Swimming, Retrieving, Loving Life!

According to  Ambrose Bierce “the most affectionate creature in the world is a wet dog. ” Jade, my Portuguese Water dog, has such a deep seated love for water that it seems like she can’t imagine  anyone not loving water as much as she does. What that means is when she is wet she thinks you want to be wet too!

Jade shaking off

Jade and I had an agreement that the next sunny weekend she would get to go to her favorite swimming hole. The pond belongs to a friend of ours and is well hidden. However, a hidden pond doesn’t slow down a determined water dog. The first time we visited my friend’s home I wasn’t sure if Jade would notice the pond because it is so well hidden from view.  I knew better than to worry, but you know…

The most accessible entry point to the hidden pond.

To put the picture in perspective, the grasses are about six feet tall. If you are thinking that this looks too messy for a dog to go swimming you haven’t met Portuguese Water Dogs. This breed lives for the water! They seek out puddles on walks. They create their own ponds in the backyard. The list goes on and on for ways they create water holes. To give you an idea Jade and Charlie can go out together Charlie – a low rider – can come home dry and clean,  Jade comes home muddy, wet, and stinky. I don’t even want to know where she found the wet mess.


I’ve learned that it would take a whole lot more than tall grasses, tress and some mud to stop a determined Portie from getting to the water so she could have a daily swim! The first time we visited my friend Jade carried her dummy from the car into the water, swam out to the middle of the pond and back as if to say “Mom, this is what we are supposed to do – are YOU ready?” In other words Jade considers these obstacles part of the fun. Now when she knows that is where we are going she carries her dummy from the house to the car and doesn’t let go until her first swim is done!


Do you see Jade? She is bringing her dummy to shore! It’s easy to find Charlie; Jade is a few feet back from Charlie’s tail!!

As Jade comes out of this very tricky area I am pleased that she has a solid hold on her dummy. Otherwise we could be going through a lot of dummies! However, Jade LOVES her dummy and there is no way she is giving it up. If by chance she did drop it she would pick it right back up. If it went under water guess what? She would dive for it!

You can see just how challenging this area of the pond is for humans. Unless I am concerned for my dog’s safety there is no way I’m getting in that water! Yuck.  I love to swim, but I like sand and beaches – yeah, I’m a bit of a sissy and like to be pampered at times. Jade, on the other hand, is not a sissy! She is in doggie heaven when she gets to go swimming in this pond!

Jade, not quite ready to deliver to hand

Jade has been trained to come to a “front” when delivering the dummy to hand. In the above photo she knows she should be right in front of me but she isn’t ready to hand over the dummy. She also knows that we are just playing and not in training mode. Since she is in play mode she takes a sideways glance at me to see if she can get away with running off with her dummy or if she should hand it over. She decides to hand it over and moves to the front position. When Jade presents me with her dummy I take it and toss it into the pond. The game begins again!

I don’t consider the obstacles part of the fun! In fact I bring extra dummies in case I get one stuck in the tree! I am happy if I can clear the grasses and hit the deep waters when I throw Jade’s dummy. Jade doesn’t care where the dummy lands because she loves searching for it! If, by chance the dummy is in the tree Jade will bark at it to let me know where to find it. Mostly the process looks like this:

  • Handler tosses dummy
  • Send dog
  • Dog swims out
  • Dog brings dummy back to shore
  • Dog presents dummy to the handler’s hand
  • Start over



Sometimes Jade is very creative in the way she comes to shore. In true PWD tradition she likes to find alternate routes. This particular path is an interesting one because  there is no way I could fit through there! She loves find these paths though… see if you can find her in the tall grasses below!

Jade bursts out in a flash – watch for the yellow of her harness! Notice she doesn’t let go of her dummy!!

It is hard to find Jade in this picture but she is there… holding on to her dummy!

Living with dogs I’ve come to learn that it is all about “expecting the unexpected.” A lesson my father tried to teach me from the time I was a little girl. I remember always wondering how I could expect the unexpected. I still wonder at that. I think Jade (and other dogs I’ve had) have been trying to help me learn how to do that.

Jade is trying to decide which way to go. She makes a big loop around the field before delivering the dummy to hand.

Jade loves to play and run and have fun!

She is great at making up her very own games and entertaining herself given the opportunity.   At the end of our time at the pond Jade knows that she gets to have some extra time to just run. Of course running wouldn’t be as much fun without her dummy so I toss her dummy out a bunch for her which does two things. First it keeps Jade happy because she is still retrieving and second I can direct the direction of Jade’s path.


A few words of warning: the game of retrieve is a self-rewarding game. When you combine swimming and retrieving Jade is in a state of bliss! What this means for a handler is that you need to know when to end the game before she gets too tired. There are some breeds – like Portuguese Water Dogs – that will work until they drop – literally. If this is your dog you need to know how to tell your dog that the game is over. Back to Jade’s fun!

Jade is one very wet and happy dog when she comes out of the pond! You can tell, that is one happy face! That is what our time at the pond is all about – play, fun, and building a stronger relationship. While we are at it Jade is getting some great exercise and building her skills for water work too.

Jade running in the field with her dummy

You can see just how muddy Jade got in the pond! You can also see how Jade seems to be strutting around with her dummy. There is joy, bliss, and happiness exuded here.

Jade running in the field with her dummy

Who could ask for more than this?

Jade running in the field with her dummy

Jade says, maybe two dummies, but that might be a bit greedy!

Jade running in the field with her dummy

I hope you enjoyed the swim through muddy waters and Jade’s run through the field.  She says if you are ever in the area she will be happy to play a game of retrieve with you. And, if you are near a pond (or other body of water) she will happily get you all wet!

Insight: How do dogs learn?

How do you know what a dog experiences when you ask her to do a new task? She doesn’t come to us understanding our language, expectations or social norms. So I’ll ask again – how do we understand what it is like for a dog when we teach her a new skill? Maybe we are teaching a relatively simple skill like sit, or maybe it is something more complex like retrieve, or a dance routine, or how to do some fancy maneuvers on an agility course. No matter what we teach our expectations are the same. We want our dogs to listen, understand, learn and execute the new skill. And, we want them to do this even if we are poor communicators/teachers!

A note about the photos – they tell the story of how a dog learns to retrieve and bring a dummy to hand. The photos are not specifically related to the post because I am not allowed to bring a camera into the prison where this story took place. The person in the photos is a friend and the specific skill we were working on was for Jade to retrieve and deliver to hand to a person other than me.

Jade returning item to hand
Since we aren’t able to photograph in the prison here are some other fun photos. Jade returning item to hand

I work with a group of inmates who want to be dog trainers. These guys are good sports! They are always happy to try whatever new task or game I bring their way.  During one of my visits I thought the guys were going to tell me I had another one of those “crazy ideas” they think I make up just for them. However once we started working they realized what an insightful gift I was giving them.

We played a version of”fruits and veggies” that I adapted from Suzanne Clothier’s book Bones Would Rain from the Sky: Deepening Our Relationship with Dogs  The guys enjoyed the game because it provided insight into what it is like for dogs when we teach a new skill. In other words, it taught the inmates empathy. Most important of all, we had fun when we played the game!

Good job! Delivering dummy to hand
Good job! Delivering dummy to hand

The rules of the game are simple, the  “trainer” can only use words that are fruits or vegetables when speaking to his “dog.” Since these words are used out of context the words have no meaning until the “trainer” has assigns meaning to them. It is really important for the trainer to be sure that the “dog” understands what each word means. Sounds easy.  Well, don’t be fooled, this exercise is much harder than it sounds.

Here are the steps for each “trainer”:

  • Select a cue from a food bowl to train the “dog”
  • Select a fruit/veggie word for the cue.
  • Select a fruit/veggie word  for a negative marker
  • Select a fruit/veggie word for a positive reinforcer.

To help you understand how the game works, “Cherry” might be the cue, “plum” could be yes, and “apple” could be “ut-oh.” The inmates learned that it was critical to be consistent and use the same word each time for the same cue/marker/reinforcer/etc.!

Are you ready? Do you want to get your dummy?

Since we were in a prison setting the inmates didn’t have “treats” to give the “dogs” as a positive reinforcer so they had to be creative! It was great to see the different ways the guys came up to reward their “dogs.” It was a good reminder for the “trainers” because in life we aren’t always able to reinforce our dogs with food.

A few more  rules:

  • The trainer can not hit, jerk, or use other harsh corrections;
  • The dog CAN growl, bark, and offer other behaviors that we often associate with dogs that are bored or frustrated;
  • Dogs were encouraged to offer behaviors;
  • The dog CAN NOT BITE;
  • The dogs were off leash.

There were two members in each team. Each person would have a chance to play the role of “trainer” and  “dog.”

Self Control is important... not so easy, but important
Self Control is important… not so easy, but important

After the teams were established and cues were selected the “dogs” left the room so the “trainers” could develop a training plan. The trainers had to find creative ways to teach their “cues” using the fruits or vegetables words and no hand signals, luring, or mirroring of behaviors. The challenge was on!!

All about teamwork

Best Friends love to play together!
Best Friends love to play together!

The inmates decided that each team would work and the other teams would observe.  They wanted to have an opportunity to be an “audience” of the other teams so everyone would benefit from each team’s experience.  It turned out to be very valuable for the guys to observe and learn from each team’s challenges and successes. Everyone participated in developing the training plans especially as we got farther along and learned more about what did and did not work well. It was really neat to see the inmates learn from this game.When the “dogs” entered the room they were reminded that they were “off leash” and that they could behave as an off leash dog would… if they got bored they could wander off, they could misbehave, bark, growl, but they could NOT bite! They should offer behaviors….and have fun!

At the end of the day I know what I need to do... bring the dummy to you!!
At the end of the day I know what I need to do… bring the dummy to you!!

Lessons learned

  • The “dogs” had trouble distinguishing between the “yes” marker and the “cue” word
  • “Dogs” that offered behaviors were MUCH easier to train;
  • Laughter is important! We all laughed when one of the “dogs” jumped into the arms of his “trainer” and would not let go! (this wouldn’t be true in real life, but it was funny because it seemed like such a doggie thing to do. Besides, who would have thought that an inmate would dare to jump up and hold onto another inmate like that? It never crossed my mind!
  • They discovered that it was really hard not to cheat! We don’t realize just how much we (humans) offer behaviors for mirroring, or we glance with a nod. When you play this game you realize how easy it is to lure, and use hand signals! (we were tough – the teams got called on those infractions)
  • The “dogs” were surprised to find that they followed body language more than the words for instruction;
  • In addition to body language tone of voice was very important to knowing whether or not the dog was on the right path;
  • The teams discovered that humans tend to talk too much when giving instructions to the dogs!
  • What was the resounding response to this game? It was fun and everyone said they had a better understanding of what dogs experience while they are being trained.

Going through this exercise really helped put the onus back on us – the human part of the team – for being responsible about communicating what we want our dogs to do.

Everyone learned when they were the dog that the dog relies heavily on human body language.

Everyone realized they talked too much to their dogs when giving instructions. It was much easier for the dogs to learn if the human kept it simple! That way the dog could understand what it was that we wanted her to do!

On a separate note… As I rebuild my blog I am writing new posts and updating old ones.  This is an updated version of a previously published post.  I am publishing it now by special request.  If you have any requests for past posts please let me know.


Clothier, S Bones Would Rain from the Sky: Deepening Our Relationship with Dogs   2009

Dog Expressions: a walk through the park

There is some interesting new research that discusses learning theory and the way our dogs look at us.  One of the dogs that I share my life with is Jade and she “wears her heart on her sleeve” as we humans like to say.  I know that Jade learns very quickly.  Is she a quick learner because she has such expressive and attentive eyes?  I don’t know. Charlie doesn’t have any eyes at all and he learns pretty quickly too!

I thought you might enjoy shadowing us on a walk though the the local public gardens. As we go on this walk you will be able to see the beauty of the gardens as well as some of Jade’s expressions. It was a rare opportunity for me to capture so many photos in one day!

The first stop on our walk was at the fountain. This fountain is magnificent. It has several levels of water falls for maximum effect of splash.  Ducks and kids love this fountain!

Jade was distracted by a tractor that was leveling the path
Jade was distracted by a tractor that was leveling the path

While we were at the fountain a tractor distracted Jade.  It was big and loud and didn’t belong in “Jade’s Garden!” She didn’t trust the big blue machine that was moving dirt around so she was keeping a very close eye on the loud tractor!

Jade couldn’t keep her eyes off of the tractor

Even at the base of the fountain Jade couldn’t let go of the thought that the tractor didn’t belong in her gardens! She was definitely watching where the tractor went!

We continued our walk down the main path. We had some fun walking on stone walls as well at the path itself. Jade liked jumping on and off of the walls.  Jade even had fun posing up on some high places. Or did she?

Jade perched up on a high wall

Our next stop was the terraced gardens. This area is the most famous part of the garden as it can be breathtakingly beautiful.  This area is usually very crowded so it was a treat to be able to have it mostly to ourselves during our walk.

Jade had just visited with some folks

Even though Jade is officially retired as a therapy dog she often “works” when we go on walks. These encounters are not the same intensity as when Jade would go on visits in the hospital, but the visits are important to the people Jade meets.  Sometimes Jade helps a child who is sad,  or college students who are anxious about exams or maybe they are just missing their own dogs.  During this particular walk Jade  visited with a woman who had been wanting a dog for “oh so long” and was really happy to meet Jade – “a presidential dog, you know!” She explained all about Portuguese Water Dogs to her walking companion. These short and relatively stress free visits are the kind Jade likes to have!

People Watching

Jade loves to people watch!!   I think her head can rotate all around her body!! Usually her body is soft when she is people watching. She is just being curious and knows she isn’t supposed to be in their space so she stays put and rotates her head… it is fun to watch Jade people watch!

Enough already with this spot!

I think Jade  gets bored or maybe she just doesn’t like some of the places that I pick for taking pictures.  Sometimes she picks her own spots for photos – that is always fun! When we go on a walk it is best to be prepared with the camera!

Looking at you
Looking at you

I think these this photo and the next one are my favorite ones of the photos taken during our walk. Why?  Jade is relaxed, not tense, she invites interactions, and she is attentive.  I also love the splash of color behind her.  There are several more photos that show more of Jade’s expressions. I hope you enjoy them as much as I do!

hello friend

I melt every time I look at this photo!

Ut-oh… Jade is taking someone to task here

I’m not sure if Jade is saying “you didn’t do something right” or if she is saying “explain that again because I’m confused.” Either way this looks lets me know that something isn’t quite right and I need to watch out when I see this look. There are times when I think she is considering lecturing me after I see this look!  Bottom line, with Jade this look is a critical look….

Always plenty to say

It’s fun (but not at 2:00 am) when you have a dog that likes to let you know what they are a thinking dog and have a lot to say.  Jade definitely has a lot to say!

I want to smell that flower….

Ever want to give a voice to your dog? In this instance I can imagine Jade saying something like “I know you want me to sit still, but I really want to smell the flowers… oh so hard to sit still… I’m trying really hard. Maybe if I turn my head this way she won’t notice… She has such high expectations of me… what is a girl supposed to do??”

I’m thinking about it…

Fuzzy picture because Jade was moving, but the lip curl was worth showing even though the photo was fuzzy.  I can hear the voice every time I look at this picture “ah… no more pictures… it’s time to go”  Thankfully Jade doesn’t make this face very often! The next photo … it was a lip lick which means she really was ready to stop!

I need to relax… can we be done with the pictures mom?

At least that is how I took it when I saw she didn’t want to be still and was showing a bunch of stress signs.  So we stopped and walked around a little bit more – but then it started raining and she got her wish – walk through the rain and a ride home!

Here are two fun photos – one of Jade and one of Charlie – because I want the end of this post to have happy dogs not a stressed dog!


These two are definitely ready for more.  They aren’t “smiling” but they are ready for whatever life is going to bring next.  And just wait to see what life brings their way… sometimes good things come in small packages!

Hasegawa, M., Ohtani, N., & Ohta, M. (2014). Dogs’ Body Language Relevant to Learning Achievement Animals, 4 (1), 45-58

You might like http://www.companionanimalpsychology.com/2014/07/the-attentive-look-of-dog-in-training.html