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Monday, July 25, 2011


A couple of weeks ago on the trail, at Harold Parker State Forest Shale, I and our four and two-legged pack met a really nice couple who shared with us that they were “Letterboxing”.   The ongoing joke with the group I hike with is that I talk to everybody, everywhere! So it was no surprise that this random encounter of two groups passing on a side-trail turned into a long conversation about Letterboxing, another idea for an activity to try with our dogs, and a couple of new friends. 

Letterboxing is an intriguing “treasure hunt” where participants follow clues to small hidden plastic containers which contain a rubber ink stamp (generally hand carved) and a log book.  Clue seekers carry and stamp their own log book with the discovered stamp and in turn stamp the cache’s log with their own signature stamp, again this is often hand carved.  According to what I’ve since learned, Letterboxing is an international game originating 150 years ago in England and there are now over 23,000 Letterboxes hidden in the United States.  Apparently Shale and I have been hiking past these hidden Letterboxes since she did her first “hike” at Weir Hill at 3.5 months old.  I was aware of Geocaching, an electronic "treasure hunt" using a hand held GPS or smart phone, but Letterboxing was new information to me. More on Shale’s adventures Geocaching on a future blog.    

Our new friends have searched for and found nearly 800 Letterbox stamps in two years!  Their logbook was filled with beautiful stamped images carefully colored with ink pens.  We soon learned that there a number of websites dedicated to Letterboxing that direct seekers to the hides and have all kinds of information for those just starting out.  Two well-know sites in the Letterbox community are: Atlas Quest: A Letterboxing Community and Letterboxing North America.   Of course there’s an app for this too – check out Clue Tracker on your phone’s app store.  I downloaded it for my iPhone and I like the feature that allows you to search for Letterboxes in your immediate area by using your phone’s GPS.  Letterboxes can be found not just in the woods and parks but in suburban and urban areas too. 

Hand Carved Border Collie Stamp
Shale and I are now new Letterboxers having logged our first find on Saturday at Chebacco Woods. Getting started with Letterboxing is very easy.  Clues to these hidden treasures are posted online and all you need to get started is your own stamp (many start with commercially produced store-bought stamps) a sketch book and an ink pad.  My first inclination was to carve my own stamp after reading instructions online but my artistic capabilities are not the strongest so I decided to compromise and buy a hand-carved stamp online.  Since I would be Letterboxing with Shale (many Letterboxes are dog-friendly and Atlas Quest’s key shows the attributes for the individual boxes) I decided I needed a Border Collie stamp.  My Google search for hand-carved Border Collie stamps led me right to Etsy and Nicole Strasburg’s wonderful online shop. Her Etsy shop hosts a variety of original oils, hand-pulled prints, hand carved stamps and reproductions of original work by the Santa Barbara-based landscape painter. Also check out her blog.  A couple of Nicole’s stamps looked so much like Shale I couldn’t believe it!   Nicole actually carved two of Shale for me from a few photos I provided. 

Our Second Signature Stamp

New stamps, an ink pad, the printed clues, Shale, a friend and her dog set out for Chebacco Woods for our inaugural Letterboxing adventure this past Saturday.  We decided Chebacco Woods would be a great place to start.  The friend I went with and I are both vey familiar with the property, it’s dog-friendly and has lots of water.  As a matter of fact the Box is called, “The Four Ponds”.   With the recent heat-wave encompassing the Northeast we wanted to be sure to select a location with plenty of opportunities for dog paddling as the temperature was expected to be in the high 90’s.  “The Four Ponds” is a series of 4 interconnected stamps each hidden separately that should take about 1.5-2 hours on foot (about 45 - 60 minutes by bike) and would cover a distance of 4-5 miles.  We easily found the first stamp a really nice hand-carved stamp which outlined all four ponds on the property.  The name of the first pond was included on this stamp and the other 3 stamps allow finders to label each of the other ponds with its name.  Stamp 2 posed a big challenge for us new Letterboxes.  We followed the clues, decided we were at the right location, search and searched (while the dogs splashed in the pond) with no luck.  We back-tracked tried another spot and still no luck.  After about 2.5 hours we decided to revisit the clues on another visit to Chebacco Woods. I’m not discouraged.  Our next visit there Shale and I will track down those other stamps!

We’re just starting out but so far I am really enjoying Letterboxing and I’m looking forward to seeking out more Letterboxes with Shale and friends.  Follow Shale's and my finds on Atlas Quest under our trail name: Shale’s Tales. 

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Canine Cognition Lab at Harvard

I was really excited to take Shale to Harvard University’s Canine Cognition Lab,  last week where we volunteered for a study on Canine-Human Empathy and ran through short Canine IQ Battery.

Harvard’s Canine Cognition Lab in Cambridge, MA runs non-invasive engaging and fun behavioral experiments to better understand how dogs handle problem solving, recognize patterns of sound, reflect on what is known and unknown, and work out what we, their humans believe, desire, and intend.  I especially liked that Shale and I would be working together in a fun environment that felt like a ‘game’ for her.  The particular tasks vary by study but typically involve problems where your dog will have the opportunity to make a choice among a set of options, and will receive a food treat for making a particular choice.

The first study we participated in was a section of the Canine IQ Battery tests that members of the lab ran for a previous study and needed a few more additional tasks to be quantified.  Shale loved playing “find the hidden treat game.” The debriefing material I received explained that the Canine IQ Battery examines the cognitive capacities that underlie canine intelligence.  The full study consisted of a series of tasks that tapped into different domains of canine cognitive skills, including inhibition, number discrimination, memory, and problem solving.  The purpose of the study was to determine whether success on certain tasks reliably predicts success on other (i.e. dogs with strong memories might also excel at problem solving).   The Battery also included contrasted tests that required the capacity to understand and use physical versus social cues to find hidden food, which will be of particular interest when comparing domestic dogs to other Canids such as wolves and dingoes. 

The second study was on Canine-Human Empathy.  In this study the Lab is investigating dogs’ understanding of human emotions.  As those with dogs know there is much anecdotal evidence that dogs are able to “tune in” to how people are feeling and respond to their emotional states.  This phenomenon and the mechanisms that make it possible are yet to be scientifically demonstrated.  In this study, I and a member of the lab alternated showing Shale visualization and vocalizations of human emotions to test and gauge her preference of emotions.  When there was no emotional variance Shale came to me 100% of the time but when given a choice to “go to” a person displaying the emotion of sadness for example three-quarters of the time Shale went to ‘comfort’ that individual.  Some dogs I was told as an example, 100% time would seek out person displaying happiness.  It was very interesting to see Shale’s reactions to the range of human emotions.   I understand the findings of this research may have implications for the use of dogs as therapy animals as well as improving medical diagnostic techniques. 

A past study of theirs on dog-human communicative actions was published in the journal, Behavioural Processes recently (Behavioural Processes 86(2011)7-20). 

We had a fun visit and Shale received a Canine Cognition Lab at Harvard leash and a certificate showing she had completed her Freshman Year at Harvard.  We can’t wait to participate again and eventually “graduate” and go on to Shale’s Masters of Dogology! 

If you would like more information or to register your dog to participate visit the Canine Cognition Lab at Harvard's website.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Camp Unleashed

Since she was 8 weeks old I’ve been toying with the thought of starting a blog, Shale’s Tales about my Border Collie.  Now a few weeks shy of her second birthday I’m actually following through. 

For my inaugural blog entry I’ve decided to write about Camp Unleashed.  Check out Camp Unleashed at:  Shale and I attended Camp Unleashed in June 2010 in the Berkshires of Massachusetts and I can’t wait to go back this September.   Camp Unleashed also holds camps in Ashville, NC and Sequoia, CA.

I’d been hearing about dog “camps” for a number of years – they’ve bee
n increasingly getting a lot of press and attention with their number and popularity rising exponentially. For example in greater New England I can easily think of half a dozen different camps for dogs and their people to get away “ruff” it and participate in all kinds of training and canine sports.

Last summer a friend with 4 dogs, yes that’s not a typo – 4 dogs - recommended Camp Unleashed for me and Shale and I decided to check-it-out.  Admittedly I was skeptical - what’s the big draw I thought?  Why is she raving about this place?  Could it be as much fun as she was claiming?   Did the camp experience really make the drastic impact on her pack that she was claiming?  The opportunity to take agility lessons, nose works and other canine activities – that seemed like things we were already doing.  As for being off-leash and hiking in nature – that’s our regular weekends all year round I thought.  But when plans to take Shale camping with some friends fell through, I signed us up for Camp Unleashed and off I went with Shale in tow hoping for nothing more than a few relaxing, activity filled days in the scenic Berkshires.   I’m very pleased to report Camp Unleashed was far better than I had anticipated and Shale and I left as happy campers – hooked on the concept and ready to go back.  A work commitment kept me from going to the June session in the Berkshires this year. 

Let me tell you about our Camp Unleashed experience last year and what I am hoping to get out of this year’s camp in September.  I imagine that Shale would say Camp Unleashed was a dog’s dream vacation where she could “Eat, Sniff, Play” to her heart’s content.  My three words would be “Eat, Friends, Play”.  I venture to say “sniff” translated from Doggish to English means find friends!  Camp Unleashed Berkshires is held at the YMCA’s Camp Beckett in Beckett, MA, a delightful property encompassing 1400 beautiful lakeside acres in the Berkshires of western Massachusetts.   I choose for me and Shale to “ruff” it in one of the private cabins (no electricity) though they do have a dormitory style option with all the comforts.  The food was really great and the days were filled with all kinds of activities. One of the nice things about Camp Unleashed is you can choose to be as busy or as relaxed as you want to be.  All of the people I met from other campers, to Camp Unleashed Staff were really terrific.  Everyone was really friendly, nice and we all had the common denominator of loving our dogs.  I meet a ton of people (camp is limited to 50 dogs and their people) and it was a great mix of people and really well-behaved dogs.   A full day’s and evening’s schedule of activities is offered but you can choose to participate in as many or as few as you want. Since campers pick and choose their activities, the number of dogs at each activity is kept to a reasonable number and it is amazing how well it works.  The staff is very attentive, well-trained and experienced. The quality of instruction on the activities was very high. I was very impressed with how smooth the operations were and how comfortable I felt with that many dogs on the property.  It was also really cool to have that much space where there were no worries about cars or leash laws!   For many dogs this was the first time they had the opportunity to hike in the woods and to safely run leash free.  It really made me appreciate the wonderful opportunities Shale and I have for recreation in our area. 

As we always are, Shale and I were constantly on the move – at Camp Unleashed - starting our day with Yappy Hour each morning, a vigorous hike, followed by dock diving, disc, agility, canoeing, and much more.  Evenings included the traditional camp fire, movies and a number of speakers on important dog-related topics.  We even took the massage class and met with a pet psychic!   A camp friend took the opposite approach and spent a lot of time relaxing, reading and letting her dogs just be outside.  Others found a happy medium between Shale and mine’s constant “go go go” and our new friend’s laid back approach.   I really liked the flexibility Camp Unleashed offers to pick and choose as many (in our case) or as few (in that of my friend) activities. 

I made some wonderful connections and terrific new friends at Camp. Without doubt the most important part of Camp for me was my meeting my new friends.   Over a year later I regularly get together with a core group of friends from Camp that all live in the greater Boston area and we frequently hike and bike together with our dogs.      

Camp Unleashed was a wonderful experience for Shale and me.  We meet great new friends, got Shale’s CGC title, tried new activities, learned a lot, improved our communications and had a wonderful vacation together.  Shale went to her first camp as rough and tumble adolescent, she’ll go back this year with new found maturity and a higher level of training and more adept skills.  I think Shale will continue to get more and more out of going each year and I intend to make it our annual summer tradition.  I will return this year with a better appreciation of all that the Camp Unleashed experience offers.  

I went from a skeptical first-time camper to raving about Camp Unleashed like my friend did last summer.  This September I’ll be returning to camp and am so excited that I will be sharing the experience with many I already count as friends and I am equally excited to meet new ones as well. 

If you’re looking for a wonderful vacation for you and your canine pal check out Camp Unleashed  Be sure to tell them Shale recommended you go!