Archive for November 2011

Dogs are good for us

November 22, 2011

Animal Care College – caring for people caring for animals


How does anyone live without a dog?  I can’t imagine.   Adam Gopnik  writer and regular contributor to The New Yorker

The New Yorker has long been one of my ‘must read’ magazines.  In fact, on my first visit to Manhattan, the Algonquin Hotel* was at the top of my ‘sights to see and places to go’ list.  For many years between the wars, the Algonquin was a virtual back-office for contributors to Vanity Fair and The New Yorker.  They included Dorothy Parker, Robert Benchley, George S Kaufmann and Robert Sherwood among the many top-flight writers, critics and lyricists of the East Coast of America at that time.  I sat at the famed Round Table around which they all sat for so many hours and later had supper in the Oak Room, the famous and intimate venue for some of the worlds finest singers.  I listened to Susanna McCorkle, one of the most creative, innovative and beautiful jazz singers of the last century and still have the CDs she graciously signed for me.  She was an extraordinarily intelligent woman, a linguist and writer as well as a singer.  She was educated in America and lived in London during the 70s after a spell in Paris but like so many gifted people she suffered from depression and committed suicide in 2004.

I like to think that I can express myself reasonably well but I recognise that there are many with a greater facility and quicker understanding – probably of almost everything!  One of these is Adam Gopnik.  I feel a certain rapport with him for he was bitten by a German Shepherd when he was eight years old which, although the bite was not serious, led to him to avoid dogs as far as possible.  Coincidentally, that had been exactly my experience although my change of heart came when after four years of marriage, Angela insisted that the time had come for us to get a puppy.  It would not have been my choice but you know what wives are!  Adam Gopnick knows what daughters are.  He and his wife, who was on his side for she didn’t think much of dogs either, tried to fob off their 10 year old daughter Olivia with a fish, which died, and with a singing blue parakeet which she named Skyler – to no avail.  They felt, he writes, ‘as the Queen must when meeting a new an unpleasant Prime Minister: it isn’t what you want but it’s your constitutional duty to welcome and pretend’.

Olivia wanted a Havanese and nothing else would do.  He writes, ‘with the diligence of a renegade candidate pushing for a political post, she set about organising a campaign: quietly mustering pro-dog friends as a pressure group, introducing persuasive literature (Marley and Me) and demonstrating her reliability with bird care by looking after Skyler properly’.

Adam tells the story in a recent issue of The New Yorker and I have been thrilled (I use that word advisedly) with his seven page article which has encouraged me to believe that the media and nationally recognised and successful journalists cannot be all bad.  I have seldom read a more enjoyable, positive and understanding piece of writing about dogs.  In the year since Butterscotch was purchased (from a New York pet shop) she has not just taken over their lives but has encouraged Adam to really undertake some in-depth research to try to discover what it is about dogs that makes them so close to people.  And the result is a staggeringly good read which is balanced, thoughtful and sensible.  ‘Why was it’, he asks, ‘that all the creature wanted to do was to please?  ‘Butterscotch wanted to know what she could do to make you happy…   a child starts walking away from you as soon as she begins to walk – on the way out from the very first day… Butterscotch, though, seem to be designed to please people at any cost for she… lived in and for the immediate short-term exchange: extra food for performing tricks, kisses for a walk.’.

In the article, ‘Dog Story’, Adam delves deep into the history and development of the relationship between man and dog and comes up with some extraordinary and interesting conclusions.  He has read very widely and does not take what he is told as gospel but brings a pleasing and refreshing intelligence to the evolutionary stories and speculations with which we, who have been so deeply involved with dogs for many years, are all very familiar but which, perhaps, have so insinuated themselves into our minds that we no longer question them.

As you all probably know, the Origin of the Species by Charles Dawin begins with dogs and the way in which they have developed and changed over the years.  It was fundamental to Darwin’s thesis because the fact that man could change the characteristics of an organism deliberately within a few generations was the springboard which suggested that evolutionary pressures over many years could also make such changes.  But dogs are different.  They are not only different in the enormous range of sizes and shapes that have been developed from the basic ‘wolf’ DNA, there is no really satisfactory explanation as to why they have changed into an animal which is so anxious to please its human master.  The physical evidence from fossils and paintings as yet does not match with the fundamental and immense changes in behaviours that there are between dogs and all other animals nor does it explain their unique closeness to man.  The speculation surrounding the various theories (dogs are scavengers gradually becoming closer to man; mutations which made for small amenable animals; the use of dogs for hunting along with many others) are all unsatisfactory to Adam because he feels that each has a fundamental flaw.  He is reluctant, he says, to put forward his own ideas when he has ‘the full authority of 14 months of dog ownership’ but believes the theorists and scientists have left something out of the equation.  That is that people love pets.  It is not in dogs that we should look for the explanations but in us.

In fact he says that the range of evolutionary ‘just-so’ stories and speculations is itself proof of the way dogs have burrowed into our imaginations.  But we should understand, appreciate and recognise that pet ownership is part of the human condition.  There is a marvellous science-fiction story written back in the 50s of a group of humans marooned on another planet who are rounded up and collected by the aliens, with whom they are unable to talk, and placed in a zoo where they are studied by their scientists.  There they remained until one of their number find a small animal in their cage which responds to his petting and for whom he builds a small bedding area.  Almost as soon as the scientists studying them realised what was happening they were removed from the zoo and placed in more suitable accommodation while the scientists began a serious attempt to communicate with them.  Only intelligent beings have pets.

Adam’s view is that this innate caring element of our humanity is what was important in the development of the dog.  As man developed, his instinct would have been to have pet companions just because they were ‘cute’ and even though, in the first instance, once the animals had matured they could not be kept within the domestic situation, eventually one species did have the qualities which retained their amenability into maturity.  Dogs, he says, took an evolutionary bet that they would be better off and more comfortable as a human companion being fed and looked after rather than stay in a life which was harsh, short and brutal and out in the wild world, red in tooth and claw.  He writes. ‘Where we are creatures of past and future, she lives in the minute’s joy: a little wolf racing and snorting and scaring; a small ingratiating spirit, doing anything to please.  At times, I think that I can see her turn her head and look back at the ghost of the Wolf mother she parted from long ago, saying, “see, it was good a good bet:  they are nice to me, mostly” … ‘How does anyone live without the dog?  I can’t imagine.’

*Coincidentally, I went to a concert last night featuring Sir Richard Rodney Bennett and Claire Martin.   Claire told the story about when she first performed at the Algonquin.  She had just finished her first song and the door to the supper room opened and man came in late.  She was about to give him a glare and make a sarcastic remark when she realised it was Tony Bennett!  That is the sort of place it is.  Now leaving to judge the Pastoral Group at SWKA – it’s a wonderful life.

Can we ever be unbiased

November 22, 2011

Animal Care College – caring for people caring for animals


O would some Power the gift to give us
To see ourselves as others see us!
It would from many a blunder free us
Robert Burns

Regular readers of my musings will know that I often referred to the psychological pressures to which a judge is subject when they go into the ring and I will return to this later but first I want to discuss the immediate difficulties faced by any judge at the beginning of their career.
I have used all sorts of metaphors to indicate that what looks straightforward and easy from the ringside is in fact more difficult and complex when you are on your own in the centre of the ring.  When you are giving Challenge Certificates for the first time in your own or a new breed you are faced with a whole new series of decisions which you never have to consider when you were looking in from the outside.  It is easy to be dismissive of a dog you consider to be lame and you can say so without any problem at a distance from the ring side but if you are assessing it as the judge are you confident that it is actually favouring one leg?  Might it be the markings on the dog or the uneven ground?  You have to be sure.
I have used the analogy of singing along with a song that you know well in the car or in the shower and it remains a valid comparison.  You know that you are in tune and it sounds terrific – but if you are on the stage in front of an audience and you have a live accompaniment, it is not like karaoke where the tune is part of the track and the words appear on screen at the right time.    If you listen to backing tracks they are sometimes quite unrecognisable because the ‘tune’ is not present – it is the singer that has total responsibility for the melody and has to hold it.  This is much more difficult than you might think because none of the usual cues are present.
So you, the judge, are in the ring, alone and you are concentrating on trying to do the workmanlike and quality job that you have always promised you would and at this level there is almost always a larger entry than you have had in the past.  A class of 15 or 20 requires much more concentration and although there are many experienced judges who can hold that information in their minds from the beginning of the class to the end, for most people, particularly at the beginning of their career, this is extraordinarily difficult.  Which one was it that had the level bite?  Which one had eyes that were too round?  Which one had the shallow chest?
When I have large classes I write notes as I go along but I’m always amazed how many novice judges believe they have the ability to remember everything.  They may have a marvellous memory but, given the hesitation that we so often see, I suspect the vast majority do not and this is why they must go backwards and forwards, moving the dogs again and again, while they try and make up their minds.
What happens, at its simplest, is that they play safe and put up the people or the dogs that they recognise.  And it is at this point that psychological pressures come into play.
As I have often gone into the details of this pressure in the past I do not want to repeat myself but I am delighted that other senior judges and columnists have, albeit belatedly, recognised the importance of judges understanding these issues.  I certainly made these points when we were discussing judges training back in 2000 but the concept was never embedded into the program.  This was partly because some did not believe that it was particularly important but more that the structure itself was so basic that there was little scope for more complex levels of discussion such as understanding value judgements, the mental ‘set’ required to make what are sometimes difficult decisions and the psychological pressures, both conscious and unconscious that affect the process.
I know that some people believe that I overcomplicate the issue but I do assure you that this is not the case.   The reason is that we are often far too self-confident in our own abilities and experience once we have reached a certain level of expertise.  Let me give you some examples.
Despite the fact that our top sportsmen, whatever their fitness, ability or talent and whether they are individuals or teams, all have coaches.  Have you ever asked yourself why this should be especially when although the coaches will be competent and knowledgeable they have almost never reached the pinnacle of excellence achieved by those who they coach?  The reason is that the coach can provide an external, independent analysis which the individual or team is incapable of appreciating for themselves.  Coaches do a great deal more than providing moral support and encouragement.  A very famous athlete almost at the top of his career was taken by his coach to Loughborough University which specialises in sports, and was given the opportunity of watching himself running on a treadmill.  The coach was able to point out that he was wasting energy in the way he was moving his elbows.  Clearly the most efficient movement is simply backwards and forwards along a straight line but this athlete had got into the habit of bringing his elbows back in a curve.  It took quite a lot of time and effort practising the correct movement but the result was that he was able to shave several seconds of his time in the 200 metres.
Almost all of the top musicians and singers have a teacher whatever their standard and status.  A friend of mine, an educational philosopher and one of the countries leading drummers, surprised me earlier this year by referring to his ‘teacher’:  despite his age, he is a couple of years older than me, he still has a regular three quarters of an hour ‘lesson’ every month.
One of the world’s greatest violinists, Itzhak Perlman, relied on his wife, also a concert level violinist.  In a recent interview he explains that when you are playing, it is very difficult to hear yourself and he relies on her to tell him if a passage is too fast, too slow or too ‘mechanical’.   Perlman says his wife is very tough and he appreciates that, because without that level of criticism his playing would not be as good as it is.  All the world’s great opera singers have professional coaches and they refer to them as their ‘outside ears’.
As I know from my own experience, listening to the recordings you have made makes a great deal of difference but it often needs somebody else to point out precisely where you are going wrong.  One of my favourite songs is ‘Just One of Those Things’ and I have sung it often but have never felt that I had got it exactly right to my own satisfaction.  At my annual Jazz Summer School I took the problem to that wonderful jazz singer Liane Carroll (the only jazz musician ever to win two BBC Jazz Awards in one year) and asked her to see if she could spot what was wrong.  She played the piano and I sang it through once and she pointed to the music and said ‘here’ and ‘here’.  After the verse, which is sung freely, the song goes into strict time and she pointed out that I was making a mistake, not in the speed or the rhythm but in the way I was delivering that information to her.  Later in the chorus, between one of the stanzas, I was getting the interval wrong – and if you don’t hit the right note at that point it takes to several bars to get back to the tune proper.  That evening we performed it at the Jazz Cafe concert and it worked just fine.
Now, I am not a particularly good singer but that example points out how small things make a significant difference.
In the States, coaches are beginning to be used for teachers who, by and large because we are egotistical lot, resent any interference in the classroom but now successful surgeons who have been operating at a very high level for many years are beginning to realise that they can improve their performance by coaching.
Atul Gawande felt that his technique had reached a plateau and called in his old Registrar who trained him during his residency.  Now retired, Robert Osteen was reluctant at first but said he was prepared to try and attended one of Gawande’s operations.  He was reluctant to make any criticism but he had made copious notes and under pressure, suggested that there were half a dozen small things which would improve the flow during the operation.  One of the most important, despite being deceptively simple, was the positioning of the drape over the patient which dictated not just the surgeons position but the position of his assistants which then had a knock-on effect on Gawande’s freedom of movement and his ability to manipulate his instruments.
Osteen has continued to coach his former pupil and as a result Gawande, who already had an excellent record, showed improved performance in the efficiency of his operations and the rate of recovery of his patients.
During my judging apprenticeship I was very fortunate in having a number of people who watched and advised me and I have always been greatly appreciative of the time that they took to discuss every aspect of judging.  Our current method of assessing judges in the UK is an anonymous report sent to Clarges Street on the occasion of anyone’s first CC appointment.  Can this be enough or should that person become, for a series of appointments, a mentor and coach?
If we are really going to crack the thorny question of transparency and confidence in judging this may be one of the techniques we should develop.