Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Reflections on Changing Attitudes

When I first got Rubi and people would ask how we were doing, my standard response was, "Well, this is the part that sucks." There's nothing good about being at the other end of the leash from a scream, upset, out-of-control monster.

Rubi and I have come a long way in the last sixteen weeks. For those of you who don't follow her facebook page, Rubi achieved her first CGC-style greeting with a strange dog in class two weeks ago. That doesn't mean that I'm ready to put money on her doing it again quite yet, there's still a lot of work ahead, but now we have a solid foundation of calm behavior to build upon. I'm terribly glad I made the decision to run Rubi through Changing Attitudes a second time. She's learned to relax, and this has made a huge impact on her ability to greet other dogs. There's a fine line between arousal and aggression. A dog who's highly aroused the way B was in the beginning will often start a fight out of frustration or anxiety or whatever it is that runs through their little doggie brain when they're doin' the banshee act. As B's ability to relax and control herself around other dogs has increased, so has her ability to greet other dogs and then walk away. This is huge since 99% of the times she meets other dogs will be in passing. It's not perfect, but it's there, and I'm pretty excited about it.

I've also learned much more about my dog in the past few months. Rubi is not Maus; in fact, they're about as different as is possible for two beings. Working with both of them, I've come to have a new respect for the spectrum that reactive dogs cover. Even through their differences, they have a lot in common – after all, they're both still dogs. The root body language is still the same. For example, both lip lick a lot as a calming signal. I noticed in class and in training that when Rubi gets excited, her eyes get really dilated. I had known about this behavior in dogs in general, but I'd never really noticed it in one of mine before. Because I started seeing it in B, I began looking for it in Maus – and sure enough, when he's uncomfortable, his pupils dilate. More over, since I was watching his eyes, I noticed that when someone is staring at him, he gets "whale eye." Whale eye is when a dog's eyelids peel back so far that you can see the whites. It's harder to see in Maus since his eyes are a light color anyway (hey, look! An excuse to show you a picture of Maus's eyes – aren't they gorgeous?).

Around the same time Maus gets whale eye, he has a hard time looking away from the person - his eyes slip to once side, then back to the person, then flicker to the other side – but he never really loses intensity. And then he reacts. It's maybe not an earth-shattering revelation, but you never know when a subtle bit of information will be important. Maus gives a lot of warning before he becomes reactive, so long as I'm paying attention. B goes zero to sixty at the flip of a coin, so reading the subtle stuff is all the more important.

Rubi's at the place in her training that I think is the most fun. It's more challenging for me, certainly. I'm no longer just holding her leash hoping she gives me something I can work with. Now that we have a foundation, we can really invest some energy into those castles in the sky. I can make goals that are bigger than "be better around other dogs." Where do we want to go? How do I juggle sport training with reactivity rehab? What do I think we'll be good at, and how do I get there? Anything is possible really; the world is our oyster.

Welcome to the part that doesn't suck.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Tender Semantics

Toward the end of our first trip through Changing Attitudes, one of the instructors came up to say hi to Rubi. "You goofy pup," she said. "Some people were thinking you weren't very nice, but I know you're just a big silly, aren't you?"

Wait, what?

I've entertained a fair number of uncharitable thoughts toward this dog, but it's never occurred to me that Rubi isn't a nice dog at heart. I assumed that since I could see B's inner charm, so could everyone else (need I remind you that we're in a class just for such challenged dogs?). But the truth is that to most people, reactivity equals aggressive and aggressive equals mean.

In reality, reactivity and aggression are two related but distinct qualities. Reactivity by definition is simply a response to a stimulus. I've never met a dog that didn't react to its environment in some way, either with a twitch of the ear, a wagging tail, or a glance. In dog training, we use the term "reactivity" to describe any behavioral response to a trigger that we as humans do not like. Some reactions are perfectly natural; it is normal for a dog to bark at something that makes him or her nervous or excited. The trouble comes when the dog that barks at children tries to live in human society. Then, a fairly natural behavior can get that dog labeled as a menace, aggressive, or at the least, an annoyance.

It doesn't help that most people don't realize that a dog can be reactive without being aggressive. Aggression is how badly a dog wants to hurt the trigger. Rubi is a classic example of reactivity without aggression. She wants to get to the other dog very badly – badly enough to make us both look pretty horrible – but she doesn't want to hurt the other dog at all. If properly introduced to another dog, she's still pretty socially stupid, but she's also very content to play 'til exhaustion. That's one of the reason's she's able to live in relative peace with three other dogs.

The reverse is true as well: a dog can be aggressive without being reactive. I've mentioned before how effective traditional training is at eliminating behaviors. The way I understand traditional training as is applies to reactive dogs is that the dog is exposed to the trigger, begins to react, and is corrected for reacting. As a result, the reactive behavior disappears. However, traditional training doesn't address the underlying fear or excitement. As a result, we see a lot of traditionally trained dogs in the Reactive Rovers class who aren't reactive at all – but get them too close to their trigger, and they go from zero to kill in less than a second. Remember conditioned emotional responses? It's possible to create a negative emotional response just like it's possible to create a positive emotional response. And correcting the dog every time they come in contact with their trigger is a good way to make an aggressive issue worse – even if the reactivity gets better.

Of course, the most important part of aggression is the bite. Here's another threshold to consider: the bite threshold. How willing is a dog to use it's teeth to solve its problems? Another factor is bite inhibition. That is, when the dog does bite, how much damage does he or she inflict? Bite inhibition and threshold both tend to decrease the more practice a dog gets at biting. This is because the dog learns that a bite will make the scary thing go away. It's not going away? Bite harder, it worked last time. If you look at cases in which dogs have attacked and killed people, the common factor isn't breed or age. It's bite history. These dogs don't sudden start killing people out of nowhere; the majority have long histories of violence towards people. And occasionally, aren't some bites justified? Is the dog that bites the hand that beats it a mean, bad dog?

While we're at it, let's not forget that aggression towards people and aggression towards, say, dogs are very different things. Nowhere is this line more clearly drawn than with pit bulls. As a breed, pit bulls have been trained for centuries to fight and kill other dogs. But while they were fighting, the dog's owner as well as the other dog's handler - often a complete stranger - would also be in the ring. Any dog that bit a human was, ahem, removed from the gene pool. These dogs were bred for centuries to be in close quarters with humans while in a highly aroused state of mind; in short, they were bred to be highly tolerant of humans. Now, that's not to say that there aren't people aggressive pit bulls. Humans are awfully good at screwing up a good thing. But neither is every pit bull unable to tolerate the sight of another dog.

What's my point here? Well, mostly I'm just trying to muddy the waters. Dogs aren't all "nice" or "mean." There's a whole host of factors to take into account: reactivity, aggression, bite threshold, object of aggression - dogs are no more all good or all bad than the humans who own them. It's no good to look at a person or a dog from a single snapshot. And sometimes, please, just give a pittie a chance.

Friday, December 3, 2010

Always with the Planning

Well, it's that time again. Changing Attitudes only has two weeks left in the class, so once more it's time to decide where to put my dog. CA has been going really well for us - almost too well. Rubi has been much calmer in class since we started with the pseudo-forced relaxation. Her pacing has decreased by more than half, and she even offer a hip bump several times on Wednesday. I have proof!

As much fun as it's been being at the top of the class, particularly considering where we started, it's time to move on. Last week, I had B tested for placement in regular classes. Her evaluator basically told me to enroll her where ever we felt comfortable, which was no help to me at all. At TCOTC, classes run in sessions of nine weeks. CA is only six weeks long, so we'll be finishing in the middle of a session. I don't want to go weeks without having class because our dog-dog contact has been rather limited lately (brrr, it's cold out!).

So I've decided to put Rubi in rally until the new session starts. Rally is a form of competitive obedience that I've worked my other dogs in off and on. Actually, I usually run Maus in rally, but I can switch him back to regular obedience. Because I've already got experience with the sport, the instructor is willing to let me jump in to the class in the middle of the session.

Once the new session starts, I'd like to bump B into a regular Level Three obedience class. Level Three tends to be a little more crowded and a little more exciting than rally, so I think it will be a good transition. I want to keep challenging Rubi, but I also don't want to move too quickly.