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."  


(Originally posted Sept 18, 2010)

Today, we signed B's paperwork. We're now stuck with each other, 'til death do us part. 

A quick snapshot from tonight's relaxation protocol: one big, happy, calm family.


Something New

(Originally posted on Sept 16, 2010)

Changing shifts has meant reorganizing everyone's schedule. I've been playing ball with the dogs after work to burn off their extra energy from being crated all day. By "play ball," I mean that everyone is running hard for at least an hour. When I worked nights, the dogs and I would go for walks when I got home. Since changing shifts, I often go from feeling bright and chipper one moment to exhausted and cranky the next. It's like mood swings, only with sleep. I have sleep swings. Hopefully things will even out, but until then, we play ball since it requires less mental effort from me. This isn't a total loss: as a result of our regular ball playing, Rubi is starting to bring balls back to me instead of prancing all around the yard with them.

Today Zach (my husband) had to work late. Luckily, I got off work on time and was able to let everyone out of their crates. Zach still wasn't home after we were done playing ball, and I promised myself that I would work with B tonight since we skipped class yesterday. But I really didn't want to put the other dogs back in their crates. So I thought, heck, the other dogs can hold stays, let's just do the protocol with everyone.

It went pretty well, I thought. It was interesting to see the difference between B, who has been doing the relaxation protocol for about two weeks now, and the other dogs who were in "we're gonna work now!" mode. B was rock solid from the beginning, of course - she knew what was expected of her - and everyone else had really mellowed out by the second cycle. All in all, it was really relaxing  for everyone.

Which got me thinking - I bet the relaxation protocol in group format would be really beneficial for divided homes. What I mean by "divided homes" is those of you that crate and rotate. Obviously not for dogs that want to kill each other on sight, but for those dogs that are just kind of uncomfortable around their house mates. Work each dog individually through day nine or ten, and then start everything over again with both dogs able to see each other (but secured separate - maybe with tethers or a baby gate). Once the protocol was over, they would be separated again. Maybe after one cycle the first day or two, two cycles the next few days, and so on. So from the dog's perspective, it would be come out, see other dog, relax for a bit, go away from other dog. Hmmm . . . now I just need someone to experiment on . . .

Hey Murdoch! Come back!  

Searching for Nirvana

(Originally posted Sept 15, 2010)

It's been a rough week here in the Dizzy household. The big news is that I switched jobs, moving from night shift (where I've been for the last three years) to a daytime clinic job. I wouldn't recommend it. My circadian rhythm is completely shot; I'm exhausted by noon and wide awake at two in the morning. I've also been pulling ten hour days to keep up. We had Murdoch with us for the weekend - that group shot took me about three and a half hours to get, by the way. That was on top of an already busy weekend schedule: RenFest and graduating the tricky pitties (I miss them already), plus helping my mom out with her craft show. Then I spent two hours with the vet on Monday with Maus, which is an adventure in itself, trying to find the cause of the two seizures he's had this month.

I'm not telling you all this to complain (well, not just to complain). I want to show you how being stressed affects the dogs. Just the schedule change is a big deal. The herd went from having someone around all day to being kenneled for a big chunk of the day. B has definitely taken it the hardest. I've often heard people say that it takes a month or two for a new pet to settle into their home. I think it takes closer to nine to twelve months before a dog really understands their place in the world, particularly when we're talking about a dog like B, who's been shuffled around a lot. Rubi's stress has manifested in the form of selective hearing, backsliding in her reactivity, and just general anxiety - where before she might have just watched us wander around the house, she now follows us, curling into a tight, tense little ball when she thinks we've stopped for a rest. Allister's been hit next hardest. A friend commented to me the other day that his whining and separation anxiety seems to be getting worse. Even Piper is a little wired, refusing to give up toys, something she hasn't done since she was a teenager. Note: the dogs aren't being obstinant, reasserting their dominance, or acting out. Dogs don't to those things. People do those things, and we are ever so quick to assign our faults to other creatures. They, like me, are simply stressed and have lost the fine tuning to their training.

So B and I will not be going to class tonight.

Dog trainers - the good ones, at least - talk a great deal about setting your dog up to succeed. I'd like to take that further: let's set the human up to succeed as well. I can't imagine any way in which going to class this week will be beneficial. I'm tired and tense. I think that if one more bad thing happens to me today, there's a good chance I might burst into tears, even if it's just burning the mac and cheese. Rubi is also not feeling so great. I already know her training has back slid a bit, and I can't see how adding more stress hormones into her body can possibly help. We've got enough to work on at home.

Instead, I cleaned the bird cages. The dogs and I played ball in the yard for an hour. I took Allister to the pet store to buy some treats - ahem, er - very important necessities.  And when I'm done up-dating the diary, I'm going to go read a book while the dogs get a head start on bedtime.

I don't know about all of you, but I got dogs to be bored with them. To play ball in the yard and to go shopping with. I got them so I could sit on the porch drinking coffee with the sunrise and sleepy dogs in the summer, and to curl up with a book, a blanket, and a pit bull on cold, winter nights. I did not adopt them to educate the public or provide breed ambassadors or to win ribbons at shows. I have dogs so that we might share each other's day to day lives, the ups and the downs. I wanted dogs for comfort and companionship, and for what inner peace we can give each other.


Furry Friends

(Originally posted Sept 10, 2010)

I agreed to dog sit this weekend for my friend Maire long before we took in Queen B, and since I don't mind crating and rotating for a few days, I decided to keep the appointment. Some of you might remember Maire from the Pride Parade. Her dog is Murdoch, and he's a scottie/cairn mix. He's a great little dog, but he's also reactive. Worse than B, actually: on a scale of 0-10 (with 0 being dog social and 10 being completely psycho), Rubi is about a 5. Murdoch is a 7. I decided to give introductions a shot since there were more points on my "pros" list than my "cons" list. Hopefully I'll write an actual entry about it, but I wanted to give you all a few snap shots from this morning in the meantime. 


Pay Attention, Please

(Originally posted Sept 9, 2010)

Class yesterday went well - compared to last week, anyway. B spend only the first five or so minutes of class over threshold, and she waited until we were inside our box to freak out. She definitely prefers to be moving versus static around other dogs, but then, movement is more distracting, so I suppose that makes sense. The drooling, panicked dog from last week is gone, and though I doubt I've seen the last of my dog's evil twin, good riddance for now! Instead, I have the dog I expected: high energy, intense, reactive, pumped, enthusiastic, and just a touch jittery. There was still a lot of pacing, but at least she didn't take any fingers off. Progress! We were able to spend about 45 minutes (the last half) of class outside our box in the presence of the other dogs. We still used our box for a handful of quick get-aways, but compared to the two or so minutes we spent out with the rest of the dogs last week, I'm pretty dang pleased with what we were able to accomplish.

As humans, and as Americans in particular, we place a lot of value on eye contact. I've watched many dog owners, and owners of reactive dogs in particular, who, upon seeing another dog, start nagging on their dogs, snapping on their leashes or waving their hands in the dog's face, and saying in increasingly frantic tones, "Dog, watch me, watch me, Dog! WATCH ME?" This can make even normal, sane, sensible dogs blow a gasket, let alone dogs who are predisposed to insanity. I'm fairly sure this training method has been used on Rubi; in fact, I'd be surprised if it hadn't. As a result, B assumes that she shouldn't look at other dogs. When she's "working," she does what she was training to do: she stares at me me, growing more and more tense, until I can practically see her eyes start to bleed with the effort of not looking at the other dogs. Then, unable to bear the pressure any longer, she whips around, squealing and yodeling and freaking out. By the time she looks at the other dog, she's already over threshold. Rubi was looking at me, but she wasn't paying attention to me.

Now what am I talking about? Isn't a dog who's forced to look at you paying attention to you? Well, no. An ostrich may stick it's head in the sand to hide from a predator, but you can bet it's 100% focused on the predator - not the sand. I don't really care if Rubi looks at other dogs. What I want is her attention.

Before I can work on attention, I have undo B's previous training. I need to teach her that it's okay to look at other dogs. Here's that counter conditioning again: B sees a dog, B gets a treat. Period. The part of counter conditioning that new people have the most trouble with is that I give her a treats even when she's reacting. Aren't I rewarding her for reacting, then? No. I have plenty of science to back me up on this one, but for the sake of the diary, you're just going to have to trust me. Remember, dogs don't pay attention to the noises they're making. They pay far more attention to their environment. As B gets more comfortable in her environment, she will stop reacting. But the goal is to keep her under threshold, anyway. The easiest way to do this is to increase distance. So if B's reacting, I offer treats, but I also move her away from the other dog until she is in her right mind again and able to take the treats.

Just because she's taking treats doesn't mean Rubi is paying attention. I can eat a meal and hold a conversation at the same time. It's called "multitasking." At this point in our training together, B's got a pretty strong conditioned reaction to the clicker. She hears a click, she looks for the treat. There's no longer any thinking process involved in this for her. It's like me answering the phone and saying, "Hello, VA Medical Center, Laura speaking." It's such a reflex that I occasionally answer me cell phone this way (yet another reason I rarely answer my cell). In this way, B is conditioned to look for the treat when she hears the click. So now when she looks at one of the other dogs, I give her a click, she looks at me to get her treat.

I'm pretty specific about the amount of time I let B look at the other dogs. The reason for this is that the longer she looks at them, the less she's able to focus on anything else - including the clicker. The mark/reward serves to break up her intensity. Another reason is that I'm trying to set up a conditioned reaction to the sight of another dog. I want her to look at another dog and then look at me - no clicker necessary. To this day, in the several years that I have had him, I give Maus three seconds to look at a person before marking/rewarding him. That stage is many thousands of repetitions in B's future. In the meantime, I click B the instant she sees the other dog. Rubi's a smart cookie, she picks up on this quickly. It isn't long before she willingly looks at the other dog, gets her treat, looks at the other dog, gets her treat, looks at the other dog, gets her treat . . . About thirty minutes in (that's about 200 repetitions at our rate), I skip the click. B looks at the other dog, looks at me . . . and then looks at me harder.


That was the moment I was looking for: B had been looking at the other dogs, but she was paying attention to me. I went back to look at other dog/click/reward pattern after that, tossing in only about a dozen of the look back at me/click/reward in the entire class. I'm not trying to challenge my dog right now - I'm trying to build in patterns of behavior. We're building foundations right now, not setting in fancy tiling on the roof. I'm not talking to her, I'm not forcing her to do - or not to do - anything. I'm proving to Rubi that I am someone worth paying attention to.  

Never Be Afraid to Look Stupid for Your Dog

(Originally posted on Sept 8, 2010)

It's come to my attention that since starting Changing Attitudes (CA), I will be doing homework for a dog class for the first time in a bout four years. Don't get me wrong, we do lots of little training sessions here at home and out in the community. But they tend to be structured along the lines of "I'm bored, I think I'll teach you this" or "This needs work, we'd better practice." I tend to make stuff up as I go along. Since I'm trying to follow an actual plan (specifically with the relaxation protocol), and I'd like to be able to chart my progress with a new technique, I'm going to put my notes on the homework in here. Hopefully then I won't lose it.

Side note: For those of you who'd like more information about the relaxation protocol, here's a site with the original relaxation protocol as developed by Dr Karen Overall: http://dogscouts.org/Protocol_for_relaxation.html For CA, the protocol has been altered some from it's original form: we use a mat, the dog is in a down, and we don't talk to the dog are the big differences I noticed right off the bat. For those of you who don't want to read the whole article (I admit, I didn't), the relaxation protocol is done once a day with a total of three cycles each in a different location. And if you're a visual learner or are having trouble falling asleep tonight, here's a video of Day 1: Cycle 1 http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XX9rOLaN-bw (It's suppose to be boring!)

So, Wednesday was class. 'Nough said.

Thursday: Mental Health Day. For the sake of our sanity, we didn't do anything even remotely interesting.

Friday: Started with the relaxation protocol. Cycle 1 in the living room: offered lots of behaviors, but settled down and was attentive by task twelve. Cycle 2 in the second bedroom: still relaxed and attentive. Cycle 3 out on the porch: interested in watching for squirrels, but easily refocused. Relax and attentive by task fifteen. Total training session time: 20 minutes. Played ball with all four dogs afterward.

Saturday: Relaxation protocol first: Cycle 1 in the sun room: relaxed and focused from the beginning, went right to her mat, but would get up and need to be reset several times when I went halfway around her. On task 21, bumped hip to the side to get more comfortable for the first time. Cycle 2 on the porch: more interested in squirrel watching than yesterday, but didn't get up when I went around her. Relaxed and attentive by task 12. Cycle 3 in the driveway: more on alert, got up and had to be reset several times, particularly when I moved toward the street (maybe thought we were going for a walk?). I felt stupid jogging in place were people could see me (Note: never be afraid to look stupid for your dog). Alert and attentive by task 20.
After relaxation protocol, we practiced shake and wave (both paws), name game, left finish, stand, and ask nice. Also worked on refocusing after going through gates/outside doors. Total training session time: 35 minutes. B came in and took a nap afterward.

Sunday: Relaxation Protocol: Cycle 1 in the living room: Piece of cake, hip bumped by task eight. Cycle 2 in the backyard: Waaaay harder. B didn't seem to understand the concept of being on the grass and going to her mat. Got up multiple times, didn't seem able to focus very well. Seemed to do better after task 22 when I decided to alternate treats with calm praise and slow petting - interesting . . . Cycle 3 in the front yard: Practiced "go to mat" and marking for attention for approximately three minutes before starting protocol. Went MUCH better this time. Got up once on task 3, otherwise stayed down, relaxed, and attentive throughout the cycle. Discovered on task 25 that there was a SQUIRREL behind me across the street. B definitely noticed it while we were working - oriented on it as soon as I released her from the protocol, but easily and happily refocused on me when asked. WOW. Total training session time: 28 minutes
After the protocol, we went for a walk around the park (about one mile). Went about like usual, took about an hour (no, it doesn't take me an hour to walk a mile, we work on a lot of training stuff while walking). Noticed a new pattern: Dog in yards, no problem. Dogs not in yards: NOT COOL.

Monday: I am too tired to train dogs today. I have thresholds, too.

Tuesday : It's raining, windy, and still dark out when it's time to do training today. B and I work throught the relaxation protocol in the house: cycle one in sun room, cycle two in the living room, cycle three in the basement (with the other dogs crated in the room). Did fine all three cycles: hip bumped, relaxed, and attentive, wasn't bothered by the other dogs in their crates at all. Was all gung-ho to play with them after the protocol, though, but I took her upstairs and trimmed her nails instead. Nail trim went about normal, although she did cheerfully roll onto her back so I could get her hind nails. She did that without any prompting whatsoever, which is new, but whether this is do to the relaxation protocol or all the countercounditioning we've been doing already with nail trims (or both!), I really don't know.

Wednesday: What a nice day! We do cycle one and cycle two of day five on the porch and in the backyard, respectively. Both go swimmingly, so I decide to take this show on the road. Right out the gate we run into trouble: a couple and two dog walking past the house. B acts like I expect her to - jumping and wailing. Interesting to notice she only reacts when the leash is tight. Clearly this is a pulling issue and if I could just polish up her leash manners, she'd be perfect! (lol, just kidding. It's not that easy - it's never that easy.) We spend some time in the driveway decompressing - we practice push-ups and doggie zen, to be exact. The we head to the park. I pick a spot about halfway through, tie her to a post, and start working. After a few tasks, it's clear that this is too much for her; she's very tense and distracted. REMEMBER and this is important - always set your dog up to succeed. What we're doing isn't working. So we go back to Day three's exercises. B gets up twice during the first five tasks, but aside from a brief hiccup when some people got too close, she had definitely start to unwind by the end. Her eyes were much softer, and she's more relaxed, although she's still pretty quick to startle at strange noises. We start to head back and WOW what a nice change! She offers about three times as much attention as when we started, and we got some really nice free heeling going. I decide to push our luck, and we stop again by the side of the road to do another cycle of day three. She got up once, I think, but for calm and relaxed the whole time. The rest of the way home, she continued to offer a lot of attention, so apparently, I just need to start carrying her mat with me every where we go. That, I'm sure, won't look silly at all. 

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.  

Wordless Wednesday: The Queen B

(Originally posted on Aug 25, 2010)

First, she steals your heart.


Then, she steals your soul! 

The Socialization of the Reactive Rover

(Originally posted on Aug 24, 2010)

One of the worst thing you can do for a reactive dog is keep them away from other dogs. In addition, one of the worst things you can do for a reactive dogs is get them around other dogs.

And that, my friends, is how aneurysms are made.

Think about guacamole (how's that for random?  ). I love guacamole; it's an extra special treat that I get about once every four months. As much as I love it, though, if it was force fed to me every meal, I'd learn to hate it. Let me compare guacamole to reactive dogs. A reactive dog that sees other dogs every once in a blue moon is going to be pretty intense about them - strange dogs are new and exciting and exotic. At the opposite end of the spectrum, a dog that sits in its yard to bark and scream while and endless parade of strange dogs walks by is just going to get more and more practice at being a nut job. Each time a dog goes over threshold - that is, every time it hits that point where all it can focus on is that other dog - it's body dumps a flood of stress hormones. In a dog that freaks out on a regular basis, these hormones build up and can affect the dog's behavior even when there are no triggers around. These dogs turn into nervous wrecks, always looking for other dogs, freaking out anytime they think there might be another dog around, until they're walking around shaking and projectile vomiting green avocado. The point is, the reactive dog that never sees another dog and the reactive dog that sees too much of other dogs will both get worse.

I like the class setting for reactive dogs because it's a controlled environment. Sure, there are idiots every where you go, but the chance of having a stray dog run up to you in class with no owner in sight? Probably not going to happen. One of the advantages of working with a group as large as TCOTC (that's Twin Cities Obedience Training Club, in case I haven't mentioned that before) is that there's a huge variety to the classes. Interested in obedience or rally? We've got that. Agility? Yup. Conformation? Flyball? Tracking? You betcha. And of course, problem classes for problem dogs. So I have a few options for B and me. We could do regular level one classes; I'm sure we both would survive. I'm also sure its wouldn't be fun. Level one classes tend to be large, and it's also where about 80% of the behavior department's reactive dog referral come from. People think, hey, my dog is psychotic, maybe we should go to dog training school without thinking hey, is this really the class we should be in? It's not a good learning environment for a dog I already know has problems. Rubi is an ideal candidate for the Reactive Rovers class at TCOTC. The class is set up just for dogs like her, and it rocks, if I do say so myself.  The only reason I haven't signed B up for RR is that I teach it. I got this; I want to learn something new. So with these things in mind, I've signed us up for Changing Attitudes (CA). The class is based on the book Control Unleashed by Leslie McDevitt, and it's the step below RR. It's geared toward highly distractable dogs with impulse control issues. Sound familiar? Beyond that, I'm not entirely sure what to expect. And I'm looking forward to it.  

The Measure of Success

(Originally posted on Aug 20, 2010)

I have never heard anyone say, "My dog used to be reactive." If I ever did, I would be inclined to think that their dog wasn't reactive in the first place. It's not something you get over or cure like the common cold. Reactivity is more like lupus or agoraphobia - you manage it and you control it, but it never really goes away. If you're lucky, you get to a point where only you and your dog know the truth, but there's always that nagging knowledge in the back of your mind. You gain an extra awareness of where other dogs are, what they're doing, and how your dog is responding. This extra sense changes the way you see the world, and it makes it impossible to shrug it off and pretend like the reactivity isn't there anymore.

I've been assisting with reactive dog classes at TCOTC for almost six months now. As I'm escorting dogs and handlers into the classroom, I always ask how they're doing. "Oh, I was so happy! MacGyver saw a dog outside the house, and he didn't bark at all!" "We're doing okay with the other dogs, but we had a bad moment with a plastic bag the other day." "Dewey and I were practicing watching other dogs, and he offered to look at me twice in ten minutes!" Success isn't built in weeks or months or even years. It's built in moments. Today we had a good moment; yesterday we had a bad moment. Tomorrow? Who knows. We keep plugging away at moments, trying to teach good behaviors and impulses, hoping to succeed.

Rubi and I had a good moment the other day. We were walking along the street when a small, yappy dog came flying out of nowhere, hysterically throwing himself at his fence on the other side of the road. B looked at him, whined once, and looked at me to see what the going rate in treats is for small, angry dogs. That wasn't the good moment (although it was pretty sweet). The good moment came when Rubi then decided, on her own, with no prompting from me, to turn around and keep walking. She didn't so much as spare another glance at the other dog, leaving me to float along behind her, pleasantly surprised and just a little amazed.

My Rubi is reactive, but we're doing pretty good right now.  

Where to Start?

(Originally posted on Aug 5, 2010)

One of the many lessons training has taught me is that good dogs start at home. I'll be the first to admit that I've been horribly lax about getting B (her name is RuBi, it still works) out and working on her reactivity. Part of it is pure laziness, part of it is that she doesn't demand to be worked with, part of it is business - I have three other dogs, am changing jobs, the car broke down (twice!), blah, blah, everybody's got excuses, they're like opinions, right (and you know what they say about opinions . . . ). But the truth is that Rubi's home life is just as important, if not more important, than her work life. No matter how many training classes we go to, if we don't follow through at home, if she doesn't get the structure and consistency she needs every day, it's all for naught. I just as well save the money and buy more collars. ;) 

The cornerstone of my dogs' life - that's right, all of them - is a strong NILIF program. The Nothing in Life is Free program has been around for a few decades and has several different names (here we call it the "No Freeloaders" program), but no matter what you call it, NILIF makes almost any dog easier to life with (and I say "almost" because you never says "always" when it comes to real life, especially real life dogs). The philosophy behind the program is that dogs must work for the things they want. More specifically, they must work with you to get what they want. And, of course, in the process, you get what you want. It's an owner-approved system of mutual manipulation. 

The underlying cause of B's reactivity is twofold: First, a lack of socialization (definitely a topic for another day), and Second, a total lack of ability to control her impulses. NIILIF is a fantastic tool for impulse control because it ensures that she doesn't get rewarded for undesirable behaviors while still allowing her to get what she wants - and allowing me to get what I want. 

Okay, enough with the run-on sentences, how about an example? Take, for instance, SQUIRRELS. SQUIRRELS are smallish, furry rodent with cute, fluffy tails who exist purely and only to torture dog. Oh, and eat seed from my bird feeders. Like many reactive dogs, Rubi isn't justreactive to one thing. When she came here, Rubi screamed like a banshee every time she saw - or thought she saw - one of the little monsters out at the squirrel feeder (yes, I have a squirrel feeder; quality canine entertainment, there). Since I'm not obsessed with squirrels, B always sees them and starts reacting before I do (which is very bad of me, shame on you, owner, shame! :cussing: ). At first, I interrupt the undesirable behavior by making myself impossible to ignore - in this case, I stand between her and the window until she looks at me. As soon as she glances at me, I mark the behavior and we go get a treat. After a few days of this, I can call her name, and she'll leave the squirrels to come get her treat. Here's where I throw in the NILIF - if she's particularly quick about coming to find me and get her treat, we run to the sun room, I throw open the door, and she gets to CHASE THE SQUIRREL!!! w00t!!!!! After a couple of weeks, B would see the squirrel and run to find me without any cue from me at all - seeing the squirrel has become her cue to come see if I have anything good for her. Eventually, she'll do what the other dogs do when they see squirrels: come find me, lie at my feet, and sigh lustily to make sure I notice how good they are. I get what I want (peace and quiet) and the dogs get what they want (treats and the occasional chance to chase naughty squirrels). This same method works to control B's insanity when seeing dogs outside the wondows or in the backyard. Just because we're not going places doesn't mean we're not working on her reactivity. 

You'll notice in the example above, I also constantly upping the stakes. Once she figures out how to get what she wants, I make it harder for her, forcing B to control herself even more. Her thought process goes from see, want, MUST GET NOW!!! to see, want, how do I get what I want . . . better check with mom. NILIF doesn't fix everything, but it's a place to start. ;)