Wednesday, April 25, 2012

You Don't Suck

Have you ever had one of those days where everything you touch turns to crap? Well, I seem to be having one of those years. I go home feeling like a lousy nurse, only to feel like a lousy dog trainer, a horrible spouse, and a generally sucky human being. I know, in my brain, that things aren't as bad as they seem, and I have plans for how to improve them, but it doesn't stop the heavy heartedness.

This is called "burn out."

2012 will be my thirteenth year in animal rescue and my seventh year in medicine. I’ve figured out how to protect myself: I know my limits, and I’ve learned how to say no. But no matter how many walls there are between me and all the heartache, it still creeps in. For example, in 2009 I had two of my foster puppies euthanized for severe behavioral issues. Two of them. I had ten years of experience in rescue under my belt, and I almost cashed in my chips and walked away.

Instead, I went home and dug out my You-Don't-Suck box. In this box are little notes with all the good things I've done. There’s a picture of Mikey in this box. There’s a note from a manager in an entirely different department of the hospital than the one I work in saying that she noticed how helpful I was to both my patients and her staff.

Some of the notes are just single words, reminders to me of the lives I’ve changed for the better. There’s a scrap of paper with the word “Lindberg” on it. Lindberg was a black retriever mix that came to my shelter on a sweltering June day. He cowered in the back of his kennel, growling and muzzled and oh yeah - covered in ticks. I went slow, and I spent four hours pulling ticks off this dog - two hundred sixty-four of them, to be exact. I still remember the number eleven years later. But Lindberg seemed to shed his misery with each tick. At the end of the four hours, the muzzle was gone and Lindberg was curled in my lap. Sleeping. He went on to be adopted by a family with two little kids, the whole bunch of them thrilled with their new lives.

My You-Don't-Suck box is what keeps me going when I can't remember why I do this to myself.

I think every reactive dog owner should have a  You-Don't-Suck box. Because there will be days when you go home feeling like the worst dog owner in the universe. Days when there is no silver lining. When you question not only your ability to train, but whether you have any right to own a dog like this to begin with. And no amount of empathetic consolation, motivational quotes, or puppy kisses will help at all, not when you suck that bad.

Rubi's You-Don't-Suck box is jam-packed. First, there's the day I decided that I would not be just another person in Rubi's life who let her down. And the first time she chose me over a strange dog. Our first Dog Safety Program. The utterly uneventful trip to the vet. Rubi and I have done a lot, and most of it has been wonderful. We're great together, and the occasional bad day - well, that's normal. Sometimes, I screw up. Sometimes, Rubi has PMS. Sometimes, this is the same day. Every time I feel like giving up, I dig out my  You-Don't-Suck box and remember that I love her, I love what we do, and we need to keep going. Because she's worth it.

Reminding myself that I don't suck gives me more hope for the future than any plans for change or forced optimism possibly could. And hope is what carries you when walking the walk gets harder than walking away.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Building Faith

Due to various time conflicts, including the girls and my trip to the BWCA, it looks like Jai and I won’t be able to attend our special needs class until the end of May/beginning of June. I don’t mind because this will give me a chance to work on building a solid relationship and getting to know Jai a little more. Relationship building – like creating a friendship with any human – takes time. But there are certain activities we can do to speed up the process. One-on-one time is going to move us along faster than time spent with the whole horde. You can imagine that with five dogs, individual time is at a premium in my house. However, even just twenty minutes a day can be huge if we use our time wisely.

12-15 minutes: Relaxation Protocol
I have a love/hate relationship with the relaxation protocol. On the one hand, this single exercise has made a bigger impact on helping Rubi relax than any of our other exercises put together. We’ve evolved far enough in our RP training that if we’re out in public, and Rubi starts to get over stimulated, all I need to do is have her lay down, take a step back, step in, give her a treat, and see the stress melt away. We don’t even need the mat anymore. This has been incredibly useful for managing Rubi, and I’d like to have it for Jai.

On the other hand, the relaxation protocol is the most god-awfully boring thing I have ever done with my dogs. All the dog has to do is lay there on their mat and not fall asleep; all I do is feed them cookies, do the funky human dance, and try not to fall asleep. It’s like meditation for dogs. It’s like torture for me, what with my inability to sit still for longer than ten seconds. Jai loves it because it’s easy, and he gets cookies. I’ve incorporated into our twenty minutes because otherwise, I would find so many excuses not to do it that it would never get done. And I really do think that relaxation is going to be an important skill for Jai to have later on.

2-3 minutes: Drive Building
Jai is not a dog-sport quality dog. He’d be fine as someone’s pet for the rest of his life. I am perfectly happy with this as it makes Jai very easy to live with, but it means that he doesn't have a huge innate desire to work or play with me. I’ve talked before about how much I appreciate Piper and Allister’s willingness to work for toys as it opens up a whole new realm of rewards that I can use. I’m also a big believer in play therapy. When you were a little kid, how did you make friends? You played with them. Just like over-threshold meltdowns cause the release of stress hormones, play stimulates the release of happy neurotransmitters that promote relaxation and bonding (those are serotonin and dopamine, for those of you who are keeping track).

I’ve done a little trial and error to see what kind of toys Jai likes, and right now, we’re working primarily with tugs toys. Jai doesn’t have a strong enough toy drive yet for me to use it as a functional reward for activities, so mostly we’re concentrating on just having fun. Our only rule is “no skin/teeth contact.” If his teeth touch my skin, it’s game over, and the toy goes away for the day. As the owner of large, powerful dogs and pit bulls in particular, this isn’t something I mess around with, especially during tug – a game that encourages dogs to clamp down hard and pull. Other than that, I make sure that Jai gets lots of opportunity to “win” the game – that is, to pull the tug out of my hands. This helps to build his confidence. More often then not, Jai happily bring the toy back to me to restart the game (unlike Rubi, who would then steal the toy and try to get me to chase her). This is exactly what I want to see.

We’ve been working a little bit on “mine” as well, which is my cue for getting him to release whatever is in his mouth. I cue “mine” with my body. Because of my gimp arm, I only tug with one hand. My dogs know that when I touch the toy with my left hand, I want them to release it. Jai doesn’t know this yet, so I hold on to the toy with both hands and try to make it as “quiet” as possible. I don’t tug back. Quiet toys are boring, so Jai eventually lets go to give me the “um, hey, why’d we stop” look, and I mark and give him a cookie and restart the game. There are a lot of ways to teach a dog to let go of something, but this method has always worked well for me.

I’m careful to keep our tug games within the two to three minute mark. Short drive building sessions ensure that I leave Jai wanting more which is always a perk when trying to build any sort of drive, from play to working to food. Less is more.

2-3 minutes: Fluency Training
Jai has a foundational understanding of pretty much all the basic manner exercises like sit, down, out of the room, heel, and touch. Every other day or so, we’ve been working on generalizing these behaviors to new situations. Laying down on different surfaces, touch my hand in whatever position it’s offered (or, if you’re Jai, lick my hand in whatever position it’s offered – boy can’t control his tongue), choose to heel at varying paces, and sit faster than the tectonic plates move. Jai’s sweet, but ZOMG, zombie clowns could take over the world in the time it takes him to get his butt on the ground. I mark and reward the responses I like and ignore the responses I don’t care for. Jai is smart, and adjusts his responses so that he gets more cookies.

Picture of Jai's butt courtesy of Paige Reyes. 
Also, you're welcome. 

2-3 minutes: Shaping
Behavioral shaping is defined as “A technique that is used in operant conditioning in which the behavior is modified by stepwise reinforcement of behaviors that produce progressively closer approximations of the desired behavior.” For non-nerds, shaping is having a picture in your mind of how a certain behavior should look, and then marking and rewarding each step that brings you closer to that picture. A common shaping exercise is “101 Things to Do with a Box.” When Jai and I play the box game, I start by marking and rewarding him for any interactions with the box. Depending on what he seems predisposed to do with it, I’ll make a picture in my mind of what I want, and I’ll reward each behavior that brings us closer to the finished picture. If Jai wants to put the box in his mouth, my finished picture might be picking the box up and bringing it to me. As it turns out, Jai steps in the box with one foot, so I mark/reward that. After a few repetitions of that, the reward point becomes two feet in the box. I mark each behavior he does that brings us closer to all four feet in the box. Thrilling, right?

Shaping at this point is less about creating certain behaviors and more about teaching the dog to think and problem solve. When I got Rubi, a dog from a primarily punishment-based training background, she had two behaviors that she offered to get what she wanted: sit and stare or lunge and scream. By playing shaping games with Rubi, I was able to set up a safe environment for her to experiment with other behaviors. After all, there aren’t any wrong behaviors in shaping, just behaviors that don’t get rewarded. We started with easy games like the box game, and slowly worked our way up to harder, more stimulating games like “how do I get my mom to move closer to those other dogs?” Rubi now has a stock of about eight behaviors that she will reliably offer before resorting to lunging and screaming. This is a handy buffer to have when working her around her triggers. Thinking dogs are a lot easier to work with than machines that have been programmed to do only two things.

My goal isn’t to create a thinking dog, though, or a relaxed one or a drivey one or an obedient one – these are bonuses created by pursuing my actually goal. My only goal with Jai right now is to create the foundations for a solid working relationship. Rubi and Jai are similar in that while they both like people, they’ve been pushed around a bit, and their trust is hard earned. A dog’s trust is like a bank account: each positive interaction is money in the bank, and each negative interaction is money withdrawn. The more you have in the bank, the more you can do. It took about fourteen to sixteen months before Rubi had enough trust in me to see us through the difficult interactions in life. By building up Jai’s trust in me early on, I’m hoping he won’t have to struggle with believing he has to go it alone as long as Rubi did.


Friday, April 6, 2012

Conversations with Cats

Keagan and CatCat, photo by Paige

Me: FayeFaye! Come here! I have some yummy raw salmon for you to try!

Keagan and CatCat: For us?!?

Me: No. For Faye. Go away, you two.

Faye: Um, I'm sorry, did you say I was suppose to eat that? You know, like food?

Me: Yes. It's salmon. Cats like salmon.

CatCat: Can I have it?

Me: No. Go away.

Keagan: Can I have it?

Me: No! Go away! Faye, eat this. You'll like it. I promise.

Faye: I am pretty sure that is not food. In fact, I'm not even certain it's dead. It may contaminate me.

Me: No, Faye, it's food!

Faye: Pull the other one, it's got bells on.

Keagan: If I can't have the salmon, maybe I'll just eat your leg instead.

Me: OWWWWW! Little F-er! GO AWAY!! NO! Faye! I didn't mean you! Come back and eat this stupid fish!

CatCat: Oh, she left. How sad for you.

Keagan: Nothing left for you to do now but set the fish down and walk away, lady.

CatCat: Yeah. Walk away, lady . . .

Me: I hate you all.

Faye, Hater of Salmon

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Ethics and Thresholds

It’s practically impossible to talk about reactive dogs without discussing thresholds. Thresholds are typically defined as the line between where a dog is able to learn and control himself and where the dog has a total meltdown and is completely unable to function. This is a fine working definition; it’s also a huge oversimplification of an extremely complex concept.

First off, there isn’t any place a dog can go to in their head where they’re not capable of learning. They may not be learning what we want, but they’re always learning something. Such is the danger of training dogs. Learning occurs primarily in two areas of the brain. Ideally, we’d like dogs to stay in their frontal lobes while we train. In people, we know that the frontal lobe is where personality and empathy live. It’s also where analytical thinking and reasoning occur. For dogs, it's where complex tasks like “sit” and “stay” and “fetch me a beer” are created.

The second area where learning occurs is the amygdala, an area in the hindbrain. This little node is responsible for two things: fight or flight. Having these two responses centered so closely together is why fear and aggression are so intertwined. The amygdala allows for very fast, very sloppy thinking that evolved to save the animal’s life. It’s not terribly helpful for teaching dogs not to flip out  in the presence of their triggers. It’s also responsible for triggering floods of stress hormones, such as cortisol and norepinephrine, that can adversely affect dogs for days. The grey area between the frontal lobe and the amygdala is where the dog’s threshold lives. While working reactive dogs around their triggers, they are rarely entirely in their frontal lobes - but if you’re doing it right, neither are they entirely in their hindbrains. There’s a lot of grey matter between the two.

Of course, there’s more to thresholds that what’s going on in the dog’s brain. Triggers play a huge part in shifting the dog’s learning from the frontal lobe to the amygdala. For Rubi, the simplified version of her trigger is “other dogs.” But here again, there’s a huge amount of variability. In a classroom setting with other non-reactive dogs, she’s pretty capable up to a distance of about five to ten feet. Outside with dogs in yards, she can usually manage about fifteen feet without putting her so far into her hindbrain that she can’t focus on me. Dogs on leash are okay up to about thirty feet. And all of these variables are affects by the energy level of the other dog, the amount of exercise Rubi has had that day, what kind of treats I have on me, the phases of the moon, and the time of the month. Triggers are as complex as the thresholds they affect, layering stimuli and variables to push they dogs further or closer to the frontal lobe or amygdala.

So if we look at the threshold not as a line to avoid crossing, but as a continuum that our reactive dogs constantly live on, we must consider the question: how much pressure is okay? How much stress is acceptable? How much do we allow our dogs to live in their hindbrains?

Lately, I’ve been struggling a great deal with these questions. No so much with Rubi, who bounces back from stress easily, and seems to enjoy the adrenaline rush she gets from visiting her amygdala. But with Maus, most definitely, and more recently with Jai. Jai’s issues are twofold. The first is his worried nature. I hesitate to call it “anxiety” since this implies a more serious issue than I feel is warranted. It doesn’t interfere with his day-to-day activities, he’s not constantly on edge or hyper vigilant. He’s just a little extra concerned about his environment.

Jai’s second issue is a touch of barrier frustration around other dogs. Again, I hesitate to call it reactivity because it just doesn’t seem that serious. It’s a little whining, a lot of staring, and an inability to focus well on anything else while in the presence of a new dog he can’t meet. It’s certainly nothing I wouldn’t expect from a two year old pit bull that no one has worked with. It’s also not a terribly disruptive behavior, and would be perfectly acceptable in a pet dog. If I wasn’t ridiculously anal about my dog’s behavior, I’d probably let it slide.

Overall, both issues have been coming along nicely. Jai’s focus on walks is improving. He wags his tail willingly enough that I’ve stopped keeping count. He wants to go meet new people on walks, and although he’ll still send out a few calming signals if people get a little "rdue," it’s nothing that Average Joe Dog Petter would notice. Jai’s mostly taken over Rubi’s position as vehicle co-pilot to help him get exposure without forcing him to interact with anyone/thing. With everything else that’s been going so well, I decided it was time to enroll Jai in a class. Aware of his issues, I talked to several people, trying to decide whether to place him into an easy-going, quiet, normal level one class, or into a class meant for more special needs dogs. After a lot of thought and consideration and research, I enrolled him in a level one class that I thought would meet our needs.

Yeah, that was a mistake.

I hate this stage of getting to know a dog and his thresholds. It’s like sticking a finger in an open wound to see how deep it goes. It’s really pretty painful for everyone. You don’t know how much pressure a dog can handle unless you push them. And sometimes, you can accidentally push them too hard.

Jai was “under threshold” in the simplified sense of the word. But he was seriously over stimulated. Stress panting, whining, difficulty concentrating, pulling toward the other dogs. He could take treats and follow instructions, but he wasn’t really learning anything – at least, not the things I wanted him to learn. We were spending a huge amount of time fighting with each other, and then he look at me with those big, anxious amber, eyes, and I thought, my god, this is horrible. I have to stop this.

So we left, thirty minutes into class. We thanked the teacher for her time, and I explained that I was placing an amount of stress on my dog that I felt was unacceptable, and that we would not be back. The teacher was very supportive, if a little confused (after all, he wasn’t over threshold), and offered to have us transferred into a special needs class. So that is what we will be doing instead.

I could have staid the course and kept Jai in that class, and in the long run, it probably would have been okay. He would’ve learned to operate under that level of stress because Jai is a good dog and because I don’t totally suck as a trainer. But the cost was too high. Too much anxiety, too much stress, too much misery. Jai deserves a trainer who isn’t in constant conflict with him and an environment that will support his frontal lobe. We’ll take the special needs class, and we will come out stronger than we are now because I have supported Jai instead of forcing him to conform to my idea of what his behavior should be. In the long run – and the short run – we will be happier and our relationship will be stronger.

And - as always - I am grateful to have the opportunity to fix my mistakes.  

Photo by Paige Reyes.