when the first Polar Vortex deep freeze event occurred, we created a feeding platform just outside my office. It’s about 10 feet from the doors that open onto the small patio, next to the “koi” (goldfish) pond where we keep water moving all winter long with access for the wild birds.

We don’t feed the birds except in deep winter when we know our support can have a true impact on the birds’ survival. But, because I haven’t had the chance to get outside for a month and I’ve been missing my interactions with the wildlife while I am still trying to get over this virus, Robert helped fill the feeder with black sunflower seeds. He pressed some suet into the holes that he excavated into a tree trunk back when we first set up the station. Additionally, peanuts in the shell, shelled peanuts, some grape jelly and fresh red grapes were added to the area.

We set up a piece of scrap plywood across the doors, so that I could keep the cold air off my lower body. The best thing about radiant floor heat is that the slab/floor holds the heat that continues to radiate upwards, so leaving a door open doesn’t mean all the heated air escapes liked with forced-air systems. I was able to sit behind my little “blind” (waist down) with the camera on a tripod and wait for the birds to arrive.

But, it was obvious they were very aware of my presence. While I had observed many birds in the morning, the fact that they don’t absolutely need access to the food at this time, there weren’t many visitors. As soon as I shut the door after giving it a good 90 minutes, they arrived. I think they will get used to me in time. But, hopefully the intense wind we’ve been having will subside and I will be able to get outside to drive around the place in a few days and film them out where they feel more comfortable.

Here are the cuties that did show up and I was able to capture.

WHITE-CROWNED SPARROW – perched in a rose bush.

GOLD FINCHES

HOUSE FINCHES

SONG SPARROW – this is an unusual visitor to a feeder.

I also saw Dark Eyed Juncos, House Sparrows and European Starlings.

Catching UP

After what had been a lovely early autumn, the weather turned, skies became gray and brought with them cold winds. “Real” work consumed my time and I realized that I hadn’t been out and about – hoping to film the beauty around our farm – for almost three weeks.

Then, as the weather cleared I was hit with a pretty severe respiratory virus and learned about how a two year, world-wide pandemic of a single virus was able to influence a few other common illnesses (the flu, common cold and the RSV with which Robert and I were subjected to.)

Robert and I are both still on the mend, but feeling better.

I had intended to post a Thanksgiving Day greeting here on the blog, but simply didn’t feel well enough at the time. So I am making up for that absence.

I am very grateful for all the kind people who take a moment to scroll through the posts which I publish. I deeply appreciate your kind “Likes” and comments and I hop that you enjoy my efforts to bring a smile to your face.

I hope that you are graced with the presence of people who love and appreciate you, now and always.

The Charming House Finch

This species is a year round resident here in Illinois. I often see them in pairs during both the breeding and non-breeding (winter) season. I find that an endearing quality.

Interestingly, they are not a native species to the Eastern USA (East of the Mississippi), but rather were probably intentionally shipped from the West Coast as pets. Some escaped, and quickly colonized in Long Island and within a few years were spreading across the entire eastern USA.

Unlike the the European Starling and House Sparrow, House Finches have been able to escape the scorn of the birding community, and the “normal folks” who put out seed to draw in wild birds, most probably love seeing them at their feeders and know nothing of their past. They are, after all, not only adorable but the males are strikingly handsome with their brilliant red coloration.

It can be easy to tell individual male birds apart from each other, as the amount and placement of the red is unique to each bird. Some of that is due to age, where the juveniles are born without the red coloring and it comes in over time in the first year.

I have read that the success of the House Finch invasion has had a negative impact on the Purple Finch population. AllAboutBirds posts: One study of finch behavior found that Purple Finches lost out to House Finches more than 95% of the times the two birds encountered each other. Spotting a Purple Finch is considered a rare find in many places, including where I live. I’ve only seen them a few times. But, they only spend the winter months in my area, while I see these House Finches throughout the year.

Even with that somewhat sorted past, I love seeing these cuties.

Mitigating Self-harm Behavior with a Service Dog

A common request that we receive from clients who hope a Service Dog will help mitigate a psychiatric disability is to interrupt the handler’s behavior.  That could be actions associated with a panic attack, a spiraling PTSD episode, a self-harming behavior or many other conditions.  For additional information on mitigating a “shift-from-normal” event, see HERE.

As described in that previous post; for seizures, PTSD episodes or panic attacks, we do not have the “cue” to present to a dog when training him to alert or respond to it.  I propose that this is also true for self-harming conditions.  But, not everyone agrees with me. 

Self-harming behaviors including skin picking, hair pulling, cutting one’s own skin, burning or punching oneself.

Unlike the onset of, say, an anxiety attack or a PTSD episode, self-harming behaviors are usually accompanied by very specific, easily observable behavior.  While a person spiraling into a panic attack may not present with highly significant changes in behavior, an individual who pulls her hair out, well, she pulls her hair out. It’s pretty obvious. 

For that reason, it’s fairly common that we are asked to train a dog to recognize those negative behaviors and interrupt them.  To most people who first contact us, the question is, “can you train a dog to see when my daughter reaches for a razor blade and have him do something to stop her?”  Essentially, they are defining the person’s observable behavior as the “cue.”  If we ask the dog to recognize the cue and perform a specific behavior when he experiences that cue, then he can interrupt the individuals and stop the self-harming conduct.

At first glance, that may seem like a highly reasonable position.  However, with further review it is not only unreasonable, bu tit’s impossible for a dog or even the most dedicated humans to be able to succeed in the mission.

A teen that cuts herself, may also use razors as they were intended; to shave her legs or under arms.  To ask a dog to be so highly vigilant as to be able to detect any time the girl picks up a razor and nudge her to stop is challenging enough.  But, if she wants to shave her legs her dog may attempt to interrupt her, she may become frustrated and corrects the dog. If that happens his ‘helpful’ behavior will most likely cease.

A person who burns himself may also enjoy using incents or lighting candles.  If the dog jumps on him when he chooses to light a candle and it is corrected, the ‘trained interrupting’ behavior will again, likely be extinguished.

Mostly, however, the idea of asking a dog to be so incredibly vigilant of a person’s behavior goes against its abilities.  Besides the obvious which is that a dog needs time to sleep, expecting the dog to distinguish normal versus abnormal activity is likely to create a serious disdain for the dog’s presence. Let’s use a human example. Sara is a person who pulls her hair out. Her mother chooses to refrain from interrupting her daughter for fear of creating more angst. One day, Sara asks her mother, “why don’t you tell me when you see I’m about to pull my hair? It would really help me.” So, the mother speaks up as she sees what she believes is the onset of hair pulling. In response, Sara whines, “Mom! I’m just adjusting my earring!”

From a more basic perspective, asking a dog to be visually vigilant (as in maintain a high level of attention for visual cues) would be challenging for any dog.  Why?  Because unlike humans, sight is not the primary sense for dogs.   Dogs use their sense of smell to gather critical information from the environment, and even from other pack members (that’s why they sniff butts!)  In the same way that we don’t have the “cue” for panic attacks in a jar that we can use during training, we don’t have a scent associated with self-harming behavior available to use to cue a dog’s behavior.

I can’t say whether it sits above or slightly below their sense of smell, but dogs also pay significant attention to another individual’s “energy.” As social pack animals, wolves rely on their ability to “read” the actions as well as the intentions of their pack mates both when planning for and then engaging in hunting process. As a subspecies of wolf, we can assume that dogs still retain that aptitude to read the intentions of the significant individuals in their lives. If you have ever lived with a dog, you may have experienced times when you were merely “thinking” about getting up to go to the kitchen, and your dog wakes from his nap at your feet, then stands up and looks right at you. It’s as if he’s saying, “are we doing something? gonna get a snack? go for a walk?”  

Finally, dogs do not follow frantic, frustrated, angry or disappointed energy.  Helping people control their energy when they handle a dog is more important than the actual behavior of timing a reward or delivering a correction.  I suspect that the reason that dogs can perceive the onset of a shift-from-normal event like a seizure, PTSD episode or a panic attack is because they are able to sense the energy shift in their handlers, even when there are no visual cues associated with the event.

For that reason, I think that the best way to train a dog to detect and interrupt a self-harming event is to employ the techniques we use for other shift-from-normal events rather than ask them to attempt to observe and interrupt a physical behavior that may or may not be related to the actual disability.  You can read about working with shift-from-normal events HERE.

Physical versus Psychiatric Service Dog Training

Service Dogs can be trained to help mitigate many types of disabilities.  Some dogs are taught to perform a physical activity like pressing a button to open a door, providing mobility support or retrieving a fallen object.  In that sense, the physical service dog replaces the assistance that another person or a device might deliver.   A grabber stick can often be as efficient as a dog at fetching an item and a cane requires far less space and cost than a mobility support dog.  Still, there’s no way to artificially replace the companionship a dog provides.  That relationship can be even more important for a person’s health and well-being than having a means of opening a door.  There are benefits which reach beyond the physical tasks that a Service Dog performs, which can be considered highly valuable freebees!

Service dogs can also be utilized by people with psychiatric disabilities.  These individuals may not require physical assistance from their dog.  However, that doesn’t mean their lives are not significantly enhanced through their partnership with a trained dog.  Currently, the ADA does not make a distinction between dogs which assist with physical tasks and those which are trained to perform tasks that mitigate aspects of a psychiatric disability.   Their handlers are granted equal access rights when traveling in public places.

In my personal experience and opinion, unlike many physical service dog tasks, the assistance that a psychiatric service dog provides his handler cannot be provided by an alternate source.  Even a highly devoted individual like a parent who loves their child more deeply than life itself, can be perceived as being “put out” when assisting their child.  That goes for even very young children who do not want to feel that they are a burden. It can add a level of anxiety above and beyond the actual disability.  A dog doesn’t have a job, doesn’t need to tend to sibling or make dinner for the family.  A dog has one desire and that is to partner with its handler.  A dog can alleviate the angst of requiring assistance from another person. Additionally, mitigating some psychiatric conditions cannot be accomplished through physical assistance. There’s a bit of “magic” that happens when a dog serves in the capacity of a psychiatric service animal.

There are many tasks that a psychiatric service dog can perform.  Some individuals are assisted when the dog does physical tasks such as laying across her lap or feet to offer a type of deep pressure therapy.  Dogs can also be taught to remind a person to take meds (preferably as a back-up to an electronic alarm.)  In various ways, like being trained to accept grooming or laying its head over the handler’s lap, the dog can calm a person who is having an anxiety attack.  These, too are physical tasks.

In my experience, a highly beneficial task that many psychiatric Service Dogs perform is mitigating what I like to call a “shift-from-normal” event.  I define that as anything from a seizure, a PTSD episode, a panic attack or the onset of behavior which causes self-harm.    Determining the sorts of tasks a dog can be trained to perform in order to mitigate a shift-from-normal event brings forth challenges which are fairly uncommon when training a dog to perform a physical task.  

As a trainer I don’t have possession of the trigger for a shift-from-normal event.  Therefore, I am unable to make a direct connection between that cue and the behavior I want the dog to perform.  I  don’t have a jar of “panic induced anxiety scent” or a boxful of “PTSD episode dust” sitting on a shelf ready to present to the dog.  For that reason, I  have to back my way into teaching a dog what I expect.   I am aware, through observation and reports from dog owners that dogs can perceive shifts-from-normal events.  Perhaps the most notable are seizures (epileptic and otherwise.)  There are reports that dogs can alert to a seizure event up to 30 minutes or more before its owner presents with the episode. 

It’s my belief that if some dogs can detect the onset of a seizure probably most dogs can do so.  Unfortunately, we don’t know what or how they are sensing.  Unless we can come up with a method of communicating that we want a dog to tell us when he perceives the upcoming event, most dogs don’t alert us, even if they can.  Also, even if most dogs can sense the impending episode, I suspect that not all dogs care enough about their owners to do so.  Some dogs may believe that watching squirrels or hunting rabbits is higher on their daily to-do list than communicating with their owner who may lack in canine leadership skills – so their dog just “checks out.”  This is why I believe selecting the right dog and training it to very high standards for service dog work is so important.

When we don’t have an actual cue (aka “panic attack powder”), we can follow these steps:

  1. Teach the dog a response behavior, like nudge me with your nose.
  2. Achieve the level of performance where treats have been significantly reduced or eliminated, and the dog performs the behavior even in the presence of distractions.
  3. Any time the handler senses the onset of the shift-from-normal, ask the dog to perform the response behavior and profusely reward him. 

In the best possible scenario, the dog quickly makes the connection between the shift-from-normal event (that it naturally senses) and performing the nudge task.  This is expedited when the handler presents with fairly frequent and consistent episodes.  That allows the dog to make the connection more easily.  Hoping to receive his high value reward sooner than later, the dog will begin to alert (as in prior to the human-perceived onset) rather than being asked to perform the response (once the episode has begun.)

Some pitfalls which happen when we don’t have the actual cue to present to the dog are:

  1. The handler doesn’t present with shift-from-normal events frequently enough for the dog to engage in practice sessions.  It’s great for the handler if her seizures are sufficiently under control that she only experiences them once every six months.  But, that may not be enough training time for the dog to understand that we want him to perform a task at that time, and it’s probably impossible for the dog to learn to alert in advance of the event.
  2. The dog learns that the shift-from-normal is significant but chooses to present a wholly different behavior than the one we taught him.  For example, a dog that has been trained to nudge his handler might rather woof, spin in a circle, scratch at the carpet or jump up on his handler.  That behavior can be perceived as unacceptable or even worthy of a correction.  Sometimes, the dog is sent outside because he won’t stop circling (may even appear frantic) and then moments later his handler presents with the shift-from-normal event.  It’s not uncommon for the people in that situation to fail to make the connection that the dog was alerting to the impending episode.

Clearly, having a dog alert to a shift-from-normal, even if it isn’t with the trained behavior, would likely be considered a win.  But, since the dog wasn’t “trained” to spin to alert to an imminent panic attack, does the dog meet the ADA’s requirement that tasks must be trained?  That is a topic for another day.

The take home message to this post is that training a Service Dog to perform a physical task is not the only way to produce a dog that will help mitigate his handler’s disability.  Even if we don’t fully understand how dogs can sense a looming event, there is plenty of evidence that dogs can and do respond and alert to what I refer to as shift-from-normal episodes.  We humans are able to sense energy shifts in other humans (small children know when a parent is “off” even if they don’t know why and the parents tries to hind their feelings from the child.  As adults, we usually are taking too much to listen to energy shifts! Dogs are very good at it. That they are willing to share it with us is an amazing gift.

Yes, It Works

We got our start training Service Dogs not by hanging a shingle and proclaiming that we were Service Dog Trainers, rather by request.   We were professional dog trainers with many years of experience, but we had never trained a Service Dog when a local woman contacted us.  She stated that she had found nothing but dead ends in her attempt to find an organization or trainer to assist her.  

“Can you train a Service Dog for me? Pam asked.

“I don’t know.  What do you want the dog to do?” I replied.

I felt confident that we could train a dog to perform the behaviors Pam needed.  Additionally, we would be able to provide the high standard obedience training that she hardly mentioned, but which I knew would be essential for a Service Dog.

When Pam arrived for our initial consultation, I perceived her as gray.  She seemed lifeless as she sat next to her 72 year old father who, I’m certain, didn’t think he would be spending his retirement years driving his 50-something daughter around because she was unable to negotiate the world outside of her well bunkered down home without him.  He didn’t seem convinced that a dog was going to change that condition.  After our conversation, I didn’t know if Pam’s life would change, but I did know that we could train a dog to her needs.  Only time would tell if it would “work.”

That was our start training Service Dogs.   Still, even as we saw Pam’s independence, self-confidence and tranquility grow; we did not hang the Service Dog shingle.  However, based on her reports, Paden had changed her life beyond her wildest dreams.   After several months Pam called to ask if I had any paperwork she could distribute about our training services. 

“Who wants to know?” I asked.

“I have begun working with the local Army Reserves.  They host Yellow Ribbon events for the troupes returning from Iraq.  Many of those soldiers may experience PTSD, even if they don’t feel that way, now.  I share with them my experience with Paden so that if they, or a buddy, feels they could benefit from a Service dog, they have at least heard about it.”

Pam was a highly educated person.  She was a Registered Nurse, but could no longer practice due to her disability.  She had a Master’s degree in Divinity and was enrolled in graduate classes to become a licensed counselor.   She had hooked up with the Army Chaplain who oversaw the counselor duties of the Yellow Ribbon events.  He had invited her to speak with the reservists about her experience.

Rather than just printing information about our professional dog training services – which at the time didn’t include Service Dog work – I asked Pam if we could attend one of the Yellow Ribbon events. 

As we drove to the community college where the next event was being held, I called Pam to let her know we were going to be a few minutes late.  When we arrived, we struggled to find a parking place, so I made a second call.  Pam didn’t answer, so  Robert said he’d go into the building and have a look around.

“There’s no way Pam’s in that building,” Robert said when he returned.

“She’s in there, I spoke with her on the phone!”

“There’s no way.  That building is jam packed with a few hundred, young, buff men,” Robert responded.

I knew exactly what he meant.  Pam suffered from extreme PTSD due to sexual assault.  When we first went in a public restaurant to practice with her dog, I suggested the table we should request.  It was tucked in a corner where her Doberman Pincher would have plenty of room but be well out of the way of any foot traffic.

“I can’t sit there, that table is way too close,” She informed me as she discretely pointed towards the table next to the one I recommended.

There, a kind looking man with graying hair was having a meal with who I assumed was his wife.  They were cordially chatting as they ate their meal.  I didn’t see “MONSTER!” But, I could tell that no amount of coaxing would help Pam sit that close to a “strange man.” 

Based on our understanding of Pam’s condition, I understood why Robert thought Pam couldn’t possibly be inside that building.  But, after another call and confirmation of the door we should enter, I found Pam encircled by six or seven military trained guys.  She was smiling and actively engaged in conversation with the men who seemed drawn to her handsome Dobe and the words she was speaking.  Pam was no longer gray.  She was pink. 

With Paden at her side, Pam continued to improve.  She was driving independently, and even traveled 350 miles south to attend court where she would be in the same room as the individual who had assaulted her.  She proudly reported to me that she drove alone and stayed in a motel by herself, with Paden at her side. 

As a biologist who worked in Corporate America for 20 years, having scientifically designed data to support results is important to me.  But, sometimes merely seeing is believing.  Since training Paden for Pam back in 2003 we have worked with dozens of clients, most of whom present with a psychiatric disability.  I now know that partnering with a highly trained Service Dog and receiving ample instruction on how to maintain the dog at the standards necessary for continued support, an individual with a psychiatric disability can not only gain independence, but in many cases the severity of their condition is so significantly reduced that when their dog is ready to retire, they no longer require a Service Dog to live a fulfilled, independent life.

So, yes, in my near 20 years of experience, I can truthfully say “it works.”

In Memory of Pam Vollmer & Service Dog Paden

We miss you.

All That Glitters

The 2021/2022 winter season for birds was a bit sketchy. First, the Avian Flu was cause for officials to suggest removing wild bird feeders. Finches, like the American Goldfinch also presented with avian conjunctivitis, a highly transmissible eye disease and doubled the recommendation to remove or frequently clean outdoor feeders.

I’m not sure if the reason that I saw very few Goldfinches during the summer was related to population decline due to those events. However, it was very obvious to me that the Goldfinches that I typically saw all summer long, were missing.

We do not typically feed wild birds in the summer. Wait. Let me rephrase that. We offer the wild birds nearly fifty acres of natural forage, prominently through native grass and wild flower growth. We don’t provide store-bought seed. In the autumn I sometimes try to contemplate how many pounds of wild bird seed is naturally produced here, as we encourage growth in hedgerows and manage the growth of prairie grasses through scheduled cutting. But, we allow it all to be harvested one seed at a time by the birds that reside and visit here. So, I suppose I will never know.

As winter approaches, even though the wild plants continue to have seed availalbe, I enjoy adding the more conventional options like black oil sunflower, safflower and nijer seeds. I also like to provide fruit and nuts (mostly peanuts) as well as suet. I’m very happy to have at least five species of woodpeckers here, and they all enjoy the extra energy that the suet offers.

A few days ago, I began putting sunflower seeds at the platform feeder that is located at the north end of the pond meadow. Yesterday, for the first time that I observed, a small flock of Goldfinches arrived to take advantage of the food.

Here are some photos of these beautiful birds. A couple of them have grape jelly on their beaks. I didn’t know this species liked eating fruit. I’m happy that I had it available for them.

Here are a couple other photos that I put into the “rustic” category. The sun was low in the sky. I like when it’s obvious that the bird is living on our farm-gone-wild.

Camo Sparrow

I was just about to head home after hanging out around a seed feeder we fill during the winter season. I was also running the Merlin Bird ID app which listens and then reports if it hears a bird and what species best matches the song. The other day, and again earlier today Merlin told me that there was a Fox Sparrow in the area. This is referred to as a “common but retiring bird.” That means they are hard to spot. The only times I’ve seen them was during the February Polar Vortex episodes in 2021 and 2022. It got so cold, even the most reclusive species came up to the house where we offered food and liquid water. Otherwise, I have not spotted them out-and-about. Fox Sparrows spend the non-breeding (winter) season in my area.

I was excited when Merlin popped up with a Fox Sparrow ID, so I look around to see if I could spot it. I saw a small sparrow bird about 40 feet away in the branches of a shrub that has not yet lost its golden-brown leaves. I snapped a few shots, then had to wait to see if it was, indeed a Fox sparrow.

Well, I’m pretty sure the bird was a Song Sparrow. That’s a species that is a year-round resident here. But, not one that I see at the feeder very often. Fox or Song, they look fairly similar and this bird was so perfectly camouflaged that I actually couldn’t figure out what I was looking for in the original photo.