When did I forget that I couldn’t cope?

This is a copy of the original article on Medium here.

I saw this cartoon today. It inspired me to write this.

Twenty-one months ago

Within 72 hours of adopting Beanie, I was in tears and contemplated calling it quits. I had hardly slept because Beanie cried overnight. I was following some terrible advice about being his pack leader and letting him “figure things out”. Among other inexplicable actions, this also involved yelling “NO!” at a cowering dog for even looking at my cats. It didn’t feel right.

A frightened velcro sighthound, young cats who teetered around him in a house that they previously lorded, my total inexperience in working with dogs and a full time job? I am not ashamed to admit that I almost gave up.

That first evening: Beanie, meet Cats. Cats, meet Beanie.

Crying, feeling like a failure, afraid for my cats, grounding my old life to a halt and having not slept in three days, I called Alison for help (who now has her own business Carefree Dogs). I’d spoken to her entirely by chance at the doggy daycare that Beanie now goes to, when I was initially looking into the logistics of having a dog. When she agreed to visit me, I asked, “You do charge for helping me, don’t you?” I remember she chuckled on the phone. Yes, she did charge. Dog training was a real thing.

It was only much later that I realised that she had introduced me to force free training. She came home, took Beanie’s Greyhound muzzle off, held his long line just in case, used some treats to keep him focused on her whilst my cats just walked the lounge and left the room. She said, “I think he’ll be fine.” I cannot forget this moment.

That was also the day she taught me the “Look at That” (LAT) game, not the name though, to teach Beanie how to behave around cats (see hereand here). Within three days, he walked into our study with me, coincidentally saw my Oonsipie in the room and bounced his head back at me. That felt amazing. And oh boy, how often have I used LAT since!

Beanie and I clicked instantly (pun intended!). It turns out that we’re both worriers, we like company, we are lazy and we love a good project into which we could sink our teeth.

Many things made Beanie nervous. He was afraid of cutlery falling. He was afraid of moving chairs. He is still afraid of twigs, mops, ball-throwers and anything resembling a stick (if he doesn’t have forewarning). Much to my surprise, I realised he suffered separation anxiety, after listening to the voice recording at home made during his first time alone. You see, when I was looking to adopt, I was told sighthounds cope excellently in full-time working households. They sleep a lot. They are used to being without human company. They are invariably crate-trained. They hardly need any exercise. What else is there to it? All true factoids each but do not necessarily add up. I remember discussing with Alison at one of her training classes many weeks later if he’d still be better off with someone else.

Where are we now?

There isn’t a day that goes by when I don’t wonder how I could be so lucky to live with Beanie. Why did someone give up on him? What goldmine did I blindly fall in to adopt this genius who will do anything as long as he did it with me?

Beanie can tell apart colours, he can copy, he has trick titles, he can count. He can sleep all day, he can climb mountains, he can come back when called, he can match items together, he can show consent. He can be alone, he can walk off leash with my cats in the park. He can take half an hour to sniff 100 yards on a cycle path. He can just be. He isn’t perfect but I know who he is now.

We are two of the same. He reads me. I read him. I am his voice and I do not care how many people that offends. He trusts me becauseI stand up for him. It’s impossible to describe the depth of that bond. When Beanie had to have an operation on his hind leg recently, knowing he was out cold was the loneliest I’ve felt in a long time. Of course there are some important people in my life but none of them are Beanie.

The concepts training, the fear issues, the walks, the holidays, the cafes, the afternoon naps, the blinks back and forth on a lazy day across the lounge, his soft licks when I rub his ears as he sleeps, his old-man groans as he stretches under a blanket, the play bows we give each other before he gets the zoomies, the ‘Eureka!’ moment he has when he nails that trick for the first time (typically followed by mega-leanings and the frightening-to-the-uninitiated idiotic display of teeth). All of that. Now when did that happen? I have no idea.

Oh my. Look how far we’ve come, Beanie.

Beanie posing on a rare snow day.

Dog vision and environmental influences on colour discrimination

This post is a copy of my original article on Medium here.

I absolutely love training concepts with animals. My jaw hit the floor when I first saw Ken Ramirez’s video of Coral combining match to sample and quantity recognition on numerous objects in a double-blind study (see videos hereand here).

I will preface this article with a caveat that it simply reflects my reading, my own experience and my endless curiosity. If you have any view on what I’ve written here, I want to hear from you. This isn’t me pontificating at the world. This is me inviting comment from people who know and think about stuff like this.

What are examples of concepts?

  1. Match to sample (123456)
  2. Imitation (our videos: 12)
  3. Colour (cat: 1), shape, quantity (2) and size (34) discrimination
  4. Quantity recognition/counting (12)

I’ve linked to our videos above.

I want to focus on colour discrimination today. Thisis how I have taught it to Beanie. But we cannot discuss it without first understanding how a dog sees the world. Hereis a great rounded article on the subject. Visual acuity is discussed well hereand here.

Dog Vision — my summary relevant to colour discrimination concepts

1. Dogs are red-green colour-blind. Their colour spectrum goes from blue to yellow. Reds appear green. Darker shades appear grey/green. They can also see the colours black and white.

2. Their vision is blurry. If something is 20 feet away from them, it has the same acuity to them as it does to humans if the object is 75 feet away from us.

3. The world is very bright to them, maybe best described as ‘over-exposed’ in our world. Although dogs see better than us when it’s darker, their visual acuity drops in the dark like ours.

4. Different breeds have different visual skills. (I have a lurcher. He can spot a running squirrel a football field away from us before I can.)

Why this article?

Teaching Beanie the cue “blue” was easy. Within a few sessions, Beanie would target any object that had any blue colour in it given two choices where the other object had no blue colour at all. But I simply couldn’t teach “yellow”! I couldn’t fathom it. I wondered if he simply couldn’t see it at all in my lounge, in that lighting. I started reading about a dog’s visual perception. Turns out that I wasn’t too far off. I would like others who work with their dogs like I do to gain from my learning or tell me I’m wrong.

Technology to simulate dog vision — the Dog Vision HD app

There are now a handful of phone apps out there, most of which I have tried out since, but the one I came to like is called Dog Vision HD. I discovered it from a vlog by Susan Garrett on why colours matter in dog agility. There is also a website https://dog-vision.comwhere you can upload images and view the processed outcome.

The rest of this article is about my findings in using the app to explain why Beanie was struggling with colour discrimination and how the environment I set up for him made a huge difference.

Here are some observations of human vs. dog vision. They are according to the Dog Vision HD app, which incrementally toggles colour blindness, acuity and exposure.

Dog vs. human vision: a few photos

First, the environment. My front garden looks like the top photo to me. Each picture in the bottom adds one feature of dog vision at a time (left to right). The photo on the bottom far right is what the dog supposedly sees. Not quite the same at all.

Human vs. dog vision of the environment

Similarly, below is what he would look like to himself compared to how he looks like to me from a couple of metres away on a beautiful sunny day.

(By the way, I am just as amazed as you are that he sat that still whilst I fiddled with every setting on the Dog Vision HD app to take these four individual photos over many minutes. Never underestimate a sighthound’s ability to just chill.)

Notice how blurry and over-exposed he is in the sunshine. Note how washed out the grass looks. Note how the fence blends into the shrubs, although there is still depth in the image. Note how anything black stands out.

Dog vision of a stationary brindle/white dog outdoors on a sunny day.

Let’s move indoors — far left below is what stares back at me in my full mirror when Beanie and I sit awkwardly on the staircase together for rubs every evening (I hope you have spotted the lean). Far right is Beanie’s equivalent image. There’s only sunlight coming through the window on my right.

Note how dog vision is brighter than ours on the darker stairs and how the white walls and the door blend away behind us. Note how my dark blue jacket just about stands out from the black trousers. My face is hardly discernable at this distance.

Human vs. dog vision indoors in natural light

Then I switched on an LED light that is right above us. See what a difference that lighting has suddenly made to Beanie’s vision in terms of the amount of exposure in the room. Note how my blue jacket is still different to the black trousers.

The effect of indoor lighting on dog vision

My key point here is simply that our visual perception is very different to that of a dog. Compared to us, dogs have gained better night vision and motion detection in return for poorer colour vision, over-exposure and blurriness.

The importance of environment — lighting, contrast, lamination and object size in colour discrimination concept training

Now let’s look specifically at colour discrimination tasks. I recently used three identical pairs of objects in blue and yellow for colour discrimination concept work with Beanie. The items are silicone moulds, square plastic lids and oval bottle lids from my kitchen. It is accepted (see hereand hereas examples) that dogs can tell apart blue from yellow, so the colour choice in itself is not an issue.

I placed the items just like I would to Beanie (on either side of his paws) and lowered the camera to an angle where his eyes are likely to be. The items are clearly visible against the grass in the top photo below to a human. However, note how the yellow items, even the one closest to the camera, wash out in the dog’s eyes against the green grass on a sunny day!

Blue/yellow colour discrimination outdoors on a sunny day in the garden

But I tend to do concepts work indoors. I have beige carpets and I used to place items directly on the carpet. The first pair of photos below showed me the reason why Beanie simply never took to “yellow” like he did to “blue”! I sometimes use a turqoise towel underneath (mostly for convenience to keep food off the carpet!). This is the second pair of photos below. Although it makes yellow appear starker, I was surprised by how similar turqoise appeared to blue. Finally the black towel underneath provides most contrast against all blue and yellow objects — third photo pair below.

Beanie learnt the cue “yellow” as a colour label in one session when I put the black towel underneath. He was not being obtuse (he never is), blue objects were simply far easier to pick and Beanie is the kind of gambler would rather make any choice than no choice at all.

So what now?

I wish more people saw the world from their dog’s eyes. Literally. Especially those who do colour discrimination work with their dogs. I see plenty of videos where dogs supposedly tell apart colours that scientists believe dogs simply cannot differentiate. This undermines the credibility of concept work in general. When you do concept work with your dog, understand the limitations (and strengths!) of their perception beyond the bare bones of whether or not a certain colour is visible to your dog.

Think about the environment you’re in, the colour of your walls, the lighting above your training area, the glare from shiny objects you might choose and the background against which dogs are making their choices during training.

Your dog is never stupid. It is up to you to set them up to be the best they can be.

Caveats — other influences and limitations of simulation technology

Dogs do not live in a world of vision alone. Beanie does not need to see the yellow lid on the floor to tell it apart from the blue lid if the two smell any different at all. Also bear in mind that handler bias has a phenomenal influence on how they perform.

The Dog Vision HD app is technology that makes science accessible to the average dog person and makes it possible for us to look through a dog’s eyes. Having used it out and about on our walks, I am not entirely convinced of its accuracy. Nor does the app description inspire confidence, as it states that dogs have three types of cones when it is currently accepted that they only have two. The app doesn’t take into account variations between breeds. But until another app outperforms it in terms of simulating as many dimensions of dog vision as possible, I will continue to use it as a tool in my kit to understand why my dog might make the choices he does. If anyone has a better recommendation, I would love to hear from you.