Saturday, October 16, 2010

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. 

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