Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Reflections on Changing Attitudes

When I first got Rubi and people would ask how we were doing, my standard response was, "Well, this is the part that sucks." There's nothing good about being at the other end of the leash from a scream, upset, out-of-control monster.

Rubi and I have come a long way in the last sixteen weeks. For those of you who don't follow her facebook page, Rubi achieved her first CGC-style greeting with a strange dog in class two weeks ago. That doesn't mean that I'm ready to put money on her doing it again quite yet, there's still a lot of work ahead, but now we have a solid foundation of calm behavior to build upon. I'm terribly glad I made the decision to run Rubi through Changing Attitudes a second time. She's learned to relax, and this has made a huge impact on her ability to greet other dogs. There's a fine line between arousal and aggression. A dog who's highly aroused the way B was in the beginning will often start a fight out of frustration or anxiety or whatever it is that runs through their little doggie brain when they're doin' the banshee act. As B's ability to relax and control herself around other dogs has increased, so has her ability to greet other dogs and then walk away. This is huge since 99% of the times she meets other dogs will be in passing. It's not perfect, but it's there, and I'm pretty excited about it.

I've also learned much more about my dog in the past few months. Rubi is not Maus; in fact, they're about as different as is possible for two beings. Working with both of them, I've come to have a new respect for the spectrum that reactive dogs cover. Even through their differences, they have a lot in common – after all, they're both still dogs. The root body language is still the same. For example, both lip lick a lot as a calming signal. I noticed in class and in training that when Rubi gets excited, her eyes get really dilated. I had known about this behavior in dogs in general, but I'd never really noticed it in one of mine before. Because I started seeing it in B, I began looking for it in Maus – and sure enough, when he's uncomfortable, his pupils dilate. More over, since I was watching his eyes, I noticed that when someone is staring at him, he gets "whale eye." Whale eye is when a dog's eyelids peel back so far that you can see the whites. It's harder to see in Maus since his eyes are a light color anyway (hey, look! An excuse to show you a picture of Maus's eyes – aren't they gorgeous?).

Around the same time Maus gets whale eye, he has a hard time looking away from the person - his eyes slip to once side, then back to the person, then flicker to the other side – but he never really loses intensity. And then he reacts. It's maybe not an earth-shattering revelation, but you never know when a subtle bit of information will be important. Maus gives a lot of warning before he becomes reactive, so long as I'm paying attention. B goes zero to sixty at the flip of a coin, so reading the subtle stuff is all the more important.

Rubi's at the place in her training that I think is the most fun. It's more challenging for me, certainly. I'm no longer just holding her leash hoping she gives me something I can work with. Now that we have a foundation, we can really invest some energy into those castles in the sky. I can make goals that are bigger than "be better around other dogs." Where do we want to go? How do I juggle sport training with reactivity rehab? What do I think we'll be good at, and how do I get there? Anything is possible really; the world is our oyster.

Welcome to the part that doesn't suck.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Tender Semantics

Toward the end of our first trip through Changing Attitudes, one of the instructors came up to say hi to Rubi. "You goofy pup," she said. "Some people were thinking you weren't very nice, but I know you're just a big silly, aren't you?"

Wait, what?

I've entertained a fair number of uncharitable thoughts toward this dog, but it's never occurred to me that Rubi isn't a nice dog at heart. I assumed that since I could see B's inner charm, so could everyone else (need I remind you that we're in a class just for such challenged dogs?). But the truth is that to most people, reactivity equals aggressive and aggressive equals mean.

In reality, reactivity and aggression are two related but distinct qualities. Reactivity by definition is simply a response to a stimulus. I've never met a dog that didn't react to its environment in some way, either with a twitch of the ear, a wagging tail, or a glance. In dog training, we use the term "reactivity" to describe any behavioral response to a trigger that we as humans do not like. Some reactions are perfectly natural; it is normal for a dog to bark at something that makes him or her nervous or excited. The trouble comes when the dog that barks at children tries to live in human society. Then, a fairly natural behavior can get that dog labeled as a menace, aggressive, or at the least, an annoyance.

It doesn't help that most people don't realize that a dog can be reactive without being aggressive. Aggression is how badly a dog wants to hurt the trigger. Rubi is a classic example of reactivity without aggression. She wants to get to the other dog very badly – badly enough to make us both look pretty horrible – but she doesn't want to hurt the other dog at all. If properly introduced to another dog, she's still pretty socially stupid, but she's also very content to play 'til exhaustion. That's one of the reason's she's able to live in relative peace with three other dogs.

The reverse is true as well: a dog can be aggressive without being reactive. I've mentioned before how effective traditional training is at eliminating behaviors. The way I understand traditional training as is applies to reactive dogs is that the dog is exposed to the trigger, begins to react, and is corrected for reacting. As a result, the reactive behavior disappears. However, traditional training doesn't address the underlying fear or excitement. As a result, we see a lot of traditionally trained dogs in the Reactive Rovers class who aren't reactive at all – but get them too close to their trigger, and they go from zero to kill in less than a second. Remember conditioned emotional responses? It's possible to create a negative emotional response just like it's possible to create a positive emotional response. And correcting the dog every time they come in contact with their trigger is a good way to make an aggressive issue worse – even if the reactivity gets better.

Of course, the most important part of aggression is the bite. Here's another threshold to consider: the bite threshold. How willing is a dog to use it's teeth to solve its problems? Another factor is bite inhibition. That is, when the dog does bite, how much damage does he or she inflict? Bite inhibition and threshold both tend to decrease the more practice a dog gets at biting. This is because the dog learns that a bite will make the scary thing go away. It's not going away? Bite harder, it worked last time. If you look at cases in which dogs have attacked and killed people, the common factor isn't breed or age. It's bite history. These dogs don't sudden start killing people out of nowhere; the majority have long histories of violence towards people. And occasionally, aren't some bites justified? Is the dog that bites the hand that beats it a mean, bad dog?

While we're at it, let's not forget that aggression towards people and aggression towards, say, dogs are very different things. Nowhere is this line more clearly drawn than with pit bulls. As a breed, pit bulls have been trained for centuries to fight and kill other dogs. But while they were fighting, the dog's owner as well as the other dog's handler - often a complete stranger - would also be in the ring. Any dog that bit a human was, ahem, removed from the gene pool. These dogs were bred for centuries to be in close quarters with humans while in a highly aroused state of mind; in short, they were bred to be highly tolerant of humans. Now, that's not to say that there aren't people aggressive pit bulls. Humans are awfully good at screwing up a good thing. But neither is every pit bull unable to tolerate the sight of another dog.

What's my point here? Well, mostly I'm just trying to muddy the waters. Dogs aren't all "nice" or "mean." There's a whole host of factors to take into account: reactivity, aggression, bite threshold, object of aggression - dogs are no more all good or all bad than the humans who own them. It's no good to look at a person or a dog from a single snapshot. And sometimes, please, just give a pittie a chance.

Friday, December 3, 2010

Always with the Planning

Well, it's that time again. Changing Attitudes only has two weeks left in the class, so once more it's time to decide where to put my dog. CA has been going really well for us - almost too well. Rubi has been much calmer in class since we started with the pseudo-forced relaxation. Her pacing has decreased by more than half, and she even offer a hip bump several times on Wednesday. I have proof!

As much fun as it's been being at the top of the class, particularly considering where we started, it's time to move on. Last week, I had B tested for placement in regular classes. Her evaluator basically told me to enroll her where ever we felt comfortable, which was no help to me at all. At TCOTC, classes run in sessions of nine weeks. CA is only six weeks long, so we'll be finishing in the middle of a session. I don't want to go weeks without having class because our dog-dog contact has been rather limited lately (brrr, it's cold out!).

So I've decided to put Rubi in rally until the new session starts. Rally is a form of competitive obedience that I've worked my other dogs in off and on. Actually, I usually run Maus in rally, but I can switch him back to regular obedience. Because I've already got experience with the sport, the instructor is willing to let me jump in to the class in the middle of the session.

Once the new session starts, I'd like to bump B into a regular Level Three obedience class. Level Three tends to be a little more crowded and a little more exciting than rally, so I think it will be a good transition. I want to keep challenging Rubi, but I also don't want to move too quickly.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Trust Part II: The Other End of the Leash

In today's America, we seem to place a great deal of importance on efficiency and technology, while getting to know another person is an almost forgotten art. It takes time, and time is at a premium. I'm as guilty of it as anyone else. The last time I made a friend whom I hang out with outside of scheduled work and dog events was about four years ago. Trust goes two ways; in order for someone to trust us, we must show them something of ourselves. And we must take the time to get to know them.

I am regularly amazed by the amount of faith and trust Maus has in me. We've been in some genuinely scary situations - like the time we were ambushed by a dozen kids, or the other day when I got attacked by a dog, or pretty much every vet visit. Through it all, Maus looks first to me for direction when he's unsure of his surroundings. His trust in me is incredibly handy, a little bit of a burden, and a humbling honor. Of course, the basis for this trust is how well we know each other. Maus knows that if he isn't sure of what to do, I will have a plan to keep him safe. For my part, I know Maus well enough to understand how he will react in any given situation. I know Maus's mind better than I know my own some days – particularly if I haven't had my morning coffee yet.

Maus and Rubi are almost complete opposites. Both are reactive, but that's pretty much where the similarities end. Their main triggers are different: Maus reacts to people, Rubi to dogs. Maus's reaction is fear-based. Rubi is more excited than worried. Maus retreats, Rubi advances. Remember that reactivity and aggression are different qualities. Reactivity is the over-the-top response a dog has to a trigger. Aggression is how badly a dog wants to hurt the trigger. Rubi is more reactive than aggressive, whereas the two are about equal for Maus. The only way to learn these things? Trial and error. I had to get to know both dogs, to see them each in different situations over time to understand how they would behave at any given moment. Once I have that information and can trust them to behave in a certain way in a certain situation, I can come up with the best behavior plan for their individual issues.

How much is enough? Is it important to B's behavior plan to know that she's rather have her ears rubbed than stroked? If we're working on relaxation, it can be the difference between calm and tense. You can never know too many details about your dog's behavior and personality. Admittedly, I may be a little more anal than most. In competition obedience, my sport of choice, a single misplaced foot can be mean a non-qualifying score instead of best in show.

I could eliminate B's reactive behaviors without getting to know her so well. Traditional, punishment-based training is very good at eliminating behaviors, and Rubi has the exact sort of resilient mind that traditional trainers thrive on. Then again, getting rid of B's reactive behaviors is not my main goal (don't get me wrong, it's on the list, it's just not the big one). My main goal is to give Rubi the highest quality of life possible. If I cannot take her places because of her reactivity, then her quality of life is not as high as it could be. In the same vein, if I cripple her enthusiasm by correcting her over and over again for inappropriate behavior, then I have made her life (and mine) poorer for it.

The balance between the two is in a concept called "LIMA." LIMA is the least invasive, minimally aversive option. Take, for example, traditional training: Rubi offers an incorrect behavior and is punished for it. Compare it to counter conditioning, where she sees a dog and I shove lots of treats at her. Both are pretty invasive and require a lot of effort from me. Which is less aversive, though? In the end, I should get the same response either way: the elimination of her reactive behavior. The way I go about eliminating that behavior does matter. Take a look at it from a human perspective. Which would you prefer: a boss who nags you constantly, or one who lets you do your job and rewards you when you've done it right? Behaving around dogs does not come naturally to B. As her "boss," it is my responsibility to make sure that she has the guidance and motivation to do her job.

That's not to say that Rubi gets to do whatever she wants and I just reward her for the behaviors I like. Positive is not the same as permissive. In addition to rewarding her for the behaviors I want, I limit B's opportunities for behaviors I don't want. For example, Rubi gets a treat for coming inside promptly the first time I call her. There's also a fence around my yard so she can't go running off. In class, I reward B for calm, relaxed behavior, but I also keep a leash on her so she can't go charging off after the other dogs. By managing the amount of mistakes she can make and rewarding her when she makes the right decision, I create a comfortable, happy working relationship. Which works well for when we're not working.

Here's a point of interest which I find extremely important, so listen closely (or read carefully, whatever):

Dogs are not children.

Aren't you relieved? It is possible to be both your dog's friend and their leader. I've heard that you shouldn't be your child's friend because it interferes with being their parent. I don't have children, but I do know that most of the best show dogs I see are out there in the ring with their best friend. These are the teams that have fun, whether they win ribbons or not. Friendship isn't a big thing, it's all the little things. It's using the least aversive training method possible. It's knowing just where to rub you're dog's ears. It's playing together and working together and relaxing together. Relationship isn't a big thing or a little thing.

It's everything.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

I Am Thankful For . . .


- Author Unknown

I asked for strength that I might rear her perfectly; 
I was given weakness that I might feed her more treats. 

I asked for good health that I might rest easy; 
I was given a "special needs" dog that I might know nurturing. 

I asked for an obedient dog that I might feel proud; 
I was given stubbornness that I might feel humble. 

I asked for compliance that I might feel masterful; 
I was given a clown that I might laugh. 

I asked for a companion that I might not feel lonely; 
I was given a best friend that I would feel loved. 

I got nothing I asked for, 
But everything I need. 

Thursday, November 18, 2010

The Art of Screwing Up

At the Minnesota Renaissance Festival, there's a guy who spends all day at a booth playing chess. He wins. Or more accurately, he loses about once a week. My understanding of chess ranks up there with rocket science and trying to figure out what doctors are thinking, so one day I asked him what the secret was to becoming a master chess player.

"Well, I've won more games than anyone else here," he said. Then he leaned forward, face serious. "I've also lost more games than all of the people here combined."

Of course, there's more to being an expert than spectacularly failing at what you do. Mistakes are part of any learning process; it's what you do with your mistake that marks you as a professional or an amateur.

I'm being cliché again, aren't I? Okay, here's what it looks like when I screw up:

Yesterday, Rubi was in a weird mood. She was crabby at the other dogs, extra hyper, and generally rebelling against the house rules. I'm not blaming her for anything. I have days when I don't feel like following the rules, and they usually coincide with the days when I wish everyone would just leave me alone. Rubi's been spayed, so I think I'll blame it on the fact that none of us get to see the sun anymore. Hmmm, maybe she could use a vitamin D supplement . . .

Anyway, I'm rambling. I got to class with B all excited to do more work on our new pseudo-forced relaxation. We got in the door, settle onto our mat, and then B was having NONE OF IT. Roll over on her side? Sure. Stay there? Um, no not today.

I am only human, and being only human, I got frustrated. This worked so well last week! What is wrong with you, you horrible beast?!? I got more irritated and impatient, until finally Rubi, after giving me a final, pointed glance, decided the wall was more interesting than me. I was no longer worth paying any attention to at all. Screw you, lady.


I resisted the urge to storm out of the class, toss B in the car, and go home. Grow-ups shouldn't throw temper tantrums, and I'm trying very hard to be a grown-up (most days, anyway). Instead, I took five seconds to take a deep breath and try to figure out what happened.

It's funny how a deep breath often brings a different perspective. B wasn't saying "screw you" when she refused to acknowledge me. She was saying, "You screwed-up, crazy lady; I'm going to stop giving you attention until you calm down."

Boy, it's irritating when your own training techniques get used against you. Being part of a team means you have to communicate and compromise every once in a while. So the next time B glanced at me, I marked and rewarded her (thanks for giving me a second chance, dog). We did a few no-brainer exercises: sit, down, shake left paw, shake right paw, touch (my sanity has returned, please work with me again). Then, we worked on stuff that was a little more interesting to B, and a little less important to me. Could I have forced the issue on the relaxation exercise? Sure, but it wouldn't have been any fun for either of us.

Instead, we played 101 Things to Do With a Traffic Cone. We worked on sending B to her mat from a distance. We practiced left finishes and down on recall. We played crate games. It didn't take me long to figure out that B didn't really care about the other dogs. She wanted to work. She just didn't want to work on what I wanted to work on. It's not the end of the world. There will be plenty of opportunities to practice on relaxation in the future (and you can bet that we will). Dog training should be fun. If it's not a life or death issue, and it's not fun, it might be time to reanalyze why we're doing what we're doing.

One of my best friends is big into horses. Her world revolves around her horses the way mine revolves around the dogs. I once sat in on one of her horse-back riding lessons. During the lesson, her instructor told her, "You are not the important part of the equation; you are there to make your horse look good." I've tried to remember those words in dog training, particularly in training for competition. If I can make my dog look good, everything else will fall into place. Part of making Rubi look good is finding out what works for us. Trial and error means that occasionally something we try will be wrong. That's okay. It's how we recover from being wrong that's important.

"I'm wrong all the time. It's how I get to right."
                        -Gil Grissom, CSI

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Relationship Is Important

Well duh, right?

Get this: relationship is so important that EVERY speaker I went to at the three day APDT conference made some reference to it. Pia Silvani, CPDT-KA, who taught the Feisty Fidos workshop, even refuses to admit reactive dogs who have been in their home for less than two months into her reactive dog classes.  Relationship is that important.

But what did they mean by relationship? After all, people who beat their dog still have a "relationship" with the animal - it's just not a good one. On the other side of the spectrum, I'm met a lot of dogs who clearly loved their owners, but just as clearly didn't listen to or respect them. I sat down and I thought about it, and I decided that what these wise and brilliant trainers meant by "relationship" was actually "trust." It is possible to train a dog without him or her trusting you. Heck, that's a lot of what being a dog trainer is. But ask that dog to walk into a situation he or she feels is scary and dangerous? That takes trust. And trust takes time.

Think of your dog's trust like a bank account (thanks, Vera, for the analogy!). Every positive event that happens to your dogs around you - every treat you give, every snuggle on the couch, every time you throw the ball - that's making a deposit into your trust account. Every time you do something your dog doesn't like - each correction, each time you trim nails or give a bath - that's a withdrawal from your trust account. Like with any bank account, the goal is to have a high balance.

I'm not saying that you can never let anything bad happen to your dog in your presence. Nails need to be trimmed and shots need to be given. There's no such thing as a withdrawal-free life, for people or for dogs. However, if your trust account has a high balance, then it can handle the occasional withdrawal. Here's a real life example: Maus and I work hard together, and he trusts me a great deal (ie, I have a high balance). On the other hand, Maus hates the vet. The people there have negative fifty points as far as Maus is concerned. I have all my dogs' blood drawn once a year - definitely a withdrawal from the trust account. I know that if someone tries to forcibly restrain Maus for his blood draw, there's a good chance that person will get bitten. So I restrain him myself. Because Maus trusts me, he lets me do it. I've never trained him to allow me to hold him like that. Although come to think of it, I probably should have.

Maus lets me restrain him for blood draws for the same reason he believes me when I say a stranger isn't going to hurt him - he trusts me. This kind of trust takes a long time to build. Rubi and I aren't there yet. Maus and I still occasionally disagree about people. But the Maus of three years ago was very different from the Maus of today.

In contrast, I am not implying that you should shower your dog with attention and treats when ever you're together. You're dog will love you for it, I'm sure. I'm also sure your dog will get spoiled. One way to increase your dog's trust in you is with consistent, positive training. What your dog learns then is that good things happen when he or she does what you say. Remember when I was talking about NILIF way back in the day? That's a great way to help establish trust. So is training with positive reinforcement. I've taught B a fair number of tricks. She doesn't need to know how to roll over or shake or beg, but it's another way for me to show her that when she listens to me, good things will happen. It's fun.

At the same time, it's important not to confuse trust with hunger. There's more to teaching trust than just passing out treats. One of the reasons it takes so long to build trust is that you need to get to know someone in order to trust them. Think of someone you trust. How did you come to trust them? Did it come instantly? More likely, you spent time together. You learned the person's likes and dislikes. You came to know what they would do in a given situation. You did activities you both enjoy. It's the same with dogs. You can't establish trust if you keep your dog chained out in the backyard and never do anything with him or her. Personally, I'm a big believer in play therapy. What better way to get to know someone than have fun with them?

Dogs are ever honest creatures - creatures of action. Tell a dog, "trust me," and you'll likely be met with a blank stare (and a wagging tail; dogs are funny like that). In contrast, dogs pay a great deal of attention to our actions. Act consistently and positively, and over time, your dog will trust you to act that way all the time - even if he or she doesn't trust the situation.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Relaxation: Conditioned and Forced

Have you ever had someone tell you to smile when you're down because it will make you feel better? Did you know that it works? For humans, we've know that form follows feeling for a century or two. Smile and you feel better; frown and you feel worse. Humans and dogs are more similar than we'd like to think, and I've seen enough anecdotal evidence to believe that this physical feedback loop also applies to our canine companions. Basically, get a dog's body to form the shape of a calm dog, and it will calm the dog.

One way to do this is with conditioned relaxation. Maus and I started working on conditioned relaxation about two years ago. I have Maus lie down on his mat, and then I mark/reward him (quietly and calmly) each time he relaxes. So for instance, when he lies on the mat and shifts over to one hip, I mark and reward that. I mark and reward him for putting his head down, for relaxing his ears, for relaxing his shoulders, for deep breaths, and for any other behavior that leads to a more relaxed body. When we first started doing this, it would take about twenty minutes for Maus to truly relax at home. Now, I can pull out Maus's mat in even a busy area and have him relax within about five minutes. It's a handy tool to have for an anxious dog.

In Pia Silvani's workshop at the APDT conference, she discussed an exercise she called "forced relaxation." Many reactive dogs, Rubi included, tend to pace a lot. This extra movement works them up, which causes them to pace more, which causes them to work themselves up more, which makes them more reactive. Pia's solution is to have the dog lay on its side. When it struggles to get up, she has the handler restrain the dog until it relaxes again. Eventually, the dog learns that when it lies on its side, it has to relax because, well, it's doesn't have any other options. (Hopefully someone will correct me if I misunderstood Pia – one of my fellow trainers picked up Pia's book on Feisty Fidos, and I'll read it once I get through the books I picked up at the conference.)

If you know me or have read the blog for any length of time, you probably realize how much I dislike forcing my dogs to do pretty much anything. Rubi in particular has some bad associations with being restrained. She's been alpha rolled more than a few times, plus the fiasco that used to be getting her nails trimmed (hey, if someone pinned me down and came at my fingers with a set of bolt cutters, I'd probably pretty upset, too). On the other hand, what Pia said makes sense – dogs that move around a lot tend to work themselves up. It increases their heart rate up and boosts tension. Reactive dog behavior training is an awful lot of teaching the dog to be calm. I don't feel like Rubi is a good candidate for conditioned relaxation because her mat work just isn't strong enough. With Maus, Piper, and Allister, if I take the mat out, they're all over it to the point where they try to get on it before I even set the mat down. Rubi could take it or leave it. Since for conditioned relaxation, that mat is the cue for the relaxation, the dog has to be pretty invested in staying on the mat for it to work. I'm not saying Rubi will never be there, but she's not there yet.

For the past few weeks, Rubi and I have been working on a combination of forced and conditioned relaxation. I sit on the floor and have Rubi lay down in front of me. Then, I lure her onto her side. I mark and reward her for each relaxed behavior – for relaxing her legs, for putting her head down, the usual stuff. I also started counter conditioning her to restraint. I started by touching her shoulder and marking/rewarding her for that. Once she was okay with that (which took a few sessions), I put a little pressure on her shoulder and marked/rewarded her for that. Eventually, I was able to give her a massage. Massage isn't really a part of restraint, but who doesn't like a little back rub when they're trying to relax? Around this time, when she would try to get up before I released her, I would use that counter conditioned pressure on the shoulder to stop her. It's not a lot of pressure; no more than I'd say I use to hold her collar when I'm putting her leash on. If Rubi really wanted to get up, she could – and did on several occasions. After which I'd refocus her and ask her to lie down again. Rubi seemed to really dig these sessions at home. Of course, the real test came when class started again on Wednesday. How did it go?

I think the pictures speak for themselves:

Monday, November 1, 2010

One Day at a Time

Here's where we are now:

Today, all four of the dogs and I played ball for forty-five minutes. Rubi refused to give the red ball back, so she lost the privilege of playing with it and had to play with the green ball like everybody else. Then Rubi and I went for a walk, because tired dogs are good dogs. I tried using the Freedom Harness and figured out after about a block and a half that I didn't like it. It might be a better tool for dogs that aren't so heavy in the chest or so into pulling (basically, for dogs that aren't pit bulls). I might pull it out again for a dog that doesn't work so well on the gentle leader, but for now, I switched B from the Freedom Harness back into her gentle leader, since I had wisely brought it along. I also found out that while the Lickety Stick does have a high-value enough treat to use for reactivity, the ball occasionally gets stuck, and the dog can't get the treat out. No treat does not work for reactivity training at all. I'm rather disappointed.

Anyway, for our walk today I decided to head for an area that I had previously avoided. There are five dogs on this route: a lhasa apso that likes to run up and down it's fence really fast, a very reactive, very angry shepherd mix, and three shepherd/huskie mixes that aren't particularly reactive - but there are three of them. We approach all three yards from the other side of the street to give B and I plenty of space. The lhasa is first: as soon as B sees it racing around the corner of it's house, I shove a handful of treats in her face. Rubi thinks this is a great idea! She happily trades me looks at the other dog for treats as we make our way by. w00t!

Next is the hardest dog: the angry shepherd mix. True to form, he charges the fence like the Tasmanian Devil himself, snarling and barking and biting the fence. This proves to be too much for my own Tazmanian Devil - she snaps to the end of her leash, but I don't give her a chance to react beyond that. I get my body in front of her and body block her back the way we came. After maybe five steps, she looks up at me in frustration and JACKPOT! I click and throw a fistful of treats on the ground.

The throwing treats on the ground trick is handy for a couple of reasons. First, it's a huge reward for B's brief moment of attention, and it will also serve to momentarily distract her from what she was doing - namely spazzing at the other dog. If I'm quick like a bunny when she gets done with the treats, I should be able to redirect her behavior into something more appropriate. Second, it gives the angry shepherd a calming signal; Rubi looks like she's sniffing the ground from where he is. Of course, he doesn't seem to care, he's still wailing at the fence, but for some strange dogs, it can help. Third, throwing treats on the ground and letting B clean them up gives me a few precious seconds to decide what I'm going to do next. I could turn around and head back home, but I hate to leave on a bad note, and we've hardly done anything yet. Or I can try to work through this.

Time's up, look alive! B's head pops up, and she starts looking for the angry shepherd again (he's kinda hard to miss). I click her and give her a treat. Oh, hi! Yes, I exist - and I have tasty food. She looks at the other dog, I click and treat. She looks at the other dog, I click and treat. She looks at the other dog, I click and treat.

And here's the part where I'm a bad scientist: She looks at the other dog, I click and treat. She keeps looking at me, so I click and treat again. Technically, you're only suppose to work on one variable at a time. For example, when you're practicing heel, your work on walking next to you OR you work on duration (how long the dog stays in heel) OR you work on sitting when you stop OR you work on pace changes. If you try to work on more than one variable at a time, you end up confusing the dog and everything can fall apart. So technically, we should just be practicing auto watches - look at the other dog, look at me, get a treat somewhere in there. Here's the thing, I've been around dogs who's owners just worked the auto watches. Their dogs get around other dogs, and the poor things look like they're going to give themselves whiplash they look at the other dogs/owner so fast. I also know that dogs repeat what you reward. So I reward B for her auto watches, and I reward B for looking at me any instant longer than she has to. I don't mind if she looks at the other dog, but I'd rather she looked at me.

Remember when B and I started CA and she would try not to look at the other dogs until she was already over threshold? This is how I build attention without losing confidence. B doesn't feel like she can't look at the other dogs, but ultimately, looking at me is going to be more rewarding.

So this is how we go forward: I mark and reward B for looking at the other dog, I turn around so we're going the same direction. I mark and reward B for looking at the other dog, we take a step forward. I mark and reward B for looking at the other dog, we take another step forward, and B's still looking at me, so I mark and reward her again and we take two steps forward. Meanwhile, there's a dog across the street making like a banshee. You get the picture. With my other dogs, no one is allowed to go forward unless they are focused, attentive, and absolutely under control. With Rubi, I have to balance that against her pacing and working herself up. The longer we stay in one place, the more anxious B gets, and the harder it is to refocus her. There's no easy way about it, it comes down to knowing my dog. This is one of he reasons we're taking CA again - to learn to be calm and still around other dogs.

The rest of the walk was relatively easy. After the angry dog, the three dogs weren't nearly as big a deal. Of course, then we had to turn around and go back home. Before we tackled that, I wanted to give both of us a break. So we sat down on the side walk and practiced sits and downs, right and left shake, and some hand touches - really simple, easy to reward stuff that would boost both our egos. Then we headed home.

Once again, the three dogs were only moderately interesting. We approached angry dog's fencing line, and once again he charged us. B looked at him, let out one enormous and heartfelt sigh, and went back to working for me.

Good girl!

After that, the lhasa apso was nothing. We didn't even cross the street to ease ourselves in. "Ha!" Rubi seemed to say as she pranced by, tail wagging. "I've pooped out things bigger than you!"

And that, I suppose, is progress.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Foundation Behaviors

It's been pointed out to me that twenty minutes a day is a long time to be training your dog every day. Which is true. We do a lot of group things here, there are a lot of behaviors I ask for on a regular basis, and I try to mix things up to keep all our lives interesting. But actually pull a dog aside and work with him individually for twenty minutes a day? Yeah, that doesn't happen. Not unless we're working on something in particular. As is the case with B. :grin:

So what are we doing with twenty minutes a day? If you've ever tried to do this, you might notice that you run out of things to do, or you and your dog get bored (and I say that from the perspective of experience). A lot of what B and I do with our twenty minutes is pretty basic stuff. Simple, but important: these are the exercises that I really want to come through in a pinch. So we practice them over and over again, proofing and adding new elements, so that when I really need Rubi to do a behavior, I can be pretty sure that it will happen. Most of these exercises are important enough that I teach them to all my fosters before they leave my house. Needless to say, for a reactive dog, they can be life savers.

Hand Touch - This is one of those things that is so ridiculously handy I can't imagine why everyone does teach it to their dog. Hold your hand out to your dog. Mark/reward when they touch your hand. Repeat until the dog touches your hand nine out of ten times when you hold it out to them. Once you get there, move your hand a little. Mark/reward when they touch your hand. Slowly work up until they touch or follow your hand where ever it goes - always wait to get that 9/10 response before you increase the difficulty. 

Why do I like this one so much? Let's say we're walking down the street and we see another dog. B gets The Look. You know - the one where you can tell that they're just a little too interested in the other dog. I tell B to "touch" and she has to look away from the other dog to touch my hand. The benefit is two fold: it breaks B's focus on the other dog, and it causes her to reorient on me. I can then use my hand touch to move B to my other side (like many reactive dogs, B feels better if I am between her and the other dog). Or I can use it to move her back and away from the other dog. Or I can do any of a dozen other things. B's attention is on me. I could write an entire entry on why I love the hand touch, but you all get the idea.

Mat Work - The goal here is to have the dog go lay down on a mat. Start by marking and reward your dog for interacting with the mat - looking at it, sniffing the mat, touching the mat, whatever. Throw your treat onto the mat when your dog earns a click. If your dog gets stuck on the mat, mark and reward it for being on the mat, then toss the treat off the mat and start again. Once the dog is going to the mat 90% of the time after you throw the treat, try moving your body and not standing directly in front of the mat. This is often a whole new ball game for the dog, so start small again: mark and reward your dog for looking at the mat, sniffing the mat, touching the mat or any of the bed. 

Why is this one so useful? For nervous, insecure dogs like Maus, it creates a safe place. When I take out the mat in a busy area, you can just about see the relief in Maus's eyes. "At last!" he thinks, "I know where I'm supposed to be in the world." For excitable dogs like Rubi, it gives them a job. Rubi thinks, "See the mat? I'm holding it on the floor. Yep, mat's not moving from here. See how well I'm holding the mat still? Oh, yeah, I'm a rockstar." Having the dog on the mat frees me up to pay attention to other things like, say, the instructor in a class. All I have to do is periodically remember to reward the dog for still being on the mat. Mat work also lies the foundation for a few advanced moves like the relaxation protocol and conditioned relaxation.

Emergency Recall - Also known as the "Really Reliable Recall." Before you start this one, a brief note: don't put your dog in a stay first. You will ruin your stays. You start easy - call your dog in a situation when you're 99.9% sure he will come, and use a happy recall word. Why the special word? You want the dog to be happy to come to you every single time. It's easy to get angry when you're yelling, "Rubi! Come! I said come here now!" It's harder to sound angry when you're yelling, "Rubi! YAHOOOO!!!!"  And then make a Big Freakin' Deal out of it when your dog comes. Huge praise and scratches and treats for at least fifteen seconds - that's a ginormous reward for the dog and really hard for a person to do. What I usually do is count my seconds happily to the dog - "One, you're the best dog ever, two, you're so pretty, three, I love you, four, Mississippi, five, Mississippi . . . " It doesn't matter what you say, just that you're super thrilled to say it and you do it for what seems like forever.

And then you repeat the process one thousand times.

I'm not kidding. The repetition is what seals this excercise. Eventually, the emergency recall is more reflex than command. The dog hears the happy cue and thinks, "OMG, must find owner NOW!" without thinking of whatever else is going on around them. It's tedious to teach, but well worth it. I can now call Rubi off squirrels because we practice this just one to three times a day. 

Strategic Retreat - This one has a few different names, too, but the concept is the same. Here's where I use it: we're walking down the street, and we see a stray dog up ahead. I don't feel like breaking up a fight today, so tell Rubi, "this way!" We quickly change direction and go back the way we came, Rubi tail wagging along. It's pretty easy to teach. We go out into a big field. Everytime Rubi gets to the end of her leash, I cheerfully say, "this way!" and change direction, marking and rewarding her for catching up with me. It's the low-stress way of teaching you're dog, "we're leaving now, and it's gonna be great."

There are, of course, other things that Rubi and I work on during out twenty minutes. We do a lot of tricks. I've found that it's really hard to be afraid of a dog that's waving at passer-bys. Rubi has about half a dozen tricks now, all just for fun. I feel not everything should be serious. We also do a lot of problem solving activities. Like many dogs taught by punishment-based methods, Rubi falls victim to learned helplessness regularly (I'll let you google that term if you don't understand it - God bless the internet). What that means is that when confronted with a problem, instead of trying to figure it out, she shuts down - literally. For Allister, Maus, and Piper, when I ask them to do something they don't understand, they'll start to offer me different behaviors that have been rewarded in the past - about a dozen of them. If I ask Rubi to do something she's not sure of, she sits and stares at me until I do something to help her. Or worse, she falls back on behaviors that worked for her in the past - like say, screaming at other dogs. So we do shaping exercises to work on her problem solving abilities. We've shaped a lot of targeting, moving around objects, give paw - simple, easy stuff. Is it working? Well, she offers me three different behaviors now instead of just the one.

Why does it matter if Rubi can problem solve? A thinking dog is easier to teach. A dog that can problem solve is able to think, "okay, this isn't getting me what I want - what else can I try?" Without that connection, Rubi is left trying the same thing over and over again until she exhausts herself, or something in the environment changes. Remember the definition of insanity? Doing the same thing, over and over again and expecting different results.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Gear Hound

In case you were wondering what I was doing on Pit Bull Awareness Day, I was attending the annual Association of Pet Dog Trainers' annual conference in Atlanta, Georgia. It was a fantastic experience, and I picked up a lot of new training techniques, many of which I'm sure will make it onto the blog as I get a chance to try them out. Of course, I also brought home stuff.

I love stuff.

I admit it, I'm a total gear hound, and the APDT conference was like dying and going to heaven for me. I bought boring things like nylabones (at half price!) and coprophagia deterrent. I picked up some new collars, a couple of new leashes, and a few t-shirts. I also got the new Kong Wobbler, a bunch of free treats, and, much to the herd's delight, a few free stuffies (I long ago stopped buying stuffies for them). I also got a new product out on the market called a "Lickety Stik." It's a liquid treat in a bottle with a roller ball top, and it reminds me a little of my mom's roll-on deoderant. The idea is that the dogs lick the treat off the roller ball, thus sparing the owners fingers. I'm not sure yet if the treat is high value enough to use for reactive work with B, but I'll give it a shot. I'd really like to stop losing skin.

I love books, and I think I probably increased my dog book collection by a third at the conference. I nabbed some tricky to find titles, and also grabbed a few just for fun. The highlight of the conference for me was getting to meet Karen Pryor. If you only ever read one dog training book, read her Don't Shoot the Dog. It's not even about dog training. Karen Pryor signed a copy of Reaching the Animal Mind and then clicked me for buying it. I got clicked by Karen Pryor. I'm still grinning.

But instead of telling you about all the books I got, I'll just show you a picture. And Allister.

Before I go on, I want to describe what I currently use for training Rubi. Treats and a clicker, obviously (anybody need a free clicker? I think I got about twenty of them at the conference). A sturdy, well fitted collar. I use a six foot leather leash - leather is very nice on the hands - but I'm having second thoughts about this. I want to get a shorter leash for B so that she has to stay in closer to me. It would mean less freedom for her, but also less room to get into trouble and less stuff for me to juggle when I'm working with her. So I got a four foot leather leash to try out.

In a perfect world, that's all I would need. Of course, in this perfect world, Rubi is not reactive. In the real world, Rubi is sixty pounds of pure reactive pit bull muscle. And I am less than 140 pounds of scrawny human with one bad arm and a tendency to wheeze when I get worked up. There's no shame in admitted that you need help. I use a gentle leader with Rubi when we're out and about. This gives me the extra leverage I need to control her. It also gives me control of her head - I can even close her mouth by pulling up on the leash. I don't do that often, but it's nice to have the option when we get jumped by off-leash dogs.

The gentle leader isn't for everyone. Maus's reactivity, for instance, seemed to get worse when I tried the gentle leader with him (he gets trained on a regular flat collar and leash, but he's not the powerhouse that B is). I don't think that there's any one training tool for every dog, and my goal is always to wean them off whatever I'm using anyway. I tend to recommend the Easy-Walk Harness a lot to people who don't want to use the gentle leader. I learned at the conference that a lot of reactive dog trainers are starting to recommend the Freedom Harness, owned by the same people who own 2 Hound Design (check out their collars, if you get a chance - very nice!). I picked up a Freedom Harness at the conference to try out with B. Here's Piper modeling the new harness (she stands still better than B does).

I have to admit, my initial assessment is right there with Piper's. It was kind of tricky to figure out how to adjust the harness for the best fit. I think if I didn't already know how to adjust tracking harnesses, it probably would have given me a lot more trouble. But the plus side is that it seems a lot more secure than the Easy Walk - there's no way a dog it going to squirm out of this harness. I'll let you guys know how it goes as we use it more . . .

And here's Rubi getting her butt handed to her by a stuffie:

Sunday, October 17, 2010

How I Almost Screwed Up The Big One

There's a quality many of us long-time rescue workers have that allows us to walk away from a dog. It's what allows us to say, "we have no room," "we're not equipped to help this dog," or "there are too many others who have more solid temperaments." It allows us to say, "I'm sorry, I cannot help," without leaving too much of our soul behind in animal control. It's not that we don't care about the dogs, or that their faces and hearts don't touch us, but it is what allows us to face literally thousands of unwanted animals day after day, month after month, year after year, without going completely insane and becoming hoarders. You just can't save them all. We know this. And when judgement cometh, we will be able to look God (or whomever happens to be there) in the eye, and say that while we could not save each of them, we saved as many as we could.

When I met Rubi for the first time, I walked away with no regrets. She was just another wild, exuberant, reactive pit bull, just like every other wild, exuberant, reactive pit bull I'd ever met. At five years old, she'd already beaten the odds - most pit bulls never live to see their second birthday. For heaven's sake, she even had a home! I gave her owner all the help I could, but when she stopped replying to my emails, I hoped that no news was good news, and I put B out of my mind.

Of course, it helped that there was so much else to think about: Gracie J, Camilla, Ro, Gremlin Jo, Doppleganger, Piper Ann, Riley, Allister, Tank, and then there was non-dog stuff, too. So when B was surrendered back to ARLP in April of '10, it wasn't hard for me to say, "absolutely not" to fostering her. I was more than a little burnt out. And to add another reactive pit bull to the herd? I've got one, thanks. My denial wasn't a big deal until Rubi's situation became desperate: her foster sibling needed surgery, and Rubi needed a new place to crash ASAP.

This is where my husband put his foot down. I often consider him the Voice of Reason in my life; I can always count on my husabnd to warn me when I'm about to go off the deep end. Normally he tells me important things, like "we have enough dogs" and "you cannot make Maus wear that outfit - neither of us will respect you in the morning." This time, the Voice of Reason insisted that we take B in. I'm still not entirely sure what possessed him, but when the Voice of Reason tells you to do something, by golly, you do it.

Of course, just because you live with a dog doesn't mean you want them. I wanted as little to do with B as possible when she first came. I did the bare minimum necessary to live with her, and then I tried to pretend she wasn't here. The husband wanted her, she was the husband's foster. The flaw with that thinking is that the Voice of Reason, for all that I love him, is not a dog trainer, and Rubi is a lot of dog - too much for my poor husband to handle alone. So that left me to pull the loose ends together, a responsibility I definitely resented. Didn't I do enough? What had I done to deserve Rubi?

The situation came to a head on my birthday in July. I was already having a bad day. I don't remember now what set me off, but Rubi did - or didn't - do something, and I howled, "You are such a horrible beast! Who is ever going to want you?!?"

Now, I'm not a terribly religious person. I tend to view God the same way I see my boss at work: I keep my head down, I try to do well the jobs I've been given, and I hope that in the end, there's a nice retirement for me. But at that moment, God spoke to me.

He said, "What do you mean, who's going to want her?"

I stared at Rubi.

Rubi stared at me.

I swore.

But really, who am I to argue with God?

It's amazing, the possibilities that appear when you open your mind even a little (or, in this case, get struck stupid by the voice of God). I came up with a list of reasons to keep B that was as long as my arm. The more I thought about it, the sillier it seemed to put all this work into her and then ship her off to someone else. But at the heart of the matter, I decided to keep B for the same reason I decided to adopt all of my other animals: it just felt right.

I won't say that from that moment on, we lived happily ever after. "Happily ever after" seems to imply that we always see eye to eye, Rubi's reactivity magically disappeared, and I never have to clean up dog poop. There are still some days I wonder what I was thinking. I mean, if we hadn't've adopted her, Rubi would be someone else's problem. I would have saved myself an awful lot of trouble.

Here's what else I would have saved myself from: Rubi snores. She thinks that she is entitled to anything that resembles food, is possibly edible, or that she can fit in her mouth. The red Cuz is her favorite toy (not the green one, not the orange one - the red one). She's comatose from 8:00 pm until 10:00 am. If you should bodily pick her up and force her to go outside between those hours, she will stand where ever you put her and give you sad eyes until she's allowed to go back to bed. She likes sleeping under the covers. She hates having her nails trimmed, but doesn't mind having them painted. Rubi believes each child in the world is her best friend. She looks stunning in leather. She loves to swim. She's always ready to go for a car ride. Rubi is afraid of cats. Grilled pork chop is her favorite treat. Rubi lives each moment with gusto - she got let off that chain four years ago and hasn't let anything slow her down since. She doesn't mind wearing silly hats.

And the longer we're together, the more we both smile.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

The Difference You Can See

The herd after one week with Rubi fully integrated (June 1st, 2010):

The herd six weeks later (Aug 16, 2010):

Rubi, one week after arrival (May 24, 2010):

Rubi, one month later (June 22, 2010):

Six weeks after that (Aug 16, 2010):

Rubi now (Sept 26, 2010):

Bow-chicka-bow-wow . . .

Whatcha doin'?

(Originally posted on Oct 10, 2010)

Boy, it's about time for an update, isn't it?

I was looking back over old entries, and I want to clarify something quick. It seems to me that I spend an awful lot of time not working with B because I don't feel good, or I'm too tired, or some excuse like that. Here's my defense: when training dogs, it's important to be at the top of your game. Remember which end of the leash good dogs start from? (and which end of the leash bad dogs come from?) When doing any type of training session, I should be mentally alert, physically comfortable, and emotionally relaxed. These factors become crucial when working with one of my reactive dogs. After all, it's one thing to misjudge when to fade the lure while teaching roll-over; it's quite another to misjudge a potentially aggressive dog's body language and intent. In order to handle Rubi at her worst, I have to be at my best, and I'm not ashamed of this. I still get her out three times a week and practice at home regularly. It's an excuse, but it's not an excuse that is detrimental to our training regiment. Just the opposite, I believe. There are only two feelings that a dog trainer needs: patience and a sense of humor. With these, all manner of things are possible.

Speaking of patience, I'm well past the point of picking out our next class, huh? I'm still rather ambivalent on the subject. On the one hand, I thing B has come far enough that I could streamline her into a regular level two or three class pretty easily, thanks in no small part to the obedience work Brit put into her before she came to my house. It'd be good for her, I think, to get working around other dogs in a more normal environment. On the other hand, there's Changing Attitudes. Put simply, Rubi is just not where I wanted her to be at the end of this class. Oh, she's made huge progress - for the last two classes, we haven't had to go inside our box even once. Quite the change from the beginning when we couldn't spend more than thirty seconds out of the box, isn't it? But as I've said before, my goal isn't just to have her manageable around other dogs. I want Rubi to be able to relax around other dogs. And B just isn't there yet. So I think running her in CA again - with new dogs and new faces - would be beneficial as well.

What to do, what to do . . .

In an ideal world, of course, I would have been born a rich heiress with nothing better to do than collect dogs and create sex tapes - er, I mean, model. In that perfect world, I would be able to do both CA and a regular class. But alas, I have three other dogs, all who have their own training plans and goals, so I cannot afford to spend all my resources on B. There's no rush to get anything done with Rubi: I don't have to "fix" her quickly so that we can get her adopted and save another dog. There are no deadlines other than the ones we have imposed on ourselves. So I think we will take Changing Attitudes again, and hope that a mysterious, wealthy relative will die and leave us lots of money.

And a hobby farm.

Meanwhile, here in the real world, life goes on. Rubi's at the point where I can start to pick out trends in the dogs she will react to. Most reactive dogs have certain dogs (or people) that they will react worse to than others. Maus, for example, does fine with people. Unless they are high energy, small, wearing funny hats, wearing sunglasses, children, have dark hair, try to touch the top of his head, stare at him too long, jog, wear skirts or loose shirts, and, well, you get the picture. Maus's list is pretty long, but he's got one, so I can pretty reliably say which people he's going to react to and which he'll ignore. Here's Rubi's list so far: dogs that are on leash. Big dogs, little dogs, fluffy dogs, black dogs, dogs with floppy ears, dogs with docked tails, type doesn't seem to matter (which is a bit unusual - most dogs don't like dogs of a certain body type or body language . . . kind of racist of them, isn't it?). But once you slap a leash on a dog, B still has trouble keeping it together. Oh, she still keeps an eye on dogs in their yards, but she no longer loses it over them. We get rushed by off leash dogs about once a week, but B isn't much phased by them unless she feels threatened (also: *&%$#$@! ). I suppose this goes a ways toward explaining her troubles in class - that is a lot of on-leash dogs to worry about.

So what do we do when we see trouble coming our way? I've got a few plans. If I don't think the other owner is in control of their dog (or themselves), or if B is sending off huge, "not cool! NOT COOL!" vibes, we, ah, advance toward the rear, as they say in the military. That is, we run away. If I can't set up a situation to be successful, I will do anything in my power to get out of it. If I think the situation is workable, Rubi and I stop moving. Like many dogs (and people), I have trouble thinking and walking at the same time. We stop before B has locked on to the other dog but after she notices it. Then we practice watching the other dog - see the dog, click, see the dog, click, see the dog, click. If we get to the point where I worry B is about to lose it, we create more distance. More distance = less stimulus. Less stimulus = less reactivity. I can body block her backward - that is, put myself between her and the other dog and using my physical presence to push her back, marking and rewarding every time she looks up at me. I can also use an emergency retreat, hand touch, lure - but I try very hard not to use the leash to move her. Why not? Because then the leash is tight. A tight leash communicates all matter of anxiety and frustration to the dog, and I try to avoid it whenever possible. B seems particularly attuned to tension in the leash and the slightest pressure is often enough to tip her over the edge. That's not to say my leash is never tight: shit happens, as they say. But I always try to give the dog enough leash so that they have the option of working on a loose leash. And dragging her back by the leash does not give B that option. Once the other dog has passed us and is on it's merry way, I stop giving B treats. She only get treats when the dog is moving towards us. Here's that counter-conditioning thing again: dogs coming toward us make good things happen. Dogs going away are boring. Whew! What an awful lot of work, huh?

As a final thought for the day, I'll leave you with one of my favorite quotes - one that seems to apply a great deal to my relationship with Rubi. It's from Colonel Potter on television show M*A*S*H: "Listen, when you love somebody, you're always in trouble. There's only two thing you can do about it: either stop loving 'em, or love 'em a whole lot more."

Over Threshold

(Originally posted on Sept 25, 2010)

And so continues the monotony of dog training. Rubi and I are still hacking away at our goals - so far, so good! Class on Wednesday went better than I'd hoped, considering we missed a week. We spent only the first twenty minutes in our box, and that was only because I wanted to see more relaxed behavior from B. It's not enough for me that she be manageable around other dogs; I want her to be calm and happy, too. B's getting really good at watching the other dogs and then turning back and paying attention to me (what Patricia MCconnell referred to as the "autowatch" in the blog above). Watching the other dogs has become boring enough that I'm actively pushing her a little bit. We're working closer to the other dogs - about where we would be in a normal obedience class - and we're working on actually learning other things, like left finishes, and of course, new tricks. I was really proud of B, she didn't lunge, yodel, or get over threshold at all. Well, except for the part of class where another dog got loose and attacked B.

*sigh* You work and you slave and at the end of the day, you just can't control other people and their dogs.

The first thing I did was peel B off the other dog. I use a gentle leader with B precisely because it gives me better physical control over her than any other training tool. All I had to do is pull up on the leash. Now, the dog that attacked us only weighed about twenty pounds. If it had been a dog closer to B's size, then I wouldn't have taken away my dog's ability to protect herself so quickly. In that situation, I would have let them go at it until the other owner or another trainer was in position to get control of the other dog. This is a personal decision on my part, and one that I settled on long before we ever came to class that day. It might be better, since we own pit bulls, to take them out of the fight immediately in any situation. After all, a bite inflicted by a pit bull is different than a bite inflicted by a lab in the public's eye. Instead, I have chosen the response I believe will cause the least amount of damage to both dogs. In short, I'm not going to let my dog be savaged by another dog with no recourse to protect herself. Since B could've inflicted serious harm or killed the little dog, and the little dog's chance of causing serious damage to B were minimal, I pulled her from that fight immediately. But I digress.

After two dogs are separated from a fight and everyone is checked over for injuries, there are a few important considerations when deciding to go back to training. First, how do you, as the handler, feel? An example: there is a lovely German Shepard named Diego that I and my dogs are often in class with. Diego and Maus were in the same level one class, and Piper and Diego are now in advanced together. Now, I am going to let you in on one of my insecurities, and I hope you won't think less of me for it: German Shepards scare the hell out of me. Working in the shelter system, I had a lot of bad experiences with them, and to this day, it takes a real effort of will for me not to cross the street when I see one coming. I know, what's wrong with me, right? I mean, I own pit bulls. I'm trying really hard to change, and so I've made a point to hang out with Diego every chance I get. I say hi to him every time we have class together, and he and Piper have had a few playdates. A couple of weeks ago in class, Diego got his tug away from his owner and immediately charged over to his best bud Piper, who was hard at work, and tackled her. Piper and I had been concentrating on each other and didn't see him until he was literally on top of her. Piper Ann handled the situation with her usual aplomb: she whipped around, snapped at Diego, and when he backed off, she turned back to me and went back to work. Diego, for his part, made an embarrassed retreat back to his owner, no human involvement necessary, no big deal.

Well, yeah, for the dogs it was no big deal. I was freaked. I started shaking and tearing up, even though the exchange was so fast it was over before I could even think about doing something. Which, of course, didn't matter: my heart was still pounding. So I pulled my sightly confused dog out of the ring and just held her for a bit until I had calmed down enough to rejoin class. The point I'm trying to make here is that if an altercation happens, and you are really shaken up, frazzled, or angry, don't make a bad situation worse. You are in no shape to be training dogs. Go home, have a cup of hot cocoa, watch tv for a while, and wait until you are once again cool and collected before you face that cruel, cruel world once again.

This was not Rubi's first fight with me, it will probably not be her last fight, and - thank God - there were no German Shepards involved. So I'm fine after we get the two of them separated. My focus turns to B.

If you spend any length of time in reactive dog culture, you'll hear a lot about thresholds. There's bite threshold and reaction threshold, and then there's Over Threshold. Over threshold is the point at which a dog simply can't function; it's brain is so absorbed in the object of its frustration that it is incapable of learning. Working as closely with reactive dogs as I do, I have come to the conclusion that this idea of "over threshold" is vastly over simplified. Oh, it works as a base understanding, and I'll continue to teach it as such, but I've come to believe that threshold is really more of a scale. At the bottom of the scale is the dog that glances at another dog and moves on with life, and at the other end of the scale is the dog that is so upset by another dog that it redirects and bites the thing closest to it. The higher a dog is on the scale, the harder it is for that dog to learn. So, in order to decide what I should do with B after this fight, I need to determine where she is on the over threshold scale. The test was simple: I said her name. She glanced at me before returning to freaking out at the other dog. I decided not to go back into our box. If she hadn't looked at me when I said her name, I would've gone back into our box until she had calmed down a bit.

If we had been out on a walk and been attacked, and she hadn't looked at me at this point, I would have called it a day and gone home. This is the standard I personally use whenever trying to decide where to go next with a dog in any given situation. So, if we're out'n'about and decide to practice being good around a dog in its yard, we'll move in to where I think is a good spot, and I'll say her name. If she looks at me and offers me a behavior, I might want to move closer. If she glances at me - perfect, we'll stay here for a bit. If she doesn't notice me at all or lunges at the other dog, I know that, whoops, we got too close, and we need to back away. The way I train reactive dogs, distance is key.

Alright, back to class. I know that Rubi isn't totally lost, but she's still reacting pretty badly toward the other dog (and really, it's not like I can blame her). I can't move away from the other dog without loosing sight of it - the classroom is only so big. I pull another tool out instead: I body block her. What that means is that I stand between her and the object of her obsession and move around so that I'm blocking her line of sight. After trying to see around and through me for a bit, B gets frustrated and glares up at me, no doubt thinking, "What?!? I'm busy!" I mark and reward her. Remember, dogs repeat what you reward. A few more seconds of body blocking, and she glances up at me again. I mark and reward her. We do this until she's spending more time looking at me than she is trying to look at the other dog. Then, I step to the side, she looks at the dog that attacked her, I click and reward her. Counter conditioning strikes again!  We do about fifteen repetitions of look at the other dog, mark/reward. Then I let her look at the other dog and give her a couple of seconds. Rubi looks back at me. Mark and reward. Ta-da, autowatch! We do three or four more autowatches, I deem her over the incident, and we go back to what we were doing before we were so rudely interrupted.

And on with life. 


(Originally posted Sept 21, 2010)

Before I get to the real subject of this entry, a quick note on our progress: This evening, B was able to walk by a man walking two large dogs on the other side of the street without completely flipping out. She was a little preoccupied with them, but was able to pay attention to me throughout. I'd say she seemed like a pretty normal dog, although not quite like one of my dogs yet (because we all know my dogs aren't anymore normal than their owner, ha). Rubi didn't make me look stupid, which is always one of my long-term goals.

Speaking of goals, due to my recent inability to separate my ass from the couch, I want to write down a few concrete goals for Rubi's training program. I've worked as a rehab nurse for a long time, so I know how valuable a well-written goal can be. I also know how hard it is to write one. First, goals must be realistic and attainable. Saying "Rubi will pass the CGC next week" is a little like saying "I will win the lottery tomorrow." It just ain't gonna happen. Second, the goal must be specific. If I made a New Years resolution to lose twenty pounds by next year, then, well, do I really have to lose any weight in January? I mean, that still gives me eleven months to work on it. So really, not losing any weight in February shouldn't matter either . . . and so on and so on until your making the same goal next year with the addition of "and this year, I really will do it." Goals must also be measurable. Did you do it or not? If the answer is, "I dunno" or "I still have time to work on it," chances are you need to change the way you're measuring your success. Finally, there has to be a deadline. As we procrastinators know, there are no results without a deadline. Having an end date also give you a specific time to revisit and reevaluate your goals.

So, with these things in mind, here are Rubi's and my goals for the future:

1. I will work with Rubi five times per week, at least 20 minutes per session, until we pass the CGC.
2. We will attend all of the remaining CA classes, and I will have decided which class to enroll B in next by CA week 5 (that's next week, btw).
3. I will work with B off my property three times per week until we pass the CGC. (note: that means I have the option of using our twenty minutes per day to go for a walk. I also count going to class as practice off property. So what that breaks into is two walks per week and one trip to class. Should be attainable.)
4. Rubi and I will pass her CGC by May 2011.

So, now all that's left is to pray.  And oh, yeah - get to work. As Thomas Edison said, "Opportunity is missed by most people because it is dressed in overalls and looks like work."