Saturday, October 16, 2010

Rubi's First Day of School

(Originally posted Sept 2, 2010)

Well, it's official: I have the worst dog in class.

I knew there was a good chance we would be; I mean, I admitted that last week, right? We prepped for the class the way I usually do. I anticipated the exercises we'd have in class and practiced at home. I also made sure we went on lots of walks and brushed up on the whole “not freaking out at other dogs” thing. I mean, she isn't overly bothered by dogs rushing their fences when we're out on walks, that's pretty good, right?

B went over threshold about ten feet outside the door of the classroom. I was caught a little off guard, but eventually I just bit the bullet and dragged my wailing banshee in our box. When I say box – the class has six dogs, including Rubi. The dogs are all against a wall of the room in “stalls” created by two ring barriers in sort of a “U” shape with the open part facing the middle of the room. Except for Rubi and I, who get three ring barriers so that she can't see any of the other dogs. That's right, she has a box, she can't see any of the other dogs, and she's still screaming like someone has gutted her with a rusty spoon. I have never seen my dog so anxious. Oh, I know what she's like when she's reacting, that doesn't impress me so much anymore. But even when when she's gone over threshold before, she's always seemed pretty confident. Sort of “I want it, and I WANT IT NOW!” Crazy, but not nervous. Not tonight. She howled. She whined. She paced. She took a chunk out of my finger while snapping for a treat. And she drooled. Oh, the DROOL! I was hoping she would drown us both and put us out of our misery.

So, while the other people in the class are calmly practicing canine massage techniques, Rubi is having an anxiety attack, the teachers are probably trying to decide whether to kick us out, and I'm wondering where my happy place went. That's not to say I spent the class bewildered and unable to help my dog. Pretty much as soon as we got in our box, I buckled in and got to work. I'm a huge believer that you should never correct or punish a dog who is over threshold. Where does that put Rubi and I?

The corner stone of my reactive rover rehab program (ha! Alliteration, I amuse myself) is counter conditioning. Counter conditioning is presenting a negative stimulus and following it immediately by a positive stimulus in order to build a new association. A layman's example: think of that person at work that you hate (c'mon, I know I can't be the only one). Imagine that each time you saw that person, they brought you a piece of candy and were really nice to you. After a while, you might learn to like this person or, failing that, to tolerate them. This new tolerance is called a “conditioned emotional response” (CER). The nice thing about counter conditioning is that you can do it even when the dog is over threshold – that is by no means the best way, but at this point, I'll take what I can get. Since B cannot tolerate the sight of other dogs, I started by clicking and rewarding her every time she heard another dog, whether she was reacting or not. This meant barking (because while we may be the worse reactive dog in the class, we definitely weren't the only reactive dog). It also covered tags jingling and tails thumping against the barriers. This is all we did for the first thirty minutes of class, and we did it the entire hour and a half of class.

After the first thirty minutes, everyone else in the class was ready to move on, while B was just getting to the point where she wouldn't get psychotic when she heard another dog. Hey, progress is progress, and they hadn't thrown us out yet. The class started working on collar grabs. Now at home B couldn't care less if I grabbed her collar. The thing about taking a class with a dog for the first time is that you learn new things about your dog. In class, B still didn't care if I grabbed her collar – as long as she was paying attention. If I went for her collar quickly while she was reacting, she cowered and flattened to the ground.

WTH do I do with this? The answer is: nothing. We move on. She's not trying to bite me when I go for her collar, and as she becomes more comfortable in class and more focused on me, the problem should solve itself. If it doesn't, we'll fix it later. It's just not that important right now. Instead, I drag out her mat, and we work on trying to sit still for more than three seconds. No mean feat, considering her pacing. Since she's not offering me any stationary behaviors right now, we practice hip bumps. For those of you not lucky enough to have tricky pitties, a “hip bump” is a trick in which we ask the dog to lay on one of its hips using a lure.

An hour in, the teachers' declare it time to do Zen doggie. Finally! Something B and I can do. Zen doggie is simple: you hold a treat in your hand and mark/reward when the dog looks at your face. B is feeling pretty good about eye contact right now (she wouldn't look at me for about the first twenty minutes of class), so she really gets into Zen doggie. Then, its time to practice going through doorways.

“Laura, do you want to go first?”

Um, no. No I do not. I drag my carcass off the floor anyway (ouch! I think I'm getting old). I crack open our box. We take one step outside the box. Rubi sees the golden on the other side of the room. Before she can react, I mark and reward her (counter conditioning! ), and we go back inside our box. It was boring.

Thank God.

Encouraged by B's eye contact and our abbreviated adventure outside the box, I leave the corner open so B can briefly see the other dogs as they do a more intensive doorway exercise. By the third dog, B willing looks back at me when I mark her for seeing the other dog. She's also content to lie and watch them from her mat. I'm hoping this means the teachers' won't tell us not to come back at the end of class.

Then, apparently because we haven't suffered enough this evening, it's our turn to go again. I mark and reward her for stepping up to the opening in our box. I mark and reward her for looking at the golden. I mark and reward her for taking a step forward and looking at the golden. Then another. By the third step, I'm able to mark and reward her for looking at me. Step four, we're at the entrance to the make-shift “doorway” - two ring barrier set next to each other to form and opening. I mark and reward B for seeing the maltese next to the golden. Then I mark and reward her for seeing the golden again. Then I ask her to sit. And it's a miracle! She sits, and I mark and reward her for that. The hard part is next: we take a step through the door, and immediately, I take a step back, asking B to come around and sit in front of me, her back to the maltese and the golden.

She does!

I give Rubi half the treats in my bait bag, and we cheerfully return to our box. Highlight of the night right there. Only ten minutes left to class, and I'm thinking we might make it out alive.

Next is the relaxation protocol. I'll admit, when I first came across this in Reactive Rovers, I was skeptical. It was developed for reactive dogs, but to me, it mostly looks like a good way to proof stays for a really beginner dog. The dog lays on its mat while the handlers goes through a bunch of little distractions like taking a step back (treat dog), a step to the right (treat dog), wait five seconds (treat dog), step to the left (treat dog), wait three seconds (treat dog), and so on for about thirty treats. Seems silly, doesn't it? I don't know how it works, but it does. I have been converted. About three treats in, B started smiling. At treat five, her tail was wagging. Somewhere in the middle, Rubi relaxed for the first time in an hour and a half. There was my easy-going, happy dog! My, how I have missed you! I really wish we'd done the relaxation protocol at the beginning of class, but at least now I know where to start next time.

A little dazed at the end of class, B and I wrapped up our gear and bolted for the door before they could invite us not to come back next week. We went straight to McDonald's, because girls who work this hard shouldn't have to diet, too.  


  1. I have a question (not a criticism--you've been doing this longer than I have): Isn't bringing Ruby to an hour and a half long class where she was extremely over threshold right from a beginning considered more of "flooding" than DS? I get that you were doing CC work while over threshold, but I've always heard that for DS, the key is always keeping the dog under threshold.

    Also, I'd love to hear more about the relaxation protocol. I've read CU, but never really tried it, and one of my border collies does NOT relax if he's working. He will lay there and stay, holding his breath the whole time and on a hair-trigger waiting for a release.

  2. There was probably some flooding here, particularly in the beginning of class. It was a judgment call on my part if I kept her in or not. I decided since she was still giving me behaviors I could reward and still taking treats that we could work through this. I also factored in that I'd spent big bucks on the class and it did get much lower stimulus than this: she couldn't see the other dogs at all, just hear and smell them. If Rubi had been too worked up to take treats or if she had more of a fearful temperament, I would have pulled her from the class. For example, I never would have kept Maus in that situation.

    I'm sure that there are trainers who will disagree with me, but I've come to think of "over threshold" as more of a continuum than a black and white line. On one side you have sleeping and on the other side you have psychotic. It's a matter of deciding where on the continuum a dog is at any given moment, and where is the dog going to go from here. Being at the psychotic end is exhausting. Where is the dog going to be when he or she comes down? Is it possible to benefit from pushing things here? I wish I could explain it better, but what it comes down to is I took a chance and trusted my gut. Luckily for us, it turned out to be the right thing to do.

    Getting B to relax in a working environment has been an on-going struggle. I have a few tricks left in my bag, so keep an eye out for those. I think one of the advantages of the relaxation protocol is that it's so predictable and there's a rhythm to it. The dog is working, but it's about as low key as a job can be. I think the repetition is really the important part of the relaxation protocol. Eventually the dog learns that it's not worth it to be tense? That's my theory - you'll have to let me know if it works for your BC!

    (PS - thank you for commenting! You are my new best friend! )

  3. That makes a lot of sense actually! I especially like the idea of threshold as a continuum. I think you're probably correct about that, and I think that's probably the case with most things in life--not much is just black or white.