Friday, September 30, 2011

What's In Your Bait Bag?

You don't need to use treats to train your dog. But if you have a lighter, why would you use sticks to start a fire? Of the different rewards you can use, treats are the fastest, most readily available, and require the least amount of conditioning. If you're dog's not dead, it's motivated to eat. There are many ways to increase their desire for food.

Maybe the easiest way to increase a dog's food drive is to pick a better treat. Not all treats are created equal. At the bottom of my dogs' treat pyramid is kibble. And this is what they work for 75% of the time. Currently, my bait bag holds three different kinds of kibble. This has little to do with any particular training technique; it's how I get my kibble. All four of my dogs are raw fed, so any kibble in my house needs to be bought just for treats - not terribly economical when you only go through about a pound a week of the stuff. I sneak some from our cats, but the majority of my kibble gets picked-up in the form of free samples from vendors at shows or the pet store. Then I just empty a bag or two into my bait bag, and away we go.

Next up in value are the Natural Balance dog food rolls. They're softer and a little smellier than kibble, which usually translated into higher value for dogs. I like the dog foods rolls particularly in that I can cut slices off and then trim them into whatever size I want. Or, knowing myself, just tear off little pieces as I need them. The dog food rolls also soak up other flavors really nicely. If I'm running low on the next most awesome tier of treats, I can stick a few slices of dog food roll in with what ever highest value treats I have, and they will soak up the flavor and help stretch the good stuff a little farther.

My super high value treats are almost always fit for human consumption. I've never quite understood why some owners are so adverse to feeding their dogs people food. Before kibble came along, dogs lived off table scraps and whatever critters ran slower than them. I don't think table scraps at my house would be a very balanced diet, but I also don't see the harm in using it for treats outside of meal time. Currently, our highest value treats are hot dog, pepperoni, and some beef jerky I picked up at the store and decided I didn't care for myself - the dogs sure think it's awesome, though. In the passed, fat trimming from pork chops and steaks have graced the bait bag, as well as grilled chicken, hash browns from McDonalds, and bacon. Anyone of these things in large enough quantities could be harmful, but in the amounts we use for daily training, the dogs do just fine. Rubi wouldn't have made half the progress she has if it weren't for goodies like these.

If you've already exhausted the treat value hierarchy, then you're probably tired of people telling you to find a better treat. Luckily, there are other ways to increase food drive. In my experience, the most common culprit is free feeding. If there's food lying around all the time readily available, a dog will be disinclined to work for it. If you had a trust fund, would you still work for a living? Some dogs will, but many won't. Another trick is to feed your dog each meal from hand for a couple weeks. Even if you're not making them work for it, feeding from hand can often create some pretty impressive results. I'm not sure why this is, but then, if I knew everything about dogs, I probably wouldn't enjoy them as much. Of course, better than hand feeding is training with meal food. It doesn't have to be new tricks or intense training (although I've found that shaping works up a heck of an appetite), just asking the dog to work for their food often increases drive.

There are a few other little tweaks that I make to increase food drive in my dogs, but those are the basics. ultimately, your dog is the judge of what treat is high value and what isn't. It's important to play around with different factors and find out what works for the two of you. I once used raw chicken when working with a reactive foster. Absolutely disgusting, but she liked it. Piper Ann thinks Charlie Bears are like doggie crack. B routinely works for slices of apple. So, what's in your bait bag?

(last photo by Paige Reyes)

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Foster Power

Mikey passed his Canine Good Citizen test today. Beautiful, smart, usually well-trained: c'mon folks, you know you want him . . .


In other news, former foster Andy the Arm Candy passed the CGC today, too, along with his proud new papa. They have now set their sights on the therapy dog certificate. Now there's a match made in heaven.

* photo graciously provided by Jen L. Thanks, Jen, for everything you do!

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Past, Future, Present

Rubi has brain freeze. Somewhere between the cooler weather and last week’s full moon, B seems to have back slid a bit in her training. She’s a little faster: fast to respond, but also faster to react, and she’s been a bit more hyper vigilante. A few days ago, we passed a dog being walked on the other side of the street, and Rubi went ahead and had a spaz attack. She accepted treats, but she took a few seconds break from that to whine and spin in a circle. I’d be more upset about this, I think, but for the moment, it’s not hard for me to remember where we were a year ago.

Last year at this time, we were just starting to move the relaxation protocol out of the house. We had just started our first round for Changing Attitudes, and it was a lot harder than I had anticipated. I had just switched from night shift to days, and it was driving everyone, myself included, insane. When B first came to me, she would flip out over dogs half a mile away - and I don’t mean “be a little upset.” She’d entirely lose any ability to do anything but scream and spin in circles. No power in the ‘verse, including treats, could convince her to behave otherwise. So a little whining and a spin that she stopped as soon as I asked? Hell yes, I’ll take that.

Now, I find myself once again planning for the future. This fall, I’d like to get B enrolled in a reactive dog class at another school. I don’t particularly think we need specialized classes anymore, but it’s nice to know that if B does pitch a fit, I’m surrounded by people who understand. Hold on, I'd better go find some wood to knock on. Rubi hasn't been in classes since May-ish. I'm sure she could be a real monster if she put her mind to it.

For now, we're going try something a little new and a little old to give B a bit of an attitude adjustment. We're going to tighten up our "No Freeloaders" policy (aka Nothing in Life is Free), and go back to making Rubi work for the things she really wants. Most programs get a little lax as time goes by, and I think this is a good reminder to me that B needs a certain amount of work in her daily life to be happiest.

We're also going to try tethering. All dogs spend some time being tethered when they come to my house as part of the Two Week Shudown. This will be different. I'm not going to tether her to me, only to stationary objects. She'll be well exercised (not that dogs aren't during the shutdown, but tethering without exercise is cruelty, not training), and I'll give her a nylabone or some sort of chew toy to occupy herself. Then, the house and herd will just go about our daily lives. She's not segregated or ignored, she just can't leave her bed. The idea is that this will teach her about calming herself. She can't instantly go and check something out whenever the thought enters her mind, and she can't follow us around waiting for us to entertain her. She just has to learn to chill.

If it works well for B, Mikey's up next. One word: teenager.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Gotcha Day

Rubi's Gotcha Day was September 18th. This is the anniversary of when I signed Rubi's paperwork, and she officially became mine until death do us part. The tradition of the "Gotcha Day" started with families that adopted children. An adopted child's birth may not have been attended by any of his or her adoptive family, and depending on circumstance, the date of the child's birth might not even be known. The book Primary Care Pediatrics  encourages families to commemorate the anniversary of their child's homecoming  as a way that celebrates the family, its strengths, and its bonds: "'Gotcha Day' is distinguished from the day of birth, perhaps marking the rupture of the child's biological family and her social rebirth into an adopted family."

We celebrated Rubi's rebirth by attending her second Dog Safety Program. This one was at the Eagan Community Center with a group of about seven little girls and their parents. To start, Rubi acted exactly like a dog whose never gone anywhere ever. Which, in her defense, she pretty much is. One year of regular socialization doesn't make up for five years of almost nothing. We've got a long road ahead of us to turn B into a seasoned presenter, but - God willing - we've got time. B showed of her green-ness before we even got started by trying to mob one of the little girls, probably so she could stand on the girl and drown her in dog spit.

I pulled B back to her mat and gave her a firm lecture on why it's bad to scare little girls. It worked. I have no idea how it works, but B didn't try to jump on anyone else. Well, until the end when she piled on top of a dad, but he was asking for it. Otherwise, B was pretty well mannered. Vibrating with enthusiasm, yes, but she listened to what I had to say, and didn't do anything more upsetting than pass a bit of gas.

One of the things we need to work on - other than the difference between shake and down - is getting B to interact more with the kids. She was so focused on me that I think the girls missed out on some of the fun that is hanging out with Rubi. One of the other handlers brings a spoon with peanut butter on it for the kids to reward her dog with. I like this idea, but I worry that Rubi would just bulldoze the child and steal the peanut butter stick.

All in all, Rubi had a grand time celebrating her rebirth. Of course, Rubi has a grand time just sitting at home being alive. My relationship with each of my dogs is subtly different. Piper Ann is my partner. Allister is my cheerleader. Maus is my shadow. The notion of Rubi being any of these seems rather silly to me; it would be like befriending a river. We may dam the river, build bridges, create lakes, but Rubi and the water are both forces of nature. Controlled, for the most part, but still wild at heart. Rubi is a four legged adventure. Everyday a new joy, a new challenge, a new experience. I am so very lucky to be along for the ride.

(This pictures on this blog post were captured by the talented and wonderful Paige Reyes. Our sincerest thanks, Paige.)

Thursday, September 1, 2011

An Ordinary Walk

B likes to go for walks. (shocking, I know) Like many dogs, she gets excited about them, but unlike most dogs (I hope), this extra arousal can make our walks extra difficult. On days when Rubi seems to be, ah, "acting out" a little more than usual, we'll often do a little relaxation protocol in the front yard before we head out. The city finally came and cut down the rest of the tree that fell down in our yard last October, so to celebrate, B and I did RP on our brand new yard stump. Thrilling!

Then we're off to worry the neighborhood squirrels.

For many people, walks seem to be a terribly under-utilized training time. Every time I see a beginning training class asked if anyone trains their dogs on walks, we're lucky if one person raises their hand. I figure at least some of these people don't bother to walk their dogs at all, but for those that do, I just don't understand why you wouldn't bring some treats along and practice a little obedience. Obviously, I use B's walks as a way to work on her reactivity, but we also find some time away from other dogs to work on stuff like stays . . .

 . . . and heeling . . .

Today's walk also included a few of the "regulars" - dogs I've walked by enough times to know where they are and how they'll react.

For instance, this guy is a hound mix (or a bully? really, my eyes suck) on one of our regular routes. He barks a few times and then sits down and pretends we don't exist. He's one of my favorites.

Then, B stops to take a break while her loyal servant finds a garbage can for the unmentionables.

B and I take a detour through our favorite park. I started going here because of all the open space - plenty of places to escape from other dogs. We continue to go here because it's only a block from my house, and it's the easiest place to find garbage cans. The park also butts up to two semi-busy roads, so there are rarely any off leash dogs here. That's a handy thing to know when you have a reactive dog.

Today, while walking around the park, we were startled by a little black doxie mix on a leash ( . . . and it's owner). The dog was across the street and by its house (so total distance = street + driveway). B's been doing pretty well with on leash dogs at a little closer than this distance, but usually I see them coming and we have some time to build up attention first. Neither B nor I realized this dog was there until the other dog started barking at us. B dialed in pretty hard, but she was still able to take treats, and she was letting me lure her head back toward me for the reward, so we stayed where we were. Happily, the other dog and her owner seemed pretty content to stay where they were, too, so I was able to reward B for just looking at the other dog. After about five treats, B offered me an auto watch, and I rewarded that heavily with a small handful of treats and a lot of praise. About twenty treats in, B was pretty comfortable with her auto watches, so we moved closer.

We got to the same side of the street as the barky little dog before I called it off and we continued along. I have a feeling B would've been comfortable getting closer, but because I didn't know the other dog or her owner, I didn't want to push it. It's probably time I started arranging training walks for B with my friend's dogs so I can set-up a controlled situations where B can get relatively close to other on-leash dogs. I suppose I should get on that before summer ends . . .

Anyway, I wanted to take a picture of the little black dog and her owner for you all, but I wanted even more to NOT be known around the neighborhood as "That Creepy Stalker Chick with the Pit Bulls."


In exchange, here's my neighbor's dog:

He moved in earlier this summer, and B has never, ever reacted at him. I have no idea why. He barks at us, and runs the fence, so B should care, but she doesn't. She's never met the dog up close, but she seems to have almost no interest in him. For example, we're about five feet from this guy, and B lets me dig my camera out, turn it on, point, click, wait for dog to stop barking at us, point, click again, and put camera away all before getting a treat. I don't get it.

Not that I'm complaining.