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.

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