Thursday, February 21, 2013

Almost a Real Dog

It’s not hard for me to remember how far Rubi and I have come, and I constantly find myself underestimating her ability to keep it together. There’s just something about Rubi that screams, “Get your wild and crazy right here, w00t!!!!” I have the opposite problem with Jai; I’m constantly forgetting that he has special needs and hasn’t lived with me forever.

For those of you who don’t remember where we started, Jai is my dog with no past. He came from SPAC, an area of town notorious for breeding some pretty “special” pit bulls, both physically and mentally speaking. Physically speaking, Jai’s doing pretty well. He’s a little straight in the back end, conformationally speaking, but not nearly as over done as a lot of the pit bulls these days. At sixty-two pounds, he probably doesn’t even deserve to be referred to as my “ghetto bull.”

Of course, that’s not going to spot me from telling people that’s his breed.

Behaviorally, Jai’s got troubles. Not to put to fine a point on it, but I’m pretty sure someone beat the hell out of him in his past life. He’s afraid of tall, thin men with glasses and dark hair – an extraordinarily narrow profile that doesn’t quit fit with the typical under socialization phobia patterns. When I got him, Jai would pancake to the floor when ever anyone would walk into a room he was in, or if they touch him and he wasn’t expecting it, or if they used the word “no,” even in general conversation.

So you can imagine how last year’s visit was utterly nerve wracking. Jai has some fascinating body language. Any time he feels the slightest amount of stress, his tail goes utterly limp. He also freezes very low on his threshold scale – typically, freezing is something that occurs right before a bite. At this point, I know that Jai would rather chew his own leg off than bite someone, but this is knowledge that came with time, and I don’t blame the staff at that first vet visit for wanting to muzzle him. He was a pretty scary looking dog, even if - looking back - I now know he didn’t mean anything by it.

What a difference a year makes, though! Jai is a health young man, so this month was our first vet visit since seeing the rescue’s vet last month. Both vet appointments took place in novel environments with complete strangers. My vet is a tall, slim man who occasionally wears glasses. Jai thought Dr. Jim was awesome and possibly made of sausages. He climbed right up in Dr. Jim’s lap, tail wagging, and licked him like a meat-flavored lollipop. The only uncomfortable part of the exam was having light shined in his eyes, and even then, he forgave quickly with the thoughtful application of peanut butter and lamb lung. I don’t think Jai even noticed his vaccinations or blood draw.

The icing on the vet visit was when we were in the lobby paying for the appointment. I had Jai sitting next to me, and another dog came in. Off leash. Because it’s totally normal to take your off leash dog to the vet or something. The dog, an elderly black guy, came within about four feet of Jai before being intercepted by the staff and ushered into a waiting room. Jai, for his part, willing stayed next to me and didn’t break his sit even once. Of course, the liberal application of peanut butter probably helped the situation, but I’m certainly not going to complain.

You see, while Jai can be reactive toward other dogs, the larger issue for him is sudden environmental changes. Even six months ago, during our Growl Class with Pawsabilities, Jai could freeze and disconnect for upwards of ninety seconds after a flock of birds would fly overhead. Any attempt to reorient him only caused him to get lost longer the next time, and it would take a minimum of forty five minutes for him to adjust to any new environment – a length of time that did not seem to reduce no matter how many times we had been to that place. People or dogs coming in to a new environment would make his poor brains melt.

I think the biggest factor in Jai’s progress toward becoming a normal, non-reactive, non-brain-melty dog has been careful remedial socialization and desensitization. We’ve gone to many new places in the past year, and I always try to ensure that the environment in one where Jai can succeed. I push, but I don’t push hard, and if when I screw up, I try not to make my dog suffer for my pride. In order for new places to be less shocking to Jai, I not only need to expose him to new places, I need to expose him to new places in a way that he enjoys. So, lots of trips to the pet store during quiet hours, training classes for special needs dogs, letting him get used to places and people at his own pace, and – of course – the liberal application of peanut butter – have helped him get to where he is today.

Two weeks ago, Jai went with me to the orientation session for Rott ‘n’ Pit Ed’s winter session. The first day of class is no dogs - so, of course, there was three other dogs there, as well as about thirty students all ready to get their learn on. And Jai was all, "What evs, I got my mat, we're cool." He did flinch when the instructor screamed "NO!!!" (as an example of what not to do to your dog), but he recovered within seconds. After class, he spent sometime flirting with the people who pointed him out to ARLP when he was at St Paul Animal Control. They were envious of how awesome he is, which is just as it should be.

"I know they all came to see me, so I'd better pretend to be as normal as possible. "
After two hours at the orientation and two hours in the car, Jai came back out to play Cyber Rally with me. It was just me and him in the building when our friend Tania came in. Jai looked at her for a few seconds, and then looked back to me. I gave him a cookie and told him to go say hi. Jai chose to stay with me instead which is ridiculous because if someone told me to go say hi to Tania, I'd be all over that because Tania is fantastic and possibly made of bacon. Did I mention Jai was off leash? And he thought I was more interesting than Tania? And he'd been doing stuff all day and was probably tired and therefore less able to control himself? 

Jai also started normal classes this week as well. We tried normal classes once, back in April of 2012. It was a disaster. Now, it ain't no big thang. Where it used to take at least forty-five minutes to settle into a new environment, it now takes less than five. At our most recent class, Jai was a little more distractable than normal, but, well, it certainly wasn't anything to be ashamed of.

Cookies in front, dogs behind, eyes on me, and ears up. 

Behaviorally speaking, Jai is a much different dog than he was a year ago. And I haven’t really done anything to force him to change. I have not discouraged his zombie watching, or required him to keep up with me on walks, or insisted that he be with me at all. I simply put him in situations where he could succeed, and then allowed him to set his own pace for recovery. This method required me to be more patient that with Rubi or Maus as I wasn’t trying to influence the choices Jai was making – I knew, unlike with Maus and Rubi, that given the appropriate set-up, Jai would come to the socially acceptable behavior on his own, and all I had to do was mark and reward it when it happened. (Can you imagine the screaming that would be involved if I just waited around for Rubi to make a choice I approved of? Eesh!) Jai’s training has been, without a doubt, the laziest behavior training I’ve ever done.

Not that I’m complaining.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Brick By Brick

My dog is really flippin' cute.
I just had to get that off my chest before I could write this.

Around a year ago, Rubi and I were invited out to Twin Cities Academy to present on impulse control as part of a series put on by ARLP's Dog Safety Program. This was apparently such a fantastic, memorable occasion that I totally didn't blog about it. I do remember thinking that - just maybe - for a program on impulse control, they should have picked a dog that, you know, actually had impulse control. It wasn't the worse experience of our lives, but it sure wasn't fantastic.

One of the difficult parts of working with reactive dogs it that while mired in the day to day brick laying of behavior change, it's hard to see how far you've come. When you're making progress that's quite often measure in inches, the distance to the finish line of acceptable behavior can seem miles away. One of the tricks to sticking with your dog is being able to step back and see how far you've come. You might not have fancy spires and crenelations, but even a strong foundation is no small feat when working with any dog, let alone a reactive one.

Last week, Rubi and I went back to Twin Cities Academy to do our presentation on impulse control once again. This program was a first for Rubi,though: the first time she would participate in a Dog Safety Program with a dog she hadn't lived with. Blue belongs to my friend and fellow trainer, Jen. Blue is not entirely new to Rubi. We've used him as a decoy dog a handful of times, but he's still practically a stranger to B. Jen and Blue came early so that I could work on desensitizing B to Blue's presence. I asked for thirty minutes. We needed about ten, so we definitely got started on the right foot.

Rubi and Blue, waiting in the lobby for class to start.

Last year, Rubi charged into the room like a lunatic on speed. This year, she stepped in with a loose leash and turned around to look at me just like I taught her to do. One of these days, I will stop being amazed when my dog does the behaviors I have taught her to do. Today is not that day. Tomorrow probably won't be, either.

For example, I am always shocked and amazed when Rubi actually hangs out on her mat instead of doing something more interesting (aka: anything that involves not sitting on her mat) even though I taught her to do this back in the Jurassic Period. 

Rubi rocked the impulse control, although it looks like I should probably dedicate a little time to polishing up her tricks repertoire. Still, she wanted to work with me during the trick portion, she just wasn't sure what I wanted from her, and that's more my problem than hers.

"Impulse control?
I got that.
And then I kicked its ass."
After the program, Rubi and company were allowed to hang out in the classroom while the kids made crafty stuff to donate to the rescue. The fun part about being a dog trainer is that as long as I have a dog and some treats, I am never bored.

This picture cracks me up every time I look at it.
Blue thinks school is verra serious bisness.
Rubi? Yeah, not so much.

And so! Piece by piece, brick by brick, progress is made. We may not be perfect or fancy, but what we've got is pretty good, particularly when we consider where we've been. Sometimes, you need to recognize what you've accomplished instead of focusing on what still needs to be done. When we've come this far, who's to say what we might be able to do? After all, Rome wasn't built in a day.

Sunday, February 10, 2013

The Snowpocalypse

Today, in spite of the sleet/snow yuck falling, I packed up Maus, Jai, and Rubi to make the trek across the cities for class. Nine miles from my house, I decided that I want to live and turned around. I felt bad for dressing up the dogs and not going anywhere with them, though, so we stopped at the Chuck & Don's Pet Food Outlet three miles from my house to stretch our legs and oogle at things we can't afford.

At least the Snowpocalypse is pretty. Otherwise it wouldn't be worth it. 

I brought Maus inside first, and he surprised me by flirting shamelessly with the staff. He even wanted pets - really wanted them, as in leaning up on people and everything - which pretty much never happens around strangers. I'm not sure what to attribute his sudden affection to. Maybe he figured they were wearing the same clothes to pay tribute to him, and he should be kind to his worshipers. That makes about as much sense as any other theory I have.

Maus and his admirers. 

After Maus was done whoring himself for cookies, I brought Rubi in. We worked on proofing her tricks for a bit. Then, we worked on stays on top of a cat tree, because that's why they have cat trees in pet stores, right?

Cat tree? It's not even tree shaped.
Now it's a Rubi podium. 
While Rubi and I were goofing around with this, the only other person crazy enough to be out with their dog in this weather came into the store. Rubi and I were both on top of our game, though, and B decided that hanging out on top of her podium and eating treats was way more awesome than freaking out at that other dog. Even when the other dog came within about six feet of us.

Not wanting to tempt fate, I put Rubi away after that and brought out Jai. While we were there, and handful of people came in and out of the store, so we got a chance to practice refocusing after sudden environmental changes. In between people, we amused ourselves by proofing our "look pathetic" trick . . .

He's really very good at it.

And a few down stays . . .

"Bring food back with you!"

Followed by some impulse control for flavor.

It's not torture if his tail is wagging.

All in all, not a bad day's work for a snow day!

Thursday, February 7, 2013


On Sunday, Rubi had her first day of therapy dog class. Now, I don’t expect Rubi to ever pass a therapy dog test. I mean, it’d be nice, but that’s a lot of time an energy and testing and did I mention how much I hate taking tests? So not only would it be a lot of work, but I’m also just not that motivated to do it. I’m not ruling out the idea of Rubi ever passing a therapy dog test, but I’m also not about to put it on the bucket list.

I had several reasons for enrolling Rubi in this class, though. First, most of the other dogs in the class are therapy dog candidates, so they already have basic manners (ie, aren't likely to bark and lunge at us), and their handlers know what they’re doing as well (ie, they aren't likely to let their dog bark and lunge at us). Second, there will be many opportunities for Rubi to practice her impulse control. Rubi is about as friendly as the flu bug and almost as unpleasant what with her desire to jump on/become one with all strangers. Last, I’m hoping for a few new chances for socialization. Rubi doesn't have much, if any, experience with objects like walkers and wheelchairs. I’m looking forward to the chance the teach her a little self control when it comes to new things.

Our first day went about the way I’d expect from a dog who’s done lots of nothing all winter and then had to sit in the car for two hours before class. That is to say, she was just this side of obnoxious. Her impulse control was pretty much nil when it came to impulse control games with people and food, and she whined pretty much incessantly for the first twenty minutes of class. Whining and sighing dramatically for attention is not a new behavior, but it has gotten dramatically worse in the past three months, particularly in situations where there’s food. Or where there might be food. Or where there might be something that isn't food but might be edible.. At home, I've been able to manage it pretty well by ignoring her and making the food go away when she starts. But if I ignore Rubi in class, then she starts to ignore me in class.

Which is fair, I suppose, but you can see how that could be trouble in a room full of dogs.

I haven’t yet decided how to handle this in class. I’ve noticed a direct correlation between Rubi’s volume and how much exercise she’s had, but it’s going to be hard to ensure she receives an appropriate amount of exercise when she has the hour be fore class to nap in the car while Jai is in class. When she gets really obnoxious, I may try using time outs in a quiet area away from all the fun (that means the car), but I’m always hesitant to use time outs. For my other dogs, taking the fun away is a pretty severe punishment. For Rubi, I’m not certain she cares that much about me/what we’re doing in order for time outs to be effective. Still, it’s on the table, and I’m having a hard time thinking of other options.

On a happier note, Rubi was pretty dang fantastic with the other dogs in class. She was really appropriate working in close quarters with the other dogs and was able to tolerate them coming quite close to her, much closer than the length of a six foot leash. She even behaved herself for an (accidental) on-leash face-to-face greeting with another dog, something that even recently has been guaranteed to start a fight. And by “recently,” I mean last month. Personally, I think Rubi is just smitten with the black and tans. 

Rubi giving me the doggie finger for not  letting her go hang out with the  Rottweilers.

Two the end of our last session of RPE, I brought Rubi to class to watch the level one dogs. Afterward, a bunch of the regulars and their dogs were hanging out in the middle of the ring talking, and Rubi and joined them. After a few minutes of conversation, I turned to the lady next to me, who has known Rubi for even longer than I have, and said, “Look! No screaming.”
My friend gave me a slightly blank look and said, “I didn't even notice.”

She didn't fail to notice Rubi because B was being so quite either – it was just it had been so long since Rubi has had a meltdown that my friend hadn't realized that not screaming at other dogs was unusual. To me, Rubi's reactivity will always be a integral aspect of our relationship. It's a large part of why I decided to keep her, and it's part of her that will always need to be managed both outside and inside the house. It's nice to think, though, that others don't see our relationship as defined by reactivity. It means that I'm doing my job - the job of making my dog look good - the right way.

Some days it's easier to make her look good than others.