Monday, April 1, 2013

Just Chill

Generally speaking, there are two ways dogs react to stress. One is to become slower, more thoughtful and concerned. For example, Maus stresses down. That is, the more stressed he is, the slower he is to react to stimuli. He becomes gentler and more cautious in his movements, gradually moving closer to total shut down. People often mistake this behavior for being “really well behaved” when in truth, he’s over stimulated or afraid. Happy Maus is twitchy and wiggly; nervous Maus behaves like he’s wading through a lake of molasses.

Poisonous molasses. With a side of snakes and stealth veterinarians in it.

Rubi hits the other end of the spectrum; she stresses up. The more stressed she becomes, the more aroused she behaves until she appears to be vibrating with enthusiasm just waiting for an outlet. When we started working together, that outlet would be finding dogs, people, or squirrels to scream at. Now, she throws her enthusiasm and arousal into being The Best Dog Ever at what ever it is she thinks we’re doing. Not all stress is bad stress, and Rubi working hard is a beautiful sight to behold.

When I say "jump," Rubi never asks how high -
she believes jumps should always be as high as possible.
Photo by Paige.

For our Therapy Dog Class, though, I want to try and address some of this basic stress level. Rubi still becomes stressed around other dogs – she just directs to toward our work now, instead of toward her classmates. And while I have plenty of picture proof of Rubi sitting still and focusing on her mat, these moments are usually less related to actual calm and relaxation and more related to “I hold down my mat because that is my job, and if I don’t hold down my mat, a hole will open in reality, and zombie velociraptors with AIDs will invade and murder us all. Must. Hold. Mat. Down. Harder.” I wasn't sure how to start working on this amorphous goal, but I've been playing around with it a bit, and I feel like we’re finally on to something. 

Rubi is da bomb! at holding her mat down and not screaming at things. 

My first mistake in tackling this issue was not setting my dog up for success. Yup, that’s right – I make dumb mistakes, too. At least I’ve gotten to a point where I can admit that I screwed up and move on. In this case, I was so excited to start working on relaxation right out the door – and therein lies my failure. Rubi is simply not capable of relaxing at the start of class. Like me, she’s excited to be working, but “exited” does not translate into “calm and relaxed.” Go figure.

Warm up routines are distinctly individual. Maus does best if we start working right out of the crate. If I tried to do that with poor little Allister, his brains would explode all over the ceiling. After playing around with our warm-up routine, I’ve found the best practice for Rubi is to start with fifteen to twenty minutes of precision work. Heeling works well for this, but so does targeting – basically any activity that involves some movement combined with tricky concentration. I believe the key is getting her to concentrate on what she’s doing instead of forcing her to relax or trying to take the edge off her physical energy level.

I’ve also revisited the use of rhythmic rewarding (Disclaimer: that’s probably not actually what it’s called, I made that up – sure sounds smart, though). This is the process of giving Rubi a treat at fixed intervals as long as she isn’t doing anything outright horrible. Basically, it’s rewarding Rubi every few seconds for doing nothing. I’ve tried rhythmic rewarding in the past, and it has always seemed to increase her frustration. With a few exceptions, Rubi is used to receiving rewards for offered behaviors, and it seems like she has a hard time understanding that there’s nothing she can do to make the cookies come faster.

I believe that part of her past difficulty with the rhythmic rewarding was poor timing on my part. Before, Rubi simply wasn't in a state of mind where she could relax, and as a result, she became obsessed with figuring out the “trick” and would become stressed. Now that I’m better at setting her up to succeed, I've reintroduced this exercise during mat time after our warm-up with some positive results. I've also tweaked it a little – instead of giving treat at a completely fixed rate, I give them on a 5-10-15 second interval schedule. Since Rubi tends to offer behaviors every three to five seconds, this helps prevent me from inadvertently rewarding her for offering behaviors instead of for doing nothing. It also seems to hold her attention a little better since she’s not entirely sure when I’m going to offer her a treat. With the stricter reward schedule, she would get frustrated trying to make the treat happen faster, lose interest in the game, and find something else to occupy herself with. The new reward schedule seems to prevent that increase in frustration.

Outside of class, we've been working a concept called reverse luring. This is not a concept I came up with. My friend Laura introduced me to it, and she does a much better job of explaining it than I think I could do (if nothing else, watch the video, that pretty well displays the idea). Reverse luring has been wonderful for impressing upon Rubi that sometimes, I don’t actually want her to do anything. It’s helped to cut down on her often spastic offering of behaviors because if she offers a behavior, the treats get hidden. It’s drastically apparent to her when what she’s doing is not what I want, and it’s just as obvious when she is doing something right. Reverse luring has been great for building duration on exercises we've already shaped, like the “head down” trick. 

And by "has been great," we of course mean
"has been horrible, horrible dog torture."
Photo by Paige.

All in all, Rubi’s ability to relax in a classroom setting has increase dramatically. We’re not at the finish line yet, but this is a more-than-one-class project, and I didn’t figure we’d have accomplished it by the end of our six week Therapy Dog Class. Still, I have never measured Rubi in terms of perfection. It is enough for me to know that we are better today than we were yesterday, even if only fractionally. Rubi, I suspect, thinks I’m half right – she believes she was born perfect and gets more perfect every day.

Photo by Paige.

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