Saturday, October 16, 2010

Pay Attention, Please

(Originally posted Sept 9, 2010)

Class yesterday went well - compared to last week, anyway. B spend only the first five or so minutes of class over threshold, and she waited until we were inside our box to freak out. She definitely prefers to be moving versus static around other dogs, but then, movement is more distracting, so I suppose that makes sense. The drooling, panicked dog from last week is gone, and though I doubt I've seen the last of my dog's evil twin, good riddance for now! Instead, I have the dog I expected: high energy, intense, reactive, pumped, enthusiastic, and just a touch jittery. There was still a lot of pacing, but at least she didn't take any fingers off. Progress! We were able to spend about 45 minutes (the last half) of class outside our box in the presence of the other dogs. We still used our box for a handful of quick get-aways, but compared to the two or so minutes we spent out with the rest of the dogs last week, I'm pretty dang pleased with what we were able to accomplish.

As humans, and as Americans in particular, we place a lot of value on eye contact. I've watched many dog owners, and owners of reactive dogs in particular, who, upon seeing another dog, start nagging on their dogs, snapping on their leashes or waving their hands in the dog's face, and saying in increasingly frantic tones, "Dog, watch me, watch me, Dog! WATCH ME?" This can make even normal, sane, sensible dogs blow a gasket, let alone dogs who are predisposed to insanity. I'm fairly sure this training method has been used on Rubi; in fact, I'd be surprised if it hadn't. As a result, B assumes that she shouldn't look at other dogs. When she's "working," she does what she was training to do: she stares at me me, growing more and more tense, until I can practically see her eyes start to bleed with the effort of not looking at the other dogs. Then, unable to bear the pressure any longer, she whips around, squealing and yodeling and freaking out. By the time she looks at the other dog, she's already over threshold. Rubi was looking at me, but she wasn't paying attention to me.

Now what am I talking about? Isn't a dog who's forced to look at you paying attention to you? Well, no. An ostrich may stick it's head in the sand to hide from a predator, but you can bet it's 100% focused on the predator - not the sand. I don't really care if Rubi looks at other dogs. What I want is her attention.

Before I can work on attention, I have undo B's previous training. I need to teach her that it's okay to look at other dogs. Here's that counter conditioning again: B sees a dog, B gets a treat. Period. The part of counter conditioning that new people have the most trouble with is that I give her a treats even when she's reacting. Aren't I rewarding her for reacting, then? No. I have plenty of science to back me up on this one, but for the sake of the diary, you're just going to have to trust me. Remember, dogs don't pay attention to the noises they're making. They pay far more attention to their environment. As B gets more comfortable in her environment, she will stop reacting. But the goal is to keep her under threshold, anyway. The easiest way to do this is to increase distance. So if B's reacting, I offer treats, but I also move her away from the other dog until she is in her right mind again and able to take the treats.

Just because she's taking treats doesn't mean Rubi is paying attention. I can eat a meal and hold a conversation at the same time. It's called "multitasking." At this point in our training together, B's got a pretty strong conditioned reaction to the clicker. She hears a click, she looks for the treat. There's no longer any thinking process involved in this for her. It's like me answering the phone and saying, "Hello, VA Medical Center, Laura speaking." It's such a reflex that I occasionally answer me cell phone this way (yet another reason I rarely answer my cell). In this way, B is conditioned to look for the treat when she hears the click. So now when she looks at one of the other dogs, I give her a click, she looks at me to get her treat.

I'm pretty specific about the amount of time I let B look at the other dogs. The reason for this is that the longer she looks at them, the less she's able to focus on anything else - including the clicker. The mark/reward serves to break up her intensity. Another reason is that I'm trying to set up a conditioned reaction to the sight of another dog. I want her to look at another dog and then look at me - no clicker necessary. To this day, in the several years that I have had him, I give Maus three seconds to look at a person before marking/rewarding him. That stage is many thousands of repetitions in B's future. In the meantime, I click B the instant she sees the other dog. Rubi's a smart cookie, she picks up on this quickly. It isn't long before she willingly looks at the other dog, gets her treat, looks at the other dog, gets her treat, looks at the other dog, gets her treat . . . About thirty minutes in (that's about 200 repetitions at our rate), I skip the click. B looks at the other dog, looks at me . . . and then looks at me harder.


That was the moment I was looking for: B had been looking at the other dogs, but she was paying attention to me. I went back to look at other dog/click/reward pattern after that, tossing in only about a dozen of the look back at me/click/reward in the entire class. I'm not trying to challenge my dog right now - I'm trying to build in patterns of behavior. We're building foundations right now, not setting in fancy tiling on the roof. I'm not talking to her, I'm not forcing her to do - or not to do - anything. I'm proving to Rubi that I am someone worth paying attention to.  

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