Monday, April 29, 2013

Hike #1

With five dogs, it can be tricky to give everyone individual attention. Dogs with an active behavior training program like Rubi and Jai get the majority of my spare time, while stable, sane dogs like Piper Ann get the short end of the stick more often than I care to admit. I don’t think my dogs require individual, personal time with me to be happy. They seem to enjoy hanging out with each other as much as the like hanging out with me, but for my own person sanity, it’s important that I spend time with dogs that don’t require all my brain space to be with. 

Recently, I've been trying to think of ways to spend more time with Maus. Maus has recently reached the point where he appreciates leaving the house every once in a while, but there are a limited number of activities out there that we both like doing. Maus will gladly tag along to obedience and rally classes, and he makes an excellent (if rather bored) decoy dog for reactive classes, but these are very me-driven activities. They are not the sort of things Maus would chose to do for fun. In the same vein, Maus loves tracking and nose work, but I have trouble staying awake for those. 

We've recently found a middle ground, though. Last May, I bought the book 60 Hikes in 60 Miles and then promptly busted up my knee. While my knee is still not in great shape, I think it’s about time I pulled that book off the shelf and got walking, and Maus seems like the perfect candidate to bring along on day trips: he walks well on a leash, it non-reactive to other dogs, and he thinks nature is fascinating (and maybe a little horrifying sometimes). As a goal, I've decided that we will do ten hikes from the book in the next seven month – so by the end of 2013. That means a little more than one hike per month, which sounds easy except that I have five dogs, three day jobs, and a husband in there somewhere, and each of the hikes will end up being at least half a day’s commitment. 

We kicked off our Ten Hikes goal with one of my favorites: Willow River State Park in Wisconsin. I practically grew up in this park, and I adore it. Maus and I took our friends Crystal and Maisy out to see the water fall, and we couldn't have asked for a nicer day, particularly considering that just last week we got eight inches of snow. 

So here's to starting on a good note!

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Between Your ABCs

If you ever decide to research behavior or learning theory, you’ll stumble upon the ABC’s of behavioral modification rather quickly. First, there is the antecedent (A), sometimes called the stimulus or trigger, that causes the behavior (B). For our reactive dogs, the antecedent might be a strange person or dog, and the behavior might be barking or growling. What follows after the behavior is the consequence (C). The strange person might back away from the growling dog. If you want to change the behavior, you examine either A, what caused the behavior, or C, how the behavior was reinforcing or punishing for the dog. ABCs apply not only to dogs, but also to horses, beluga whales, goldfish, and grad students – if a creature is capable of learning, then the ABCs apply.

The antecedent/behavior/consequence paradigm is one of those lovely theories that seem almost like common sense when you finally hear about it. Of course there’s a reason for each behavior - we don’t do things for no reason! And of course there are consequences to those behaviors; people and dogs repeat the behaviors that are rewarding and eliminate the behaviors that are not worthwhile. How simple! How elegant! How sensible!

Like many simply, elegant, sensible theories, there are more than just the measurable ABCs at play here. There is a whole world between the A and the B that we can only guess at. What causes one dog to growl at a person while another runs to the same stranger for belly rubs and cookies? Are previously experienced consequences to blame? One dog gets yelled at by a stranger and fears new people for the rest of his life while another has never had a negative consequence applied to meeting a stranger and therefore believes strangers are harbinger of delight. It’s a simple idea. Almost elegant. Sensible.

My dog Maus, to the best of my knowledge, has never had a negative experience with a stranger. Of course, my definition of negative and his may be different. What I see as safe, he often sees as horrifying. He has never, to the best of my knowledge, ever been hurt or even left alone with a stranger. There is something between point A and point B that has gone wrong between his ears. As of this month, Maus has been on the behavioral medication clomipramine for one year. This subtle change in the chemicals in his brain have allowed him to move outside his fear. He continues to be a “Type A Personality:” a little anxious, a little neurotic, a little rigid, but he’s also much more comfortable in his skin. He’s happy now – consistently, instead of occasionally. 

Does that mean that the consequences to his behaviors don’t matter because a large portion of Maus’s troubles are contained in his own brain? I am exceedingly doubtful that our four years of behavior modification training was all for nothing. After all, at the end of that four years, Maus was able to act like a reasonably rational dog by the standards of most people (and dogs). But acting okay is not the same as being okay. He was miserable. Medications were able to help where training had met its limit.

The truth is that we are more than letters in a theory or numbers in an equation. There is a whole realm of complex emotions and undercurrents of personality that determine which behavior will be chosen and what consequence will be rewarding or punishing. We can generalize and label to our hearts’ content, but the individual will always be more than the theory applied. I’m not saying that these theories and training techniques aren’t useful or beneficial; I’m saying that it’s important not to loose sight of the individual. Our diagnosis is not our defining characteristic. I do not know the exact importance and combination of factors that influence Maus’s behaviors. I do know that my dog was not happy, and now he is. At the end of the day, that’s what matters to me.

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.