Saturday, October 29, 2011

Patricia McConnell: Canine Behavior

First off, if you ever get the chance to see Patricia McConnell speak, do it. It takes an incredible speaker to keep people engaged and thinking for eight hours straight, and Trisha has got the gift. I could write an entire post on just what she had to say on dominance, wolves, relationship, emotion or any of the other topics she touched on, but I'll try to stick to the subjects that seemed most pertinent to reactive dogs.

Perhaps the most interesting part for me as the owner of reactive dogs was genetics and behavior. People often seem ambivalent to genetics and behavior, wanting the best of both with none of the disadvantages. Pit bull people in particular seem sensitive to the subject since so many people are trying to ban our dogs based on genetic generalizations. Fact: it's not all in how you raise them. That's just the way it is. But Trisha was also careful to repeat over and over again that environment plays a huge role. She used the analogy of cancer. In order to get most cancers, you need to have the genetic marker that allows various cells to mutate uncontrollably. However, on order to get cancer, you also need to have the right environmental trigger, like asbestos for lung cancer or HPV for cervical cancer. With canine behavior, not only do you need the right genetic markers and the right trigger, but that trigger must come at the right time developmentally. All of these factors need to come together in order to create a behavior, and that makes studying behavior really tricky.

Trisha divides genetic factors affect reactivity into five categories: shy/anxious, reactiveness, low frustration tolerance, predisposition to use mouth, and status seeking. Shy/anxious I think is fairly self-explanitory; it's neophobia. Reactiveness in this case is slightly different from what I mean when I talk about reactivity. In think context, we pretty much mean startle response. If you drop a book onto the floor, does the dog keep napping? Jump in surprise? Jump and start barking? Reactiveness is how extreme a dog's response to a stimulus is. Frustration tolerance is how calmly a dog is able to deal with not getting what it wants. Predisposition to use mouth is, of course, how likely a dog is to use it's teeth to solve a problem. Status seeking, according to Trisha in this situation, is not what most people refer to as dominance. Here, it means how controlling a dog is of the objects or living creature in his or her environment.

 So how do these factors impact unwanted behaviors? Let's look at my dogs, scoring the dogs on each of the five factors with 5 being a high level of the factor and 1 being almost no evidence (Trisha did not do this; this part is all me). Maus is very anxious; he gets a 5 on shy/anxious scale. He's also has a big startle reflex that is easily triggered, so let give him a 5 there as well. On the other hand, he's able to accept not getting what he wants easily, so he'll get a 2 there. He rarely uses his mouth to solve problems (his saving grace), so a 1 there. And he doesn't seek to control his environment too much, so there's another 1. These things come together to make a dog who is very neophobic, nervous, and neurotic. If you add all these numbers together, you get a 14 out of a possibly 25.

I've talked before about how different Maus and Rubi are although they both fall under the umbrella term "reactive dogs." You can see the differences clearly by mapping out the five factors. Rubi hits a 2 on the shyness scale; there are some new things that . . . confuse her, but for the most part, she takes new stimulus in stride. She also gets a 2 on the reactiveness. Aside from dogs and squirrels, there's really not many stimulus that she has an exaggerated response to. On the other hand, she has virtually no frustration tolerance - that a 5 for sure. She has a moderate predisposition to use her mouth: 3. I had to think for bit about status seeking, but I'm going to give her a 4 there; she tries to control her environment a lot, but I don't think she's as bad as she could be. So that's a total score of 16/25.

Next let's take the good one, Piper Ann. Shyness = 1, reactiveness = 2, low frustration tolerance = 1, mouthiness = 2, and status seeking = 1. That's a total score of 7/25. Does that mean that the lower the score, the less likely a dog is to be reactive?

Well, let's take a look at Allister: He's moderately neophobic, so he'll get a 3 for shyness. He always over reacts to things, so I don't have a problem giving him a 5 there. Frustration tolerance = 3, mouthiness = 3, and  status seeking = 2. That's a score of 16; the same total score as Rubi. And yet there aren't many places I don't feel comfortable taking him. New places, new people, new objects, he takes them all in stride. Aside from his inability to shut up, he's a pretty well-rounded, happy guy. How did this happen?

Answer: environment. Allister had an extremely different start that Rubi did. Rubi was left out on a chain for pretty much her first year of life. Allister came into my house at nine weeks - nine weeks that he spent with him litter mates learning valuable social and world-interaction skills. Environment is that important; so are genetic. Ideally, you would have dogs with good genetics and good environments. Luckily, though, a good environment can compensate to a degree for bad genetics. Conversely, good genetics can help make up for a bad environment. Dogs that have a bad environment and bad genetics are pretty much screwed (think puppy mill dogs that never make it out of the mill). The real variables are how bad/good of an environment and how bad/good are the genetics.

So what does this tell us about canine behavior? Well, not a whole hell of a lot. Us average dog owners don't have the ability to know if a behavior is occurring primarily because of genetics or because of environment. We don't know what a dog's genetics will allow it to do until we put the effort into changing the dog's environment. We know that pigs don't fly, but we don't know how high they can jump until we try. And as for me, I will keep falling in love with the mystery.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

The Accidental Post

I didn’t mean to write a blog post for B’s second day in class. I didn’t think it’d be interesting. We’ve done lots of school day posts, and they’re all went to school, did stuff, came home. Not to mention all the times we went to class and I didn’t blog about it. Reactive dog training is boring (if you’re lucky) and time consuming and generally not worth writing about. But Rubi and I had a few good moments yesterday, and I wanted to share them with you.

The highlight of the day came before we even got in the car. When I got home from work, I took Rubi to our favorite park to run some energy off. I made a fifty foot long line a few weeks ago, and I’ve been using it regularly to take Rubi new places for “off leash” practice. Yesterday, I took Rubi’s squeaky ball along to practice fetch and rile/recovery and running around like a goon. Remember, never be afraid to look stupid for your dog.

This is my 50' long line. I am proud because I made it and it's awesome and I usually have all the crafting 
skills of a retarded monkey with no thumbs

While we were playing ball, a lab walked by the park with its owner. The dog was on leash and about a block away. Not being on the pass up a training opportunity, I stopped Rubi and had her sit in heel, our official dog watching position.

She looked at the other dog.

She looked at me. I gave her a treat.

She looked at the other dog.

She looked at me. I gave her a treat.

Then she popped out of heel position and pranced in front of me to lay down, which is B speak for, “PUH-lease, pleaseplease, throw the ball.”

Do you see how awesome this is?

Rubi turned her back on another dog to play with me. So I threw the ball for her. In the opposite direction from the other dog, of course. Rubi ran the ball down and ran back to me. The she ran passed me. She stopped about ten feet toward the other dog and paused to watch him for a moment (remember, Rubi had a whole fifty feet of line).

“Rubi,” I reminded her, “bring it here.”

She gives me a full body wiggle, and then she brings me the ball. And then we play fetch like there's totally not another dog anywhere near her.

How cool is that? She has a threshold. She can act like a normal, sane, relaxed dog. Just chillin', playin' some fetch, yo. This from a dog who, when I got her, couldn't see another dog half a mile away and not flip out and scream like a velociraptor (did velociraptors scream? they do now).

It's hard to top this little accomplishment, but Rubi tried when we went to class and Rubi didn't care one iota about there being other dogs in the room. Boo-ya. I know she noticed them. Every once in a while, she would twitch an ear when L would bark or glance over when she heard J's tags jingle. But she didn't let them distract her from her mission: getting ALL the treats. Even when I set her up to see the other dogs, she blew them off in favor of whatever behavior she thought would get me to interact with her more. She wasn't as chilled out relaxed as she was last week, but she was really into working, so I'm not going to complain. We still did a lot of the relaxation protocol, but we also spent a fair amount of time "finding things for B to do." This is the circumstance that usually leads to some of my dogs' most, ahem, creative tricks.

See exhibit A

Rubi is my experiment dog. I spend a fair amount of time training her to do things that I need the other dogs to do reliably. Things that I'm not sure the best way to train. So I practice on Rubi. As a result, Rubi can scoot (Allister - disc), follow a scent (Maus - nosework), do a formal broad jump (Piper - obedience), and a few other random sport exercises. For example, two on - two off (Allister - agility). Since we had a handy A-frame, we spent some time working on that. 

Oh, did I mention that we didn't use the Gentle Leader except to get in and out of the building? We also working on heeling, crating, touch and mat work, among other things. After class, we went to McDonald's because B is awesome and deserves good things. 

Sunday, October 23, 2011

For the Love of Dog

I will never be famous. I will never be rich. I won't be a beautiful model or fancy actress. My house will never be clean - neither will my cars, for that matter. I have no great skill that is unique among people. There is nothing I do that someone else could not manage.

And yet, I am happy. I have my mission, my purpose in life. As a nurse, I heal. I help people to live longer, happier, healthier lives. In my off time, I ease the suffering of animals as best I can. I adopt; I train; I volunteer. I may not make any revolutionary changes to the world, but I do make it a better place. What I do may not be unique, it may not be huge - but it is important.

Photo of Mikey and me by Paige Reyes

This summer, I joined an army of A Rotta Love Plus volunteers at three Get Your Fix! fairs. We teamed up with MNSNAP and local vets to provide low cost or free spays, neutering, vaccination, and microchipping to inner city dogs, mostly rottweilers and pit bulls. Our year end totals included 156 rabies vaccinations, 189 DHPP vaccinations, 63 spays/neuters, and 110 microchips for dogs and owners who otherwise would have been unable to afford these basic care items. We also exchanged owners' old, worn, or inappropriate equipment for new leashes and collars. 

This picture of me vaccinating an East St Paul pit bull is from Sara Nick's camera

For those of you who might not know, Mikey is a product of the first Get Your Fix! fair in North Minneapolis. He had been thrown over the fence of the local "dog lady." Unfortunately, this sweet lady was elderly and not able to provide Mikey with what he needed. She brought Mikey to our fair, and luckily, we were in a position to help her out. It was fate. 

It's easy to judge the person who dumped Mikey over that fence, but mostly, I pity them. What a difficult decision! To understand that you can't provide for your puppy, but to not have anyone responsible to send him to, and to know that sending him to animal control would be an almost certain death sentence. How hard it must have been to leave him on the other side of that fence not knowing what would happen, but praying that you'd made the right decision. I wish I knew who Mikey's first owner was so that I could tell them that Mikey is safe. He is loved. He will be cared for and protected and happy as long as he may live. 

A picture of Mikey at his most recent adoption day by Paige Reyes

Because that's what you see at these fairs. These people may not have much, but they sure as hell love their dogs. And they're grateful for the opportunity to do right by them. We might not have a lot in common with each other, but we all love these dogs, and that's the kind of bond that transcends income, age, language, and race. Love is our lowest common denominator, and it makes us all allies. It may even make us friends. And that makes the world a better place. 

A boy and his dog at the St Paul fair from Sara Nick's camera

Me and a happy client in North Minnepolis by Paige Reyes

"How lucky are we that no one need wait a single 
moment before starting to improve the world."

                                                                         ~ Anne Frank

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Back to School

After six monthes in the wilds of our own inspiration, Rubi and I are back in class. Our first class was Tuesday at The Dog Loft. It's a genuine reactive dog class, and there are three other dogs in the class. All of them were referred to the class by behaviorists, and all of them are on some sort of behavioral medication. L is a shepard mix who is reactive to the whole world. M is a tri-colored fluffy dog who is dog reactive. And J is a pit bull who is so like Maus used to be that, well, I love him. Not to mention it's our first class with another pit bull in it, so we (hopefully) won't have to go though the whole "ZOMG, super scarey pit bull!" phase. J should have everyone broken in for us already. ;)

I'll admit, I was worried about going back to school. The last time we were in class, it went so badly that I didn't blog about it (and I tell you guys pretty much everything) - and we didn't go back for six months. But I was also concerned that B would be too much for these dogs. B is rather . . . exuberant, and these dogs seem, well, anti-exuberant. Exuberant is hard for most reactive dogs. M missed Rubi's debut on Tuesday, so there were only two dogs there, J and L. The room class is held in is basically a long rectangle. B went in first, and we arranged barriers across half the room so that she couldn't see the other dogs unless we intended her to. On the other side of the barriers was J, who is at least dog tolerant. Across another set of barriers, closest to the door, was L.

I brought B early since I knew we would need to go in first. Turns out we were quite a bit early, so I took the opportunity to do a little relaxation protocol. And also do targeting on the pause box because why not?

Once the other dogs started coming in, we got serious about relaxing. I know B could tell there were other dogs in the room, but she did a fantastic job with our initial mat work. Remember how long it took me to get a  hip bump from her during Changing Attitudes? That would be seven weeks. Here's class on Tuesday, in a new building, with new dogs:

Oh, wait - there's more . . . 

Rubi also did something she's never done outside of the house: she sought out physical contact.

Rubi, like many dogs, doesn't care to be touched when she's working. "Manners" and "affection" seem to fall into different categories in her brain, and she has trouble doing both at the same time. That's not to say you can't touch her when she's working. It just tends to drive her to distraction, and it's definitely not something she's ever been relaxed enough to request. Being touched while working is an important part of Rubi's training, and we've been working on it for over a year now. It's important not only because people like to pet Rubi or because of her work with the dog safety program, but also for those inevitable trips to the vet. The more relaxed Rubi can stay while being touched, the more stress-free and enjoyable they will be not only for Rubi, but for everyone involved.

On Tuesday, while doing TTouch on the mat, I stopped for a few seconds (sometimes I get distracted, too). And Rubi nudged my hand to get me to pet her again, just like when we're snuggled up on the couch at home. it was such a little thing, but is was the high light of my night. Baby steps, right?

Eventually, I got tired of sitting still, and we moved around a bit. We still did a fair amount of mat work, but we also did some slow heeling. Slow heeling is a lot more difficult that fast heeling because it's boring for the dog; is you want to keep your dog interested and moving with you, move quickly. But I didn't want to get Rubi's heart rate up, so we moved slowly and I upped the rate of reinforcement to keep it interesting for Rubi. I also moved the mat closer to J for a while, and we did a few drive-by glances at him. I think B could have tolerated more, but J is people reactive, so I didn't want to stress him out, either.

I've made the final decision that Rubi's whining isn't a good indication of how close she is to threshold. I've been dancing around the idea for a while, but I'm pretty sure about this one. I think one of the reasons it took me so long to reach this conclusion is that people are verbal creatures. We make noise, and we want the noise that other creatures make to mean something, too. Rubi is a moderately vocal dog anyway: she moans when you scratch her in the right place, she snorts pretty much all the time, and she whines whenever there's something interesting going on, whether it's something she would typically react at or not. It's a little like wagging her tail. She does it as long as there's something entertaining going on, and I'm pretty sure she has no idea that she's doing it. Better indicators of Rubi's emotional state are how hard she takes treats, her ear set (they more tighter and more forward the more stressed she is), the amount white around her eyes, and open mouthed vocalization (which is closely related to "screaming like a stuck pig"). Vocalization matters to people, not so much to dogs.

I was really pleased with how class went. It's a little like landing a plane. Anytime we don't crash and burn, it's a good day. But I was also able to see the real progress we've made. My homework for this week is to clean up my criteria. I can read Rubi and her stress levels very well, but I need to decide what I'm going to ask from her at certain levels of stress. Rubi doesn't get homework, because she is smart enough not to make plans.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Third Time Charming

On Thursday, I played hookie from work (in case my employers are reading this, by "hookie," I mean I took a vacation day) so that B and I could do to an ARLP education program. This program was different for our usual in a few ways. For one, I was teaching - something I try my very hardest to avoid. Second, it was a group for teenagers and would last an hour. Most of ARLP's programs are done for the K-8 group in about a twenty minute time frame. Lastly, there was another dog there.

Okay, so the other dog was Mikey, but Mikey can be plenty distracting when he wants to be.

Luckily, our friend Nicole was there to handle the little man while I concentrated on managing Rubi and talking to the students. I had B settle on her mat while I talked to the group about the history of the pit bull, dog behavior, training, and whatever else fell into my brain and spewed out my mouth (I've been told that the lecture portion was pretty good, so it would seem that my insecurity is showing). B got up a few times, but since there were kids intentionally trying to get her to do just that, I don't consider it a failure. She did go back to the mat each time I asked her, and given the circumstances, I'm pretty pleased with how few times she did break her down.

After rambling on for a bit, we let the kids meet the Mikey and Rubi. This dissolved into just hanging out while everyone asked whatever questions they had, the kids practiced "training" Rubi, and cameras were pulled out to commemorate the occasion. Mikey, meanwhile, had decided that I was paying entirely too much attention to everyone who was not him, and whined whenever I went out of leash range. So I hung out with him and Nicole and "supervised" Rubi and the kids.

I don't often get a chance to just observe Rubi, and I have to say, I was pretty pleased with what I saw. Whenever the kids started getting frustrated, I would come over and help them figure out whichever trick they were trying to get. When B started getting overstimulated, I would call her over for a few minutes of relaxing matwork. Overall, though, I didn't really have to interfere. The kids were wonderfully patient and followed directions well, and Rubi was wonderfully attentive and tried to follows the directions as she understood them. She didn't seem overly bothered that I wasn't right next to her, and even better, at no point did she try to jump on anyone and steal their treats.

It makes me happy for B that she's now both able to follow instructions from pretty much anyone. When I got her, she lived in her own little world where she didn't have to do anything anyone told her unless they used force. Now, not only does she take direction from pretty much anyone, she does it with her manners and impulse control intact. Sometimes progress is sneaky, and you don't know that you've made the journey until you've already reached the destination.

Friday, October 7, 2011

The Things-That-I've-Tried Update

Over the past few months, I've tried many new things to get an edge up on B's reactivity:

Play dates: Rubi's had several play dates over the summer, plus had our return to fostering, and all of these have been more or less successful. They weren't always pretty, but there wasn't any blood shed. We also haven't had to crate and rotate anyone on a regular basis. Everyone, for the most part, gets along. When i was very young, a dog trainer gave me an extremely valuable piece of information: when you have more than one dog, always expect that sometimes there will be fights. As a result, the Voice of Reason and I are vigilant with our prevention, but we also don't freak out at the occasional scuffle. Dogs are dogs, and their teeth are a valuable communication tool. Suddenly, this seems like a good subject for a later post, so I'll stop.

As a result of our play dates - including the occasional disagreement - B's canine social skills have grown immensely. B and I have this much in common: neither of us is a native speaker of the canine language. My first language is English, and B seems fluent in crazy. As a result of her many new friends, B is able to much understand what other dogs are telling her. Perhaps the biggest area where this is evident is with calming signals. B is now usually able to understand the difference between "IT'S ON!" and "please don't hate me." This is evident in how she handles strange dogs. Her thresholds are much closer for non threatening dogs, and she tends to freak out more easily with more aroused dogs. Trust me, this is an improvement. She's no longer freaking out at all dogs.

Dismissed: I vote in favor of the dismissal cue. The trouble for me is that it's counter-intuitive. The dog is up, happy, work with you, and you dismiss. Traditionally, that's when I want to keep working and keep rewarding. After starting to use the dismissal cue, I have noticed an increase in B's attention span and willingness to work. It also gives me a handy way to tell her that I'm not going to be rewarding her anymore, so she just as well not waste her time staring at me. It's like a "stop begging" cue - very nice.

Tethering: Meh. Rubi is a fairly easy dog to live with. She doesn’t have generalized anxiety like Maus. She’s pretty much only difficult when there are other dogs or squirrels. She doesn’t pace around the house, scream incessantly, or seem worried or upset on a day-to-day basis. She doesn’t even really follow us around the house, not if there’s something even remotely more interesting to do. She’s pretty content to just chill and let life go on around her. The only thing that tethering changed was that she can go over to the window to when she thinks she hears other dogs go by. Dogs pass our house maybe three to five times per day, and B doesn’t always hear them. When she does, we’ve got a routine: she goes to the window, sees them, and then comes back to me for instruction. It works well, so I’ve decided to stop the tethering.

No Freeloaders: This works for B. I know this works for B. I apparently just need to remember to do it when it’s so much easier to be lazy. Since tightening up our NILIF program, B seems happier in general. I think this is because she actually gets more attention (at least, it feels like I’m giving her more attention – more likely, I’m just noticing how much attention I do give her). She also has more control over her environment. Want  piece of celery? Lay down outside the kitchen. What to go outside? Sit by the door. Want on the couch? Lay down and sigh dramatically. Rubi doesn’t have to try and figure out how to get what she wants; I’m telling her what she needs to do. It’s clearer communication, so she’s listening more closely to what I have to say. We’re finally back to where we should be with her reactive dog rehab.

Something New: On our list of new activities we’re trying, I’ve stopped using the Gentle Leader on walks. This is less impressive than it sound, since I don’t actually use it for training. The GL is there because it gives me physical control over her when I need it. I use it primarily because I only have the one good arm. Earlier this summer when my wrist was particularly bad, I started walking B on a leash attached to my wait so I wouldn’t need to use my arm at all. I have control over her with or without the GL. The GL now just allows my to be lazy about loose leash walking.

No more!

Now she will walk nicely on a collar like all the other dogs. Laziness be gone! Rubi's never been particularly bad on leash, but not letting her pull should reinforce her impulse control. We need all the help we can get with B's impulse control.

Finally, I have some picture proof of how dangerous pit bulls are:

This is what happened on Wednesday when Rubi and Mikey collided at full speed. There was much blood. It was very impressive. I think B may have gotten a new face scar out of it, particularly consider how many times in a single day she's run into something and opened it up again (she has happy head?). Oh well. Of the many words I've used to describe Rubi, I don't think 'pretty" has ever been one of them.

Sunday, October 2, 2011


(This first picture of Allister belongs to me. They next two belong to Paige Reyes.)

Allister and I started a new sport this spring: agility. I've never done agility, so of course Allister's never done agility. This has led to several comical blind-leading-the-brilliant moments. Last week in class, one of the other student's asked me why the instructor was having us do an exercise a certain way.

"I have no idea," I responded cheerfully, "but I trust that the instructor knows what she's doing, so I'm just going to do what she tells me."

I researched this instructor very carefully before signing up for class. I talked to her students, studied her training style, looked into her accomplishments, checked out her reputation. In this moment last week, it struck me - dogs have none of that. They don't know our reputation or accomplishments. They have no background information to base our relationship on at all. Yet the majority of dogs trust us anyway. Allister believes that I know what I'm doing; only I know how fallible I am. How incredible is that?

I am awed and humbled by the canine faith in humanity.

I listened to a lecture once on rescue culture. The speaker, knowing how easily words influence thoughts and behaviors, felt that we were doing dogs a disservice by using the word "rescue." To be "rescued" implies victimization and creates a savior/victim interaction. In short, an "I saved you, now you owe me" inequality that belies the co-dependent relationship between dogs and humans. Dogs are not victims; they are not helpless. They are survivors. If I were to die today, I doubt Rubi would give me a second thought (and I would not want her to - she should be spared the grief that humans feel). Instead, she would adapt to her changed world. She would continue to manipulate and influence her environment to the best of her abilities. If she is capable of such thoughts, she certainly would not consider herself a victim.

So here is my Rubi: she who survived all the shit the world could throw at her, then sat up and begged for more.

‎"Shelter dogs aren't broken. They've simply experienced more life than other dogs. If they were human, we would call them wise. They would be the ones with tales to tell and stories to write. The ones dealt a bad hand who responded with courage. Don't pity a shelter dog. ADOPT one. And be proud to have their greatness by your side."