Wednesday, August 24, 2011

'Til My Puzzler Was Sore

There's a lot of talk in reactive dog circles right now about allowing the dog to think, make a choice, and then rewarding the heck out of the good choice. It makes sense; dogs, after all, repeat what you reward. I've used this technique with fantastic results with Maus. If I stop and give him time to really analyze a situation, 99% of the time he decides that he's safe and that there's nothing worth reacting that. Recently, I've watched many handlers use the same process and make great progress with their dogs. I've been working with B on making good choices, and I couldn't figure out why we seemed to have stalled out.

I seem to have forgotten that B makes bad choices.

A lot of them.

Very quickly.

I doubt that B even understands that there's a choice to be made: see other dog, throw tantrum until other dog comes over. She's had five years work herself into a habit, and I think that her vision may be so narrow that she doesn't see that there's another, more productive way to behave. Her behavior bypasses her brain altogether. No wonder waiting for B to make the "right choice" wasn't working so well.

Now I know what doesn't work. Important, but not as important as knowing what does work. Think, brain, think.

The cool part about traveling in canine-oriented circles is that inspiration seems to appear when you need it most. For me, a video posted on my friend Apryl's facebook page hit home. B and I went back to basics. We polished up our heel. Most importantly, I increased the rate of reinforcement instead of giving B a chance to "think' about what was going on. If a dog appeared, I shoved a piece of hot dog in her mouth right away, effectively interrupting her stare and refocusing her on me. Then we made progress step by step instead of choice by choice. Less shaping, more luring.

It works. B has made some stellar progress this week. Upping the rate of reinforcement was the big one, I think. B has always had trouble with dogs that weren't behind fences on our walks. But this week, we've been able to pass the house with the big angry dog on a tie out with nary a whine.

Then there was the off-leash beagle. Since stopping classes, the only way for B to be around other dogs is if I take her out on walks. I've pretty much mapped out where all the off-leash dogs are likely to be, and we avoid those areas. But, well, welcome to real life training.

I see the dog about half a block away, take a second to make sure what I'm seeing (because dog on a tie out would be a good training opportunity), and when I'm sure of what I'm seeing, I give B our strategic retreat cue ("runaway, runaway"), and head back the way we came. Rubi doesn't mind this at all. We've practiced retreating a lot when dogs aren't around, so she doesn't associate the cue with other dogs. She's also on squirrel patrol, so she isn't looking behind herself.

Jingle, jingle, jingle.

I look back, and sure enough, while B didn't notice the beagle, the beagle noticed us and is trotting merrily our way. B hasn't heard it yet - she's too engrossed in the possibility of squirrels. I make the strategic decision to turn B around. I do this because I can't outrun anything with four legs, and I'd rather B see the other dog while it's still far enough away for her to be under threshold, instead of having her turn around and, "ZOMG, DOG!"

B sees the other dog, and the instant her ears go up, I pop a piece of hot dog in her mouth. She stares. The beagle freezes. I give B another piece of hot dog. She wags her tail a little. I give her a third piece of hot dog, and she looks at me - then she gets five pieces of hot dog because, yay! We play the auto watch game a few more times, the beagle stays where it is, and I eventually turn B back around and head toward home.

Jingle, jingle, jingle.


I turn B around again and the beagle freezes as B stares. I give her a piece of hot dog. We play the auto watch game again. The beagle isn't coming any closer, but - you guessed it - as soon as we turn away, it starts coming closer again. We stop about three more times, the beagle getting slowly closer until I give up when it's about ten feet away.

By the way, this beagle is my new favorite dog in the neighborhood. Every time B stops and stares, the beagle freezes, turns its head away, and flicks its tongue. Every time B turns away to take a treat, the beagle takes a step closer. Eventually, the beagle gets close enough to sniff B, and I give her a whole fist full of hot dog.

Then I release her to sniff the beagle back. They circle each other, doing the new-doggie dance, while I follow and try to keep B's leash loose. After about eight seconds, I call B's name.

She ignores me.

I take a chance and gently call her again. She turns and wags her tail at me.

I give her half the hot dogs I have left.

We sniff our selves dizzy a while longer, me periodically calling B back, giving her treats, and releasing her. This helps to break her concentration and intensity, and it also reinforces her recall. I'm not going to call her away and ruin her fun. I'm calling her away, giving her tasty treats, and letting her go back. It's a win/win situation from B's perspective.

Once it becomes clear that there isn't going to be any fight, and the beagle is not going to go away and leave us alone, I turn us all around again, and we head back in the direction the beagle came from. We find its frantic owner a block away. She had "just left the gate open for a minute" to water her plants, and when she turned around, the beagle was gone. Uh-huh. But the beagle's owner seems genuinely apologetic, and I'm too pleased with Rubi's behavior to really dig into her.

Progress - we haz it!

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

I Want To Tell You About Jack

Handsome Jack came into our lives on a brilliant October morning. I remember it crisply: my dad and I were in the driveway working on my car. My dad grew up on a farm, and we were having a lively discussion about who would win in a fair fight, a pit bull or a farm-bred tom cat. This is the moment Jack chose to saunter into my life. 

We didn't feed him to the pit bulls to see who would win. 

I didn't even think of it . . . Honest.

I did do all the right things: contacted local vets, cruised craigslist and petfinder, called animal control, but no one was missing a sweet but skinny little boy kitty. One of the distinctions I make between mentally unstable self and one of those mentally unstable hoarders is that I know my limits. My limit is four cats. Jack was number five. Five cats is like . . . suicide. Every time turned around, I was tripping over one of the little basta - ahem, buggers. Sooner or later, one of them was going to trip me down the stairs and kill me. Still, I couldn't very well put Jack's butt back out on the street (damn ethics). So I called in a few favors and got Jack vetted and neutered and began the hunt for a new home. 

In December of 2009, one of our cats died in an unexpected, violent, and entirely preventable accident. My family was devastated. My own guilt and grief was compounded by the suffering of Keagan, my favorite cat (they're not children, I'm allowed to have favorites). Keagan and the deceased cat had been best friends; we adopted them on the same day as kittens, and they had been inseparable. After the accident, Keagan wandered the house, puzzled. Keagan has always been a quiet cat, and he didn't stop eating, but for a week, I never saw him sleep. He traveled from room to room, never stopping, looking out windows and under couches as if he could figured out where we'd hidden his best friend. 

Until one morning when I came home from work and Keagan was passed out cold in a chair, Handsome Jack curled next to him, licking his forehead. I emailed the Powers That Be the same day: "Take Jack off the webpage - we're keeping him."

I never once regretted the decision. If the Voice of Reason and I ever split up, Jack is the only animal we'd fight over. He's just that cool. Introducing a new animal to a house full of animals - let alone a critter as sensitive as an adult cat -  is always a dicey proposition, but Jack handled it with aplomb. Every time one of the other cats would cop an attitude with him, he'd stare at them for a moment as if wondering what bug got stuck up their butt, and then he'd turn casually and walk away. Jack handled new dogs in the house with the same laconic chill: a dismissive look and a talk-to-the-butt. If they got uppity, he wasn't above a good smack, either. You couldn't ask for a better cat with other animals. 

When Jack first came to the house, he was a bit untamed. He didn't like to be held, but he loved to perch on my shoulder as I did dishes or cooked or folded laundry. He was obsessive about food, probably because he clearly didn't get enough when he was where ever he was before he walked up my driveway. Jack would literally steal the food off your fork if you weren't paying attention - his balls were that big. Part of Jack's huge appetite no doubt came from his total lack of physical coordination. There is no way Jack was catching any food on the outside. It wasn't uncommon for him to try to jump on the kitchen counter and miss two or three times. When he'd finally get up there, he'd fall in the sink. Even when it was filled with water. He was stubborn about it, though. He never gave up once he decided he wanted something. 

He let me dress him up in funny costumes. He wouldn't even give me dirty looks for it. 

Jack has left us as unexpectedly as he came into our lives. Handsome Jack passed away from lymphoma today at the age of four. Only the good die young, right? Wisdom and faith tell me that Jack is happy now, having gone to where ever it is that good kitties go when they've lived a great life and always used the litter box. He's free in that land where no one tries to shove pills down his throat or dress him up as a reindeer for Christmas. In this place, kitchen counter tops are only two feet high, and they always have raw steak sitting out unattended. I know this; I believe it. 

But I still wish Jack were here with me, to ease my grief once again. 

Friday, August 12, 2011

That'll Do, Pig

If I'm not complaining, I'm probably dead. I know this about myself; it's not one of my better qualities, but it's there. Fortunately, I believe that in order to complain about something, you have to be willing to take the necessary steps to make things better. This philosophy is why I vote. It's why I volunteer to be on committees at work. And it's why for the last few years, I've been on the A Rotta Love Plus education team. Most pit bull owners, myself included, can tell stories about people who cross the street to avoid their dogs. Or people who will be petting their dog and then suddenly stop and back with a look of horror when told what breed of dog they're touching (because me saying, "(S)He's a pit bull" is actually code for, "Attack! Attack!"). I don't have the patience needed to educated these people. So instead, I tackle the next generation. I firmly believe that ignorance is a 100% curable disease (stupidity is, of course, a different matter).

The ARLP education program works mostly with children, and children are remarkably and wonderfully open-minded. I've been itching to get Rubi into the program for a while, but I wanted to wait for the right environment. I wanted a site that I'd done before so I would know what to expect. Not only the building and the room, but also what the kids were going to be like. Some groups can be really wild, and I didn't want to put the added stress on myself to control the kids and Rubi at the same time. I also wanted to do a program without any other dogs, for obvious reasons. I have no doubt that Rubi will be able to do programs with other dogs in the future, but again, I didn't want the added trouble.

I decided that our debut program would be at the Science Museum of Minnesota's "Get Set to Be a Vet"  class. ARLP has been working with the Science Museum for several years, and every year I've volunteered for it because dude - you get to take your dog into the Science Museum! How cool is that?

The day of the program with Rubi, I went the extra mile to make sure Rubi was well exercised - literally. We biked for about three miles and came home to play ball with the other dogs. After forty-five minutes of ball, I was a little worried that she hadn't fallen over from exhaustion yet. When I first got Rubi, we went out for a walk. A mile from home, she laid down and refused to go another step. I managed to coax her half a mile back, but I ended up carrying her the last half mile. How we have both changed!

I loaded Rubi up into the van and headed out. Rubi regards car rides as the greatest of adventures, and this trip was no different. She sat in the crate watching the world fly by, ears up, grinning like Peter Pan. I have a terrible habit of being late to the Science Museum, so I made sure that we left in good time. As a result, we were twenty minutes early. As I geared up and got us going, I quietly begged my dog, "Please, if you behave, you can have a whole can of green tripe for dinner. Please." She gave me this look, which I thought was rather cryptic:

Those twenty extra minutes flew by, and before I knew it, it was game time. We piled into a room with about ten eight-year old girls who immediately start ooh-ing and awe-ing over B (although thankfully remaining in their seats a respectful distance away - have I mentioned how much I love the Science Museum kids?). Upon seeing the them, Rubi lights up and starts doing the Pit Bull Wiggle'n'Wag Slut Dance. I gently tug B over to her mat and get her settled. Luckily, while she's clearly excited about everyone else, she's still focused on me.

Laura A, the facilitator, introduces herself and the rescue. I introduce myself and Rubi.

"Does she bite?" One little blonde asks warily.

"She sure doesn't," I reassure her.

"Does she, like, put her mouth on you and chew on you?"

"No, she doesn't do that either." I lean in, about to tell a special secret. "She really likes to give kisses though."

The girls giggle.

Laura A talks about stray dogs, what a stray dog is, and what an eight year-old girl should do if she sees one. I spend this time doing unobtrusive impulse control exercises with Rubi on her mat. We do treats-on-paws, Zen doggie, and a few others.

When a stray dog approaches a child, we teach them that they should stand still  like a tree, not look at the dog, and definitely not start screaming and running as small children are wont to do. We have the girls practice standing like a tree while Rubi and I walk between them, and I praise the genius that is Kellie Dillner, the lady who developed the Dog Safety Education curriculum. What an awesome idea to first show the dogs that kids aren't all that interesting and let them sniff everyone before doing anything more exciting. After "stand like a tree," we teach what you should do if a stray dog knocks you over, "curl up like a rock." The girls curl up on the floor with their hands over their heads.

"Just don't step on anyone," I whisper to B. She doesn't, but I have a near miss with a tiny shoe.

After talking about stray dogs, we talk about responsible pet ownership. And how to greet a dog you don't know. First, ask the owner. Then, let the dog sniff you. After that, pet the dog's neck and shoulders. The girls get to come up one by one and practice on B. They're thrilled at how she tries to shake their hands instead of sniffing them like she's suppose to. Hey, I'm not going to complain.

"What do dogs need?" Laura A asks once everyone's settled down again.

Food, water, training, a habitat, love.

"What does love look like?"

"Well," one of the girls explains, "you have to pet them and give them treats and attention. That's love." The little girl points at me. "Like she's doing with Rubi."

I look at Rubi. Rubi grins at me. It's amazing how children have a way of reminding you of the important things you've forgotten.

After responsible dog ownership, we talk about training. I explain to the girls about dog sports, and give them a glimpse into everything from tracking and disc to obedience and therapy work. Then, I show them Rubi's tricks. They're very impressed with "touch" when I have Rubi jump to shoulder height to nose bump my hand. I teach the girls how to teach their own dogs "touch," and then I show them how to teach roll-over and beg.

"What do you use for treats?" one girl asks.

I pull a fistful of goodies out of my bait pouch. I have hot dogs, pepperoni, and soft cat treats for my high value; kibble, Charlie Bears, and marshmallows for low values. This leads into a discussion about feeding dogs people food, and then into a discussion about raw diets. The girls are amazed that Rubi gets to eat raw chicken, ground hamburger, and fresh veggies instead of kibble.

"Does Rubi always listen to what you tell her?" someone pipes up.

"Do you always listen to what your parents tell you?" I counter.



"All the time!"

I stare at the group for a second with the sound of snickering from the adults in the room behind me. "Well," I say, "I imagine Rubi listens about as well as you do."

Too quickly, the hour is over. The girls line up to leave, and I bring Rubi over to the door so they can say good-bye as they go. Rubi's in heaven, her whole body vibrating with joy.

"Good girl," I tell her. "That'll do, pig. That'll do."

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Wordless Wednesday: The Progression

Rubi's Gotcha Day is coming up in a few months, so I've been waxing nostalgic over my computerized photo albums. I'm wondering - do you see what I see?

May 24, 2010

June 20, 2010

July 29, 2010

August 16, 2010

September 26, 2010

December 4, 2010

February 21, 2011

March 21, 2011

April 3, 2011

June 9, 2011

July 14, 2011