Friday, December 30, 2011

Compassion Junkie

Compassion: n. a feeling of deep sympathy and sorrow for another who is stricken by misfortune, accompanied by a strong desire to alleviate the suffering.

I am pleased to announce that Mikey has finally found his forever family. With the light at the end of the tunnel shining brightly, I find myself reflecting on the six months we’ve spent together. There were bad moments, sure (for example, the time he put a hole in my bedroom wall!), but with the end so close, it’s much easier to remember the good. Mikey’s not perfect - not yet, anyway – but we have compiled a long list of “At Least He Doesn’t Do That Anymore.” And once again, I find myself reflecting on that most important of questions:

“Why do you do it?”

After all, raising a puppy isn’t all sunshine and butterflies. Quite often, it’s mud and disemboweled pillows and frustration and did I mention the hole in my bedroom wall? All for what? So someone else can reap the rewards of all that hard work? For the chance to do it all over again with the next dog? Clearly, there is something wrong with my brain.

Yet I’m very definitely happy. Ever since hearing that Mikey will be finishing off the year with a family all his own, I’ve been floating around with a great big grin. Everyone I know gets to hear the story of how after ten (10!) failed applications, Mikey has found the one the one for him. I’m euphoric and not just because he’s finally out of my hair. I’m genuinely thrilled for Mikey and for his new family, and I’m excited to meet my next foster. I’m buzzed. But where does this feeling come from? It’s good, it’s great, but where is the mourning that so many other fosters seem to feel? Why am I not sad that Mikey is leaving?

Photo by Paige Reyes

It’s not because I don’t like Mikey. We’ve had our rough times, sure, but he’s really been fun to work with and raise. He’s a fantastic dog, much as I have complained about him in the past. He reminds me an awful lot of my Good Dog when she was his age, and for several weeks, I considered keeping him. But I’m not going to miss him when he’s gone. I’m too busy being happy for him, pleased with having made what seems to be a perfect good match.

And that’s it, isn't it? It feels good because I’ve done a good thing. I’ve taken a puppy with a tenuous exsistance and made him and two people very happy. In my own small but significant way, I've made the world a better place. Me! Wow! How awesome is that?! I can make a difference! It's like taking a hit of pure joy, as potent for me as any drug. I've made a career - two of them, really - out of seeing who I can help next. And as with any drug, I'm jonesing for my next hit.

I can't wait to see who the Powers That Be send my way next.

Sunday, December 25, 2011

Nailed! Part Two

I wrote that other blog post so that I could write this blog post.

It’s no secret that pit bulls have a bad reputation. They’re scary, bad dogs with lock jaws that will eat you in your sleep. Or possibly while your awake. Right after they eat your cat. If it was just a bad rep, I probably wouldn’t care what other people thought. But Joe Ignorant doesn’t just think badly of my dog; he can make our lives miserable. There are areas of good ol’ USA that I can’t drive through with my dogs for fear that they will be taken from me and killed. Not to mention all the trouble frightened neighbors can cause right here in my backyard.

So it’s in my best interest to make my dogs seems as innocuous as possible. Sometimes I dress them up. I have collars with cheery designs, because it’s really hard to be intimidated by a dog wearing a Cookie Monster collar (this is why I have so many collars . . . seriously . . . stop laughing at me). It’s also difficult to be intimidated by a dog with neon green toe nails.

That's Maus, by the way. He pretty much always looks like that.

People are always impressed when they see that I’ve painted my dogs’ nails, but it’s one of the easier things I’ve taught them. After spending so much time making nail trimming a pleasant experience, nail painting is not big deal. The hardest part is desensitizing them to the smell. As strong and unpleasant as the scent of nail polish is to people, remember that a dog’s sense of smell is millions of times more sensitive.

When I first bring out a bottle of polish – or any new object, for that matter – I’ll show it to the dog and let them check it out. This alone is usually enough to send them back pedaling (although Mikey did try to eat the bottle because he’s special that way). If they have enough aversion to the smell, I’ll do a little operant conditioning and teach them to touch the bottle for a reward. The trick is to not decondition too thoroughly; you don’t want the dog tipping the bottle over when you’re trying to paint their nails.

I usually paint my dog’s nails inside. This way, they’re less likely to get dirt all over the wet paint. I cover my couch with an old sheet to protect it during the process. I like to use Sally Hansen’s Insta-Dry polish. It dries fast and hard and comes in a multitude of bright colors that don’t require a second coat. I’ve found that if you have the right color, a single swipe across the top of the nail is usually good enough to look great. Trying to color the entire nail like you would with a person tends to tickle the hair growing around the dog’s nail. Not to mention no one is going to be looking that closely at your dog’s feet to notice the extra effort. So why bother?

 Once all the nails I want to do are done, it’s just a matter of having the dog stay on the protected surface, my couch, until their nails are done. I usually use the time to practice stays, because hey, why not? The polish I use only takes a few minutes to finish dry and then voila! Off we go in stylin’ new colors!

P.S. – Merry Christmas!

Friday, December 23, 2011

Nailed! Part One

Many, many moons ago, when I was just a young pup working in a rural Wisconsin animal shelter, part of my job was doing exams for the dogs coming into the shelter. I vaccinated them, checked them for lumps or bumps, cleaned their ears, and clipped their nails.

I have scars from clipping dogs nails.

Not only would they scratch, many would try to bite, requiring us to pin them down or muzzle them to get the job done. This added suffering to the already traumatic experience of being at the shelter. Somewhere in the struggle, I vowed that I would never allow any dog of mine to be tormented by the nail trimming process.

Fast forward a decade to the day I decided to take in a fat, homely, unruly, blonde beast of a dog (I’m an adult now, the age at which the Powers That Be like to make you eat your own words). Rubi had two serious issues when she came to my house. The reactivity you know about. The second issue was a deep, violent aversion to having her nails done. Her previous foster person told me when I picked her up, “She’s a good dog, but the only time I felt like she might bite me was when I did her nails.” I can’t say that I blame her in the slightest. If I’d spent years being pinned down and muzzled so people could take bolt cutters to the tips of my fingers, I’d probably try to bite them, too.

Unlike B’s reactivity, I tackled this problem with enthusiasm. I approached from two angles. First, I worked to desensitize her to the nail clipped, a tool that had only brought her pain in the past. I left the clipper lying around where she could see it not being used. I stopped leaving the clipper lying around after Allister decided it made an awesome chew toy. After that incident, I moved it into the treat closet. Every time I took a treat out of the closet, I’d first take out the clipper, show it to B, and then give everyone treats. I do think it helped B to see that the other dogs weren’t put off by the clipper in the slightest. I also took a more active approach to teaching her that clippers = good things. We worked the clippers as a target, teaching her to touch them with a nose or a paw, and eventually to retrieve them in exchange for a few treats. It wasn’t long before B decided that the clippers in and of themselves were awesome. She’s a fast study.

At the same time, we worked on condition B to allow her paws to be handled. The first time I reached over B to pick up on of her paws (to check for a burr), she jump up in desperation to get away so quickly that she banged the top of her head against my face hard enough to spilt my lip. There wasn’t any malice in the action – she just wanted that badly to get away. We started small. I would touch her paw, mark her with a verbal “yes,” and then give her a treat. Then we moved to letting me pick up a paw and rest it in my hand, mark, set the paw down, treat. From there we moved to picking up her paw and allowing me to hold it in my closed hand with a little bit of pressure. After that came letting me play with her toes. Eventually, she let me scrape a fingernail on the underside of her toe nail, a mellower approximate to the sensation cause by scraping the metal clippers against her nails.

If we seemed to go at a snail’s pace, this was intentional. I’ve said it before, but I’m just not strong enough to go head-to-head with B. This was also when B first came into our house, when our relationship was just beginning. I didn’t really give a damn if she liked me, but I did need her respect and trust. Hurting her or pushing her too far would’ve damaged that. Lastly, if there’s one consistent mistake I see other make when conditioning their dogs to accept handling and grooming, it’s moving too fast and making the dog uncomfortable. It may be more convenient to do all the nails at once, but it’s not always what’s best for the dog. Our sessions might have been short and simple, but we diligently practiced nearly every day.

Once B accepted both handling and playing with the clippers, we made the jump adding them together. At first, I just set the clippers next to me while handling her paws. Then I handled her paws while holding clipper. The first time she let me touch the clipper to a nail – without actually trimming the nail – she got a big cookie jackpot, and we ended the session. Once she was comfortable with having the clipper touch her nail, I taught her to accept the clipper scraping her nail as I had done in earlier training with my fingernail. The first time she let me actually trim a nail, she again got a big jackpot and we ended the session on a good note. Slowly and carefully, we kept increasing the criteria until we got to where we are today. She doesn’t love the clipper, but she accepts it without any trauma, and that’s the part that matters.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Best Laid Plans

Now that we have a defined goal, obtaining C.L.A.S.S. titles, I feel better about the training we're doing together. We have something new to achieve; now we just have to figure out how to get there. Additionally, the holidays are a tricky time for a dog who needs at least once a week exposure to other dogs to be on her best behavior. To make planning more interesting for me, B and I have dropped out of our reactive dog class (completed? it doesn't feel like we completed it, it feels like we dropped out - but in a good way).

Don't get me wrong, the reactive dog class was a good class. It just wasn't a good class for me and Rubi. Because of the other dog's issues, we weren't able to get close enough to do any real work on Rubi's reactivity. B still learned a lot in that class: how to back up in a straight line, how to target a vertical target, crate games, that her owner has as much trouble sitting still as she does . . . but since we can learn these things anywhere (almost), the instructor and I made a mutual decision that B and I would bow out of the class so that other dogs could benefit from the calm, quiet environment. I joked with my husband that it’d finally happened: we’ve been kicked out of a class.

In the best possible way.

Which leaves me once again with deciding where to go next. I’ve found an instructor I like who teaches a C.L.A.S.S. prep class, and I’m excited to start on that track. Those of you who’ve ever taken a sport dog class with me know that I tend toward over-preparedness. Well, I’m here to tell you that I haven’t changed yet. I’m going to take Maus through the class first and probably test both he and Piper before tackling B. I’ve found that it helps, when working toward a title, to know what will be expected of you both ahead of time.

This means, though, that B most likely won’t be joining the until spring-ish. In the meantime, starting January 8th, B will be enrolled in a new, beginner, reactive dog class.

With my husband.

We had a “come to Jesus” moment the other day wherein I realized that I had utterly failed to teach my other half the basics of canine body language and arousal. How embarrassing! Luckily, I already know that I should absolutely, 100% not teach my family members how to train dogs. I simply don’t have the patience to be a good trainer for them. So I did the next best thing for my husband: I found trainers that I trust to do right by my family, and I enrolled B and my husband into their care. And if I can’t keep my mouth shut, I’m not even going to observe their class. (Although I’m hoping to be able to go and watch B work with other people. It’ll be a rare treat to not be the one on the other end of her leash!)

 Since Rubi needs to be able to see strange dogs at least once per week in order to maintain her current behavior levels, having her get her maintenance dose of other dogs through someone else should free up my brain-space to focus on other things. Namely, her sound-sensitivity toward other dogs. I’m still not entirely sure how I’ll be tackling this issue, but at least I’ve got room and time to think. I’ve decided not to puncture her ear drums so she can’t hear other dogs ( . . . not that I seriously considered that . . . mostly . . . ). I will be planning a few field trips, and I’ll be getting a desensitization CD, but if you’ve got any other suggestions, I’d love to hear them!

In the meantime, Rubi and I have enrolled in another online class, and we’re having fun finding new ways to work on impulse control. Here’s a short-ish video of one of our at home training sessions:

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Letting Go

One of the aspects I love about training Piper Ann and Allister is that I can use a game of tug as a reward. Working with a toy often increases arousal, drive, and speed. I don't use it for duration behaviors like mat work, for example, but using a toy with Piper's heel work bought a whole new level of awesome to the game. Tug is a handy tool to have in the box. 

Rubi likes to tug. If I accidentally leave a toy lying around the house, she often brings it to me and tries to start up a game. I frequently use it as a reward when working on behaviors in the house. The root behavior and desire is there. The trouble comes when we try to take the game on the road. Her tugging outside the house is very hit or miss. Sometimes she'll tug, sometimes she won't tug, and sometimes she tugs a bit and then completely disengages to go do something else. I feel like tug would be a really good reward for B, but the consistency I need to be able to use it as a reward just isn't there. 

I know a reasonable bit about toy drive building, but when it became obvious to me that I didn't know enough, I signed B and I up for an online bitework class. And, well, her behavior did change. 

Now she blows me off in the house, too.

On the up side, I now know what I need to do to fix the problem. The class really helped me clean up my own handling skills. I need to go back to building up drive, then add in easy work for the opportunity to play, slowly increasing the difficulty of exercises. Then I need to generalize the drive building and work to new places until I can finally use tug as a reward the way I can with Piper Ann or Allister. It's quite the project. There's just one tiny, itty bitty, huge thing standing in my way. 

I'm not having fun anymore. 

That is a big obstacle. I enjoy dog training. I even enjoy working with reactive dogs; it's my niche in the dog training world. I've always believed that if you're not having fun, you're not doing it right. So I have to ask myself: is this something Rubi needs? Or is it something I want? How important is it really?

The answer is that it's not important enough. Rubi works very well for treats or the opportunity to play with her big, red ball. Her refusal to play tug isn't hindering our training program, nor is it negatively impacting her life or behavior. There's no real reason that we need to work through this issue now. So I am setting it aside. 

That's not to say that I'm giving up. I want to be able to play tug with B in the house again. That was fun, and it should be easy enough to bring back. Someday, when we've got fewer big projects on our plate, I'd like to go back and fix this issue. For now, though, I think we've got enough to work on. 

Friday, December 9, 2011

Bitches Go Adventuring

A few times a year, I pack up a couple of dogs and head north. In a small town on the Wisconsin/Michigan border, my grandparents live on ten acres of heaven. There are no freeways, no skyscrapers, no internet, and no Caribou Coffee - things that seem hugely important in the city, but fade into the unnecessary once I cross the St Croix River. My grandparents are getting up there, so us "kids" have started planning our trips up more carefully. In addition to the usual holidays, we make sure someone is up there to help in the spring with planting, in the fall with hunting, and -yay! for me - before the holidays to help with cooking and shopping. 

So this week, a couple of dogs and I made the five hour drive to nowhere. As always, I brought Piper Ann; that's one of the perks of being "the good one." Usually, I bring Maus along with her. I have it stuck in my head that a change of environment is good for him. Plus, Maus adores my gramma. She's one of the handful of people in the world that he's taken an immediate and total love to. This is balanced by his absolute loathing of my grandpa. Four years of work and he'd still prefer the man stay out of whatever room Maus is in. Maus has worked hard for me over the summer, so I decided to spare him the upheaval and take Rubi instead. Generally, she's much easier to live with than Maus, who tends to be neurotic and phobic. I certainly don't have to worry about B biting my grandpa (not that I think he'd actually do it, but I thought it'd be nice to spare myself the need for vigilance).

Rubi was her usual, easy-going self on the car ride up there. She was even well-behaved during a potty break in Haward, WI.

She fell apart at my grandparents'.

She jumped, she counter surfed, she dug in the trash, she paced, she whined, she won't come when called. She even resourced guarded, a problem we haven't seen hide nor hair of since the first month she moved in with us. You'd think, after living in so many homes, she'd have the whole "indoor manners" thing down. There are not words for how frustrated I was. I was on vacation! Do you hear that, B?!? VACATION!!!

In retaliation, I did what I always do when I'm too frustrated to train my dogs: I put them in a crate and went away to have some "me" time and not think about them one iota.

Okay, I lied. I went to a social at my gramma's church. There was a raffle, and to be polite I bought a few tickets. I won this bag!:

People were telling me, "Ah, Laura? You know that's a diaper bag, right?"

And I was all, "Nuh-uh! That's B's new training gear bag! Boo-YAH!"

(As a side note, my mother's family has lived in this area since before Wisconsin became a state. There were no fewer than four people who came up to my gramma and told her how nice it was her daughter was in town, and two people outright mistook me for my mother. Seriously, do I look that old? I decided it was because my gramma looks that young. So there.)

On the way home, I took the time to reflex on why Rubi hadn't behaved the way I thought she would. She's always had trouble with generalization, maybe this is an extension of that. Maybe my standards are too high. he's only been with me for a little over a year. Would I expect an eighteen month old puppy to behave to the standards I had held for B? No, no I would not. When do you suppose Rubi has ever gone to a new house and not been left behind?

My younger brother and sister are both autistic. They are the most incredible, entertaining, intelligent, frustrating people I know. I wouldn't trade trade them for a "normal" sibling in a million years, and I completely blame them for teaching me patience. If I can be calm when a child is screaming unintelligibly and try to hit me, then I can be patient with Rubi as we go back to basics.


And once again, it works. We play recall games, we practice stays, we trade valuable objects, and everything else falls to management. Three days into our stay, a parade of people come into the house to work on the furnace. She jumps on one of them. Once. By day four, her pacing and whining has disappeared, and she's content to nap while we bake or play cards. At the end of the visit, I'm able to recall her from muzzle-deep in a bucket of meat scraps (fact: you don't want to know how B came to have her head in a bucket of meat scraps).

We're helping gramma make caramels. Helping. We promise.  

And there were good memories, too. My gramma somehow confused the girls names and spent the first two days of our visit referring to B as "Rubi Ann," which is a heck of a lot nicer than what I usually call Rubi for a middle name. Gramma spent the rest of the visit calling Rubi "Miss B," which I also though was really cute. B and I had time to work on "go to your mat while people are eating," an exercise we struggle with at home. I got to see my dog once again reach the inner peace that I know she is capable of. Did I mention that this place is heaven? (It's certainly too cold for the devil.)

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Castles in the Sky

"My life has no purpose, no direction, no aim, no meaning,
and yet I'm happy.
I can't figure it out. What am I doing right?"
                                                              ~Charles M. Schulz

The leaves are off the trees, the snow has fallen, Thanksgiving has come and gone, and the herd beasts and I have settled into our winter routines. The dogs and I are chuggin' along toward the accomplishment of our goals - with one exception.

Three guesses who, and the first two don't count.

"I like to eat dirt."

It's not that things are going poorly for Rubi or that she's not making any progress. I just don't know where I'm going with her. Up until now, my only goal for her has been "Suck less." A worthy goal, and one we're making steady progress toward but not exactly measurable or timely.

When I first decided to adopt B, I had high hopes to get involved in an active sport like weight pull or agility. Unfortunately, I've come to the reluctant conclusion that she just isn't physically sound enough to do these things. I briefly considered dock diving - it's active and low impact - but I find my own strong adversion to water makes this option unappealing. There's always obedience and/or rally. B already has all the novice rally exercises down, but I just don't feel that this is something she would enjoy. Be able to do, yes; title at, sure. But it'd be like jamming a square peg in a round hole - uncomfortable for both of us. And of course, there's a therapy title, but right now that's so far into the future as to seem impossible.

Whenever I pick a sport for my dogs, I try to pick something they have a natural aptitude and enjoyment for. Maus loves nose work; Piper Ann can't find treats if you point to them on the floor. Piper Ann loves obedience; Allister despises anything that involves sitting still. Could I force any of them to do these things? Sure, but why? And to whose benefit? Certainly not the dogs'.

So what is Rubi good at, and what does she enjoy?

At the core of her, Rubi's reactivity and other "problems" arise from her passion for, well, everything. Rubi lives her life with gusto, do ALL the things, ALL at once! Joy! She's thrilled to be anywhere, doing anything, enthusiastic to the last hair on her body. Everything she does, she does with all that she has, even sleep! (Trying to wake B up in the morning is always an adventure - she sleeps like she's hungover. Possibly due to being drunk on life the during her waking hours). She is her own furry deity of happiness.

Well. That's helpful.

Do they make titles in being good at life?

Actually, they do. A few years ago, the APDT created the Canine Life and Social Skills (C.L.A.S.S.) program. Unlike the AKC's Canine Good Citizen test, which was developed as an entry to comeptitive sports, C.L.A.S.S. was designed to test dogs on real skills important for dealing in a world that's crawling with people. As with many sports, there are three levels: BA, MA, and PhD. At the "novice" or BA level, the dogs (and handlers!) are tested on their ability to wait before going through a door, come, loose leash walking and attention, meeting an unfamiliar person, leave it, wait for a food bowl, stay, settle, and give up a treat. There are also bonus activities that allow you to pass "with honors."

All of these are activities that I feel are important enough that B is already familiar with them. Maybe not familiar enough to pass the test, but that gives us something to work toward. Working on these exercises will also give me a concrete measure of B's progress. I'm fairly certain that the BA level would give her a lot of trouble if we had to take it today. But with a few months of polish, I bet we do fine.

So, now I have a goal. All I have to figure out now is how to get from point A to point B.

"Point B" Get it? Ha! I'm punny.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Rubi's Threshold Continuum

Because sometimes it's helpful to write stuff down.

Stage One:
-sleeping or extremely drowsy
-requires excessive encouragement to move
-gives me dirty looks for touching her/talking to her/being awake
-occasional groans, does whine/bark in her sleep
-does not wag tail

Stage Two:
-tail wagging
-spine relaxed
-responds readily to requests
-learns new activities easily
-occasional paw raises
-mild panting
-occasional tongue flicks
-seeks out affection

Stage Three:
-tail wagging
-body slightly tense
-moderately difficult to teach new behaviors
-generalizes old behaviors easily
-pupils dialate
-frequent paw raises and tongue flicks
-2-3 closed-mouth whines per minute
-accepts all food rewards
-moderate panting
-interested in enviroment, but easily redirected to task at hand
-mild hypervigilance

Stage Four:
-tail wagging
-unable to focus on new behaviors
-generalizes old behaviors with difficulty
-pupils dialated
-frequent paw raises, tongue flicks, and closed-mouth whines
-1-2 open mouth whines per minute
-accepts only high value food rewards
-frequently distracted by enviroment, moderately difficult to redirect
-moderate panting
-mild whale eye and hypervigilance
-holds weight balanced in forequarters
-frequency playbows if interacting with new dogs
-aggressively sniffs the ground

Stage Five:
-tail wagging
-constant lunging into enviroment
-does not redirect from focus
-moderate panting
-near constant open-mouth vocalizations
-does not accept food
-pupils dialated
-unable to preform well-known behaviors
-mild whale eye

Sunday, November 13, 2011


Rubi's had a busy November, and we haven't even hit mid-month yet.

Last week ARLP's Rott n' Pit Ed had to temporarily move from their nice, warm, cozy indoor space to an outdoor park. Rubi really needs work on "dogs outside on leash," so we braved the November wind to crash the party.

It went really well. Can I say how much I love that Rubi has a threshold? There is a distance at which she can see another dog and be pretty okay with it. I know I've mentioned it before, but it's like pictures of her relaxing on her mat around other dogs - it's cool every time it happens. We started out at about seventy-five yards away from the other dogs, and slowly worked are way up to the class over about forty-five minutes. We ended up close enough that we could've joined class, but at least two of the other dogs we mildly to moderately reactive, and I didn't want to disrupt them. Also, the park was crawling with other people's dogs, so we had plenty to watch.

RNPed's instructor, Jen, hadn't seen Rubi since before I adopted her (I think). Jen has B in class briefly before when Rubi was with on of her previous foster homes. After class, when everyone else had left and we had watched them leave, Jen turned to us and said, "Wow, I didn't hear her scream once. Nice job." This could be the best compliment anyone has ever given me about Rubi.

Saturday was ARLP's volunteer appreciation dinner (yum, pasta bar), and since I was speaking, I brought Rubi along as a demo dog. She proceeded to whore herself to everyone looking at her which, since she was demo dog, was everyone but me. The situation was easily remedied by increasing my rate of reinforcement and switching to higher value treats, but still, it's always a little disappointing when your dogs don't behave as well as you expect them to. I attribute most of her inattention to waiting so long to work and then how hot the room was. Rubi has never tolerated heat well. On the up side, Rubi was pretty happy to chill in her crate with a Kong in a room with 50+ people and a live band. That's a handy thing to know your dog is capable of. Rubi also got a nice certificate for our trophy wall for her participation in the Dog Safety Program (you should click on that link and go see the new, cute picture of Rubi on the website).

Late and groggy the next morning, Rubi and I packed up again to work with the dogs at RNPed. This day did not go as well as last week. She threw two tantrums. The first was entirely my fault for not having eyes in the back of my head and missing a dog behind us until it started barking. We went back to the car for a little while for a time out. I was really happy to see that B's car/canine behaviors are still excellent, considering how much we worked on them last winter and how little we worked on them over the summer.

Rubi's second tantrum was a case of not being able to control other people. I asked someone to keep their distance, and they did not. It's still my fault for not being able to protect my dog, but if I never wanted things like this to happen, we would be spending all our time in the basement where there are no strange dogs and no windows. Sometimes bad things happen no matter how hard you try to keep them at bay. It's simply the way of the world. That doesn't mean if I see a similar situation in the future that I'm not going to do my best to avoid it; I'm just not going to beat myself up over it this time.

Luckily for me, Rubi is not Maus, and is still able to function after having an "episode." Fifteen minutes after arriving, we were able to join the other dogs for class.

There are five new-to-Rubi dogs in the above picture. There are also two unknown dogs within twenty feet that aren't in the picture, plus one Andy a picnic table away. A new behavior that I've noticed recently is that B has been more comfortable sitting still and watching the other dogs than moving and watching the other dogs. So while before Rubi needed to be doing something around the other dogs or she'd find something to do, now she seems more comfortable sitting next to me doing auto watches or on her mat doing, um, mat things. I'm not sure what's causing the change, but I can't say I' upset about it. It's a lot easier to stay still around other dogs than it is to find an exercise that's moving but not moving too much and getting her more excited.

Rubi had a very good class by our standards. She was able to generalize a behavior to a new object - fetching a leash and targeting on a plastic lid. Rubi continues to have difficulty hearing other dogs. As you know, this isn't a new issue, but it's been sustained long enough without improvement that I think I need to find a new way of dealing with it. Maybe I should buy one of those dogs barking desensitization CDs? In addition to being able to learn, Rubi was also willing to play tug with me, although she wasn't as focused as she is, say, at home.

Training Rubi is a full contact sport.
 (photo by Paige Reyes)

All in all, we started out rough but finished nicely. Then on the way home, Rubi attacked and killed a giraffe. So I made a blanket from its skin for her. Thank you for reading the whole blog entry.

My dog is bad ass. 

Friday, November 4, 2011

Ken Ramirez: The Path to Enlightened Training

It's a really awesome time to be a dog trainer. There's so much new information coming out to improve not only behavior and training but also our relationship with dogs. Ken Ramirez isn't just a dog trainer. He's the executive vice-president of animal collections and animal training at the Shedd Aquarium in Chicago. He's in charge of about 3,200 animals (and people think I have a lot of critters), and he's trained not only marine mammals, but also snapping turtles, sharks, and komodo dragons. Ken says learning principles are the same across all species. "You can train a Harvard graduate the same way you teach an earthworm," Ken tells us.

Well, he should know.

On Sunday, Ken started by talking to us about two types of reinforces: primary and secondary. A primary reinforcer is "inherently reinforcing" like food, water, or sex. Ken also puts the "drives" into this category, so play, prey, social interaction, and so on. However, he adds that while the drives themselves are primary reinforcers, but the object of the drive must be learned.   

Huh, what?

Okay, take play drive: your dog has a natural desire to play. But he or she has to learn to play with a toy - the object of the drive. I personally think that play drive is fascinating all in itself. Play in predators is usually practice for hunting. So the same behaviors you see in prey drive tend to come out in play. Hunting in wolves is broken down into six parts: orient -> eye -> stalk -> chase -> grab-bite -> kill-bite (Coppinger, Dogs). Selective breeding of dogs has created exaggerations in the hunting pattern. Border collies, for example, have been bred with an exaggerated eye and stalk but little to no kill-bite. By knowing which of your dog's hunting behaviors have been exaggerated (note I said "your dog" not "your dog's breed"), you can better pick out an effective toy for training and engaging play drive.

So, let's look at Rubi. She a terrier, so you'd think grab-bite would be a big one for her. She does love to play tug, but more than that, she loves to chase. Squirrels, anyone? She'll drop any tug for the chance to chase her big red ball. Unfortunately, throwing a ball is not the greatest real life reward for training. It works, but once the ball is out of my hands, I have no control of it. Plus we don't always have the space for me to throw a ball.

Here's where Ken's method for teaching secondary reinforcers may come in handy. A secondary reinforcer "acquires its reinforcing value through association with primary reinforcers." So you can teach a dog to enjoy a secondary reinforcer of your choosing by associating it with a primary reinforcer. Ken uses the example of pairing food (primary) with clapping your hands (secondary). But I'd like to try increasing Rubi's desire for a tug toy. This has the benefit of engaging two primary reinforcers: play and food. I feel like this should increase the strength of the secondary reinforcer (aka, the tug toy), but maybe I'm just American and think that more is better.

Anyway, according to Ken's method, we first train the tug by pairing it with food. So, present tug, tug tug, food. This has the advantage of teaching the dog to release the tug  - always tricky - by having them drop it to get food. Lather, rinse, repeat through several sessions until the dog lights up when they see the tug. Then ask for a simple, well established behavior, mark the behavior, and tug. Do this a maximum of three times in a training session. Once the dog is working well for for the tug, ask for a harder, well established behavior. Work your way up until you're asking for harder, newer behaviors. Once you've generalized your new tug to all behaviors, then you can start gradually increasing the frequency of use.

The hard part about secondary reinforcers is that, well, they're less reinforcing than the primary reinforcer. This means that you should never use more secondary reinforcers in a training session that primary reinforcers. If you do, your dog will slowly become less motivated to work with you because the reinforcement just isn't there. Ken states a 20/80 ratio of secondary to primary reinforcers is about right. You will also need to regularly pair your secondary reinforcer with a primary reinforcer in order to maintain its strength. Ken also says to avoid using the same secondary reinforcer twice in a row.

So how do you decide what reinforcer is best for you and your dog? Here's the big R again: relationship. Certain rewards are going to more effective in different situations. Knowing and understanding your dog is the best way to figure out what is going to be most motivating for him or her in any environment. Not to mention that secondary reinforcers are useless without a personal history.

For example, "good" is a verbal secondary reinforcer in my house. If Rubi and I passed a dog on a walk, you can bet I wouldn't be telling her "good" - I'd be shoving food in her mouth as fast as she'd take it. But on the same walk, passing the same dog, with Piper Ann, a "good" would more than suffice. But if I were walking someone else's dog, I wouldn't even think of using the word "good"; to that dog, it's just another meaningless word. There's no history there. No real relationship. And relationship as we hear time and time again, is one of the most important parts of having a dog.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Patricia McConnell: Canine Behavior

First off, if you ever get the chance to see Patricia McConnell speak, do it. It takes an incredible speaker to keep people engaged and thinking for eight hours straight, and Trisha has got the gift. I could write an entire post on just what she had to say on dominance, wolves, relationship, emotion or any of the other topics she touched on, but I'll try to stick to the subjects that seemed most pertinent to reactive dogs.

Perhaps the most interesting part for me as the owner of reactive dogs was genetics and behavior. People often seem ambivalent to genetics and behavior, wanting the best of both with none of the disadvantages. Pit bull people in particular seem sensitive to the subject since so many people are trying to ban our dogs based on genetic generalizations. Fact: it's not all in how you raise them. That's just the way it is. But Trisha was also careful to repeat over and over again that environment plays a huge role. She used the analogy of cancer. In order to get most cancers, you need to have the genetic marker that allows various cells to mutate uncontrollably. However, on order to get cancer, you also need to have the right environmental trigger, like asbestos for lung cancer or HPV for cervical cancer. With canine behavior, not only do you need the right genetic markers and the right trigger, but that trigger must come at the right time developmentally. All of these factors need to come together in order to create a behavior, and that makes studying behavior really tricky.

Trisha divides genetic factors affect reactivity into five categories: shy/anxious, reactiveness, low frustration tolerance, predisposition to use mouth, and status seeking. Shy/anxious I think is fairly self-explanitory; it's neophobia. Reactiveness in this case is slightly different from what I mean when I talk about reactivity. In think context, we pretty much mean startle response. If you drop a book onto the floor, does the dog keep napping? Jump in surprise? Jump and start barking? Reactiveness is how extreme a dog's response to a stimulus is. Frustration tolerance is how calmly a dog is able to deal with not getting what it wants. Predisposition to use mouth is, of course, how likely a dog is to use it's teeth to solve a problem. Status seeking, according to Trisha in this situation, is not what most people refer to as dominance. Here, it means how controlling a dog is of the objects or living creature in his or her environment.

 So how do these factors impact unwanted behaviors? Let's look at my dogs, scoring the dogs on each of the five factors with 5 being a high level of the factor and 1 being almost no evidence (Trisha did not do this; this part is all me). Maus is very anxious; he gets a 5 on shy/anxious scale. He's also has a big startle reflex that is easily triggered, so let give him a 5 there as well. On the other hand, he's able to accept not getting what he wants easily, so he'll get a 2 there. He rarely uses his mouth to solve problems (his saving grace), so a 1 there. And he doesn't seek to control his environment too much, so there's another 1. These things come together to make a dog who is very neophobic, nervous, and neurotic. If you add all these numbers together, you get a 14 out of a possibly 25.

I've talked before about how different Maus and Rubi are although they both fall under the umbrella term "reactive dogs." You can see the differences clearly by mapping out the five factors. Rubi hits a 2 on the shyness scale; there are some new things that . . . confuse her, but for the most part, she takes new stimulus in stride. She also gets a 2 on the reactiveness. Aside from dogs and squirrels, there's really not many stimulus that she has an exaggerated response to. On the other hand, she has virtually no frustration tolerance - that a 5 for sure. She has a moderate predisposition to use her mouth: 3. I had to think for bit about status seeking, but I'm going to give her a 4 there; she tries to control her environment a lot, but I don't think she's as bad as she could be. So that's a total score of 16/25.

Next let's take the good one, Piper Ann. Shyness = 1, reactiveness = 2, low frustration tolerance = 1, mouthiness = 2, and status seeking = 1. That's a total score of 7/25. Does that mean that the lower the score, the less likely a dog is to be reactive?

Well, let's take a look at Allister: He's moderately neophobic, so he'll get a 3 for shyness. He always over reacts to things, so I don't have a problem giving him a 5 there. Frustration tolerance = 3, mouthiness = 3, and  status seeking = 2. That's a score of 16; the same total score as Rubi. And yet there aren't many places I don't feel comfortable taking him. New places, new people, new objects, he takes them all in stride. Aside from his inability to shut up, he's a pretty well-rounded, happy guy. How did this happen?

Answer: environment. Allister had an extremely different start that Rubi did. Rubi was left out on a chain for pretty much her first year of life. Allister came into my house at nine weeks - nine weeks that he spent with him litter mates learning valuable social and world-interaction skills. Environment is that important; so are genetic. Ideally, you would have dogs with good genetics and good environments. Luckily, though, a good environment can compensate to a degree for bad genetics. Conversely, good genetics can help make up for a bad environment. Dogs that have a bad environment and bad genetics are pretty much screwed (think puppy mill dogs that never make it out of the mill). The real variables are how bad/good of an environment and how bad/good are the genetics.

So what does this tell us about canine behavior? Well, not a whole hell of a lot. Us average dog owners don't have the ability to know if a behavior is occurring primarily because of genetics or because of environment. We don't know what a dog's genetics will allow it to do until we put the effort into changing the dog's environment. We know that pigs don't fly, but we don't know how high they can jump until we try. And as for me, I will keep falling in love with the mystery.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

The Accidental Post

I didn’t mean to write a blog post for B’s second day in class. I didn’t think it’d be interesting. We’ve done lots of school day posts, and they’re all went to school, did stuff, came home. Not to mention all the times we went to class and I didn’t blog about it. Reactive dog training is boring (if you’re lucky) and time consuming and generally not worth writing about. But Rubi and I had a few good moments yesterday, and I wanted to share them with you.

The highlight of the day came before we even got in the car. When I got home from work, I took Rubi to our favorite park to run some energy off. I made a fifty foot long line a few weeks ago, and I’ve been using it regularly to take Rubi new places for “off leash” practice. Yesterday, I took Rubi’s squeaky ball along to practice fetch and rile/recovery and running around like a goon. Remember, never be afraid to look stupid for your dog.

This is my 50' long line. I am proud because I made it and it's awesome and I usually have all the crafting 
skills of a retarded monkey with no thumbs

While we were playing ball, a lab walked by the park with its owner. The dog was on leash and about a block away. Not being on the pass up a training opportunity, I stopped Rubi and had her sit in heel, our official dog watching position.

She looked at the other dog.

She looked at me. I gave her a treat.

She looked at the other dog.

She looked at me. I gave her a treat.

Then she popped out of heel position and pranced in front of me to lay down, which is B speak for, “PUH-lease, pleaseplease, throw the ball.”

Do you see how awesome this is?

Rubi turned her back on another dog to play with me. So I threw the ball for her. In the opposite direction from the other dog, of course. Rubi ran the ball down and ran back to me. The she ran passed me. She stopped about ten feet toward the other dog and paused to watch him for a moment (remember, Rubi had a whole fifty feet of line).

“Rubi,” I reminded her, “bring it here.”

She gives me a full body wiggle, and then she brings me the ball. And then we play fetch like there's totally not another dog anywhere near her.

How cool is that? She has a threshold. She can act like a normal, sane, relaxed dog. Just chillin', playin' some fetch, yo. This from a dog who, when I got her, couldn't see another dog half a mile away and not flip out and scream like a velociraptor (did velociraptors scream? they do now).

It's hard to top this little accomplishment, but Rubi tried when we went to class and Rubi didn't care one iota about there being other dogs in the room. Boo-ya. I know she noticed them. Every once in a while, she would twitch an ear when L would bark or glance over when she heard J's tags jingle. But she didn't let them distract her from her mission: getting ALL the treats. Even when I set her up to see the other dogs, she blew them off in favor of whatever behavior she thought would get me to interact with her more. She wasn't as chilled out relaxed as she was last week, but she was really into working, so I'm not going to complain. We still did a lot of the relaxation protocol, but we also spent a fair amount of time "finding things for B to do." This is the circumstance that usually leads to some of my dogs' most, ahem, creative tricks.

See exhibit A

Rubi is my experiment dog. I spend a fair amount of time training her to do things that I need the other dogs to do reliably. Things that I'm not sure the best way to train. So I practice on Rubi. As a result, Rubi can scoot (Allister - disc), follow a scent (Maus - nosework), do a formal broad jump (Piper - obedience), and a few other random sport exercises. For example, two on - two off (Allister - agility). Since we had a handy A-frame, we spent some time working on that. 

Oh, did I mention that we didn't use the Gentle Leader except to get in and out of the building? We also working on heeling, crating, touch and mat work, among other things. After class, we went to McDonald's because B is awesome and deserves good things. 

Sunday, October 23, 2011

For the Love of Dog

I will never be famous. I will never be rich. I won't be a beautiful model or fancy actress. My house will never be clean - neither will my cars, for that matter. I have no great skill that is unique among people. There is nothing I do that someone else could not manage.

And yet, I am happy. I have my mission, my purpose in life. As a nurse, I heal. I help people to live longer, happier, healthier lives. In my off time, I ease the suffering of animals as best I can. I adopt; I train; I volunteer. I may not make any revolutionary changes to the world, but I do make it a better place. What I do may not be unique, it may not be huge - but it is important.

Photo of Mikey and me by Paige Reyes

This summer, I joined an army of A Rotta Love Plus volunteers at three Get Your Fix! fairs. We teamed up with MNSNAP and local vets to provide low cost or free spays, neutering, vaccination, and microchipping to inner city dogs, mostly rottweilers and pit bulls. Our year end totals included 156 rabies vaccinations, 189 DHPP vaccinations, 63 spays/neuters, and 110 microchips for dogs and owners who otherwise would have been unable to afford these basic care items. We also exchanged owners' old, worn, or inappropriate equipment for new leashes and collars. 

This picture of me vaccinating an East St Paul pit bull is from Sara Nick's camera

For those of you who might not know, Mikey is a product of the first Get Your Fix! fair in North Minneapolis. He had been thrown over the fence of the local "dog lady." Unfortunately, this sweet lady was elderly and not able to provide Mikey with what he needed. She brought Mikey to our fair, and luckily, we were in a position to help her out. It was fate. 

It's easy to judge the person who dumped Mikey over that fence, but mostly, I pity them. What a difficult decision! To understand that you can't provide for your puppy, but to not have anyone responsible to send him to, and to know that sending him to animal control would be an almost certain death sentence. How hard it must have been to leave him on the other side of that fence not knowing what would happen, but praying that you'd made the right decision. I wish I knew who Mikey's first owner was so that I could tell them that Mikey is safe. He is loved. He will be cared for and protected and happy as long as he may live. 

A picture of Mikey at his most recent adoption day by Paige Reyes

Because that's what you see at these fairs. These people may not have much, but they sure as hell love their dogs. And they're grateful for the opportunity to do right by them. We might not have a lot in common with each other, but we all love these dogs, and that's the kind of bond that transcends income, age, language, and race. Love is our lowest common denominator, and it makes us all allies. It may even make us friends. And that makes the world a better place. 

A boy and his dog at the St Paul fair from Sara Nick's camera

Me and a happy client in North Minnepolis by Paige Reyes

"How lucky are we that no one need wait a single 
moment before starting to improve the world."

                                                                         ~ Anne Frank

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Back to School

After six monthes in the wilds of our own inspiration, Rubi and I are back in class. Our first class was Tuesday at The Dog Loft. It's a genuine reactive dog class, and there are three other dogs in the class. All of them were referred to the class by behaviorists, and all of them are on some sort of behavioral medication. L is a shepard mix who is reactive to the whole world. M is a tri-colored fluffy dog who is dog reactive. And J is a pit bull who is so like Maus used to be that, well, I love him. Not to mention it's our first class with another pit bull in it, so we (hopefully) won't have to go though the whole "ZOMG, super scarey pit bull!" phase. J should have everyone broken in for us already. ;)

I'll admit, I was worried about going back to school. The last time we were in class, it went so badly that I didn't blog about it (and I tell you guys pretty much everything) - and we didn't go back for six months. But I was also concerned that B would be too much for these dogs. B is rather . . . exuberant, and these dogs seem, well, anti-exuberant. Exuberant is hard for most reactive dogs. M missed Rubi's debut on Tuesday, so there were only two dogs there, J and L. The room class is held in is basically a long rectangle. B went in first, and we arranged barriers across half the room so that she couldn't see the other dogs unless we intended her to. On the other side of the barriers was J, who is at least dog tolerant. Across another set of barriers, closest to the door, was L.

I brought B early since I knew we would need to go in first. Turns out we were quite a bit early, so I took the opportunity to do a little relaxation protocol. And also do targeting on the pause box because why not?

Once the other dogs started coming in, we got serious about relaxing. I know B could tell there were other dogs in the room, but she did a fantastic job with our initial mat work. Remember how long it took me to get a  hip bump from her during Changing Attitudes? That would be seven weeks. Here's class on Tuesday, in a new building, with new dogs:

Oh, wait - there's more . . . 

Rubi also did something she's never done outside of the house: she sought out physical contact.

Rubi, like many dogs, doesn't care to be touched when she's working. "Manners" and "affection" seem to fall into different categories in her brain, and she has trouble doing both at the same time. That's not to say you can't touch her when she's working. It just tends to drive her to distraction, and it's definitely not something she's ever been relaxed enough to request. Being touched while working is an important part of Rubi's training, and we've been working on it for over a year now. It's important not only because people like to pet Rubi or because of her work with the dog safety program, but also for those inevitable trips to the vet. The more relaxed Rubi can stay while being touched, the more stress-free and enjoyable they will be not only for Rubi, but for everyone involved.

On Tuesday, while doing TTouch on the mat, I stopped for a few seconds (sometimes I get distracted, too). And Rubi nudged my hand to get me to pet her again, just like when we're snuggled up on the couch at home. it was such a little thing, but is was the high light of my night. Baby steps, right?

Eventually, I got tired of sitting still, and we moved around a bit. We still did a fair amount of mat work, but we also did some slow heeling. Slow heeling is a lot more difficult that fast heeling because it's boring for the dog; is you want to keep your dog interested and moving with you, move quickly. But I didn't want to get Rubi's heart rate up, so we moved slowly and I upped the rate of reinforcement to keep it interesting for Rubi. I also moved the mat closer to J for a while, and we did a few drive-by glances at him. I think B could have tolerated more, but J is people reactive, so I didn't want to stress him out, either.

I've made the final decision that Rubi's whining isn't a good indication of how close she is to threshold. I've been dancing around the idea for a while, but I'm pretty sure about this one. I think one of the reasons it took me so long to reach this conclusion is that people are verbal creatures. We make noise, and we want the noise that other creatures make to mean something, too. Rubi is a moderately vocal dog anyway: she moans when you scratch her in the right place, she snorts pretty much all the time, and she whines whenever there's something interesting going on, whether it's something she would typically react at or not. It's a little like wagging her tail. She does it as long as there's something entertaining going on, and I'm pretty sure she has no idea that she's doing it. Better indicators of Rubi's emotional state are how hard she takes treats, her ear set (they more tighter and more forward the more stressed she is), the amount white around her eyes, and open mouthed vocalization (which is closely related to "screaming like a stuck pig"). Vocalization matters to people, not so much to dogs.

I was really pleased with how class went. It's a little like landing a plane. Anytime we don't crash and burn, it's a good day. But I was also able to see the real progress we've made. My homework for this week is to clean up my criteria. I can read Rubi and her stress levels very well, but I need to decide what I'm going to ask from her at certain levels of stress. Rubi doesn't get homework, because she is smart enough not to make plans.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Third Time Charming

On Thursday, I played hookie from work (in case my employers are reading this, by "hookie," I mean I took a vacation day) so that B and I could do to an ARLP education program. This program was different for our usual in a few ways. For one, I was teaching - something I try my very hardest to avoid. Second, it was a group for teenagers and would last an hour. Most of ARLP's programs are done for the K-8 group in about a twenty minute time frame. Lastly, there was another dog there.

Okay, so the other dog was Mikey, but Mikey can be plenty distracting when he wants to be.

Luckily, our friend Nicole was there to handle the little man while I concentrated on managing Rubi and talking to the students. I had B settle on her mat while I talked to the group about the history of the pit bull, dog behavior, training, and whatever else fell into my brain and spewed out my mouth (I've been told that the lecture portion was pretty good, so it would seem that my insecurity is showing). B got up a few times, but since there were kids intentionally trying to get her to do just that, I don't consider it a failure. She did go back to the mat each time I asked her, and given the circumstances, I'm pretty pleased with how few times she did break her down.

After rambling on for a bit, we let the kids meet the Mikey and Rubi. This dissolved into just hanging out while everyone asked whatever questions they had, the kids practiced "training" Rubi, and cameras were pulled out to commemorate the occasion. Mikey, meanwhile, had decided that I was paying entirely too much attention to everyone who was not him, and whined whenever I went out of leash range. So I hung out with him and Nicole and "supervised" Rubi and the kids.

I don't often get a chance to just observe Rubi, and I have to say, I was pretty pleased with what I saw. Whenever the kids started getting frustrated, I would come over and help them figure out whichever trick they were trying to get. When B started getting overstimulated, I would call her over for a few minutes of relaxing matwork. Overall, though, I didn't really have to interfere. The kids were wonderfully patient and followed directions well, and Rubi was wonderfully attentive and tried to follows the directions as she understood them. She didn't seem overly bothered that I wasn't right next to her, and even better, at no point did she try to jump on anyone and steal their treats.

It makes me happy for B that she's now both able to follow instructions from pretty much anyone. When I got her, she lived in her own little world where she didn't have to do anything anyone told her unless they used force. Now, not only does she take direction from pretty much anyone, she does it with her manners and impulse control intact. Sometimes progress is sneaky, and you don't know that you've made the journey until you've already reached the destination.

Friday, October 7, 2011

The Things-That-I've-Tried Update

Over the past few months, I've tried many new things to get an edge up on B's reactivity:

Play dates: Rubi's had several play dates over the summer, plus had our return to fostering, and all of these have been more or less successful. They weren't always pretty, but there wasn't any blood shed. We also haven't had to crate and rotate anyone on a regular basis. Everyone, for the most part, gets along. When i was very young, a dog trainer gave me an extremely valuable piece of information: when you have more than one dog, always expect that sometimes there will be fights. As a result, the Voice of Reason and I are vigilant with our prevention, but we also don't freak out at the occasional scuffle. Dogs are dogs, and their teeth are a valuable communication tool. Suddenly, this seems like a good subject for a later post, so I'll stop.

As a result of our play dates - including the occasional disagreement - B's canine social skills have grown immensely. B and I have this much in common: neither of us is a native speaker of the canine language. My first language is English, and B seems fluent in crazy. As a result of her many new friends, B is able to much understand what other dogs are telling her. Perhaps the biggest area where this is evident is with calming signals. B is now usually able to understand the difference between "IT'S ON!" and "please don't hate me." This is evident in how she handles strange dogs. Her thresholds are much closer for non threatening dogs, and she tends to freak out more easily with more aroused dogs. Trust me, this is an improvement. She's no longer freaking out at all dogs.

Dismissed: I vote in favor of the dismissal cue. The trouble for me is that it's counter-intuitive. The dog is up, happy, work with you, and you dismiss. Traditionally, that's when I want to keep working and keep rewarding. After starting to use the dismissal cue, I have noticed an increase in B's attention span and willingness to work. It also gives me a handy way to tell her that I'm not going to be rewarding her anymore, so she just as well not waste her time staring at me. It's like a "stop begging" cue - very nice.

Tethering: Meh. Rubi is a fairly easy dog to live with. She doesn’t have generalized anxiety like Maus. She’s pretty much only difficult when there are other dogs or squirrels. She doesn’t pace around the house, scream incessantly, or seem worried or upset on a day-to-day basis. She doesn’t even really follow us around the house, not if there’s something even remotely more interesting to do. She’s pretty content to just chill and let life go on around her. The only thing that tethering changed was that she can go over to the window to when she thinks she hears other dogs go by. Dogs pass our house maybe three to five times per day, and B doesn’t always hear them. When she does, we’ve got a routine: she goes to the window, sees them, and then comes back to me for instruction. It works well, so I’ve decided to stop the tethering.

No Freeloaders: This works for B. I know this works for B. I apparently just need to remember to do it when it’s so much easier to be lazy. Since tightening up our NILIF program, B seems happier in general. I think this is because she actually gets more attention (at least, it feels like I’m giving her more attention – more likely, I’m just noticing how much attention I do give her). She also has more control over her environment. Want  piece of celery? Lay down outside the kitchen. What to go outside? Sit by the door. Want on the couch? Lay down and sigh dramatically. Rubi doesn’t have to try and figure out how to get what she wants; I’m telling her what she needs to do. It’s clearer communication, so she’s listening more closely to what I have to say. We’re finally back to where we should be with her reactive dog rehab.

Something New: On our list of new activities we’re trying, I’ve stopped using the Gentle Leader on walks. This is less impressive than it sound, since I don’t actually use it for training. The GL is there because it gives me physical control over her when I need it. I use it primarily because I only have the one good arm. Earlier this summer when my wrist was particularly bad, I started walking B on a leash attached to my wait so I wouldn’t need to use my arm at all. I have control over her with or without the GL. The GL now just allows my to be lazy about loose leash walking.

No more!

Now she will walk nicely on a collar like all the other dogs. Laziness be gone! Rubi's never been particularly bad on leash, but not letting her pull should reinforce her impulse control. We need all the help we can get with B's impulse control.

Finally, I have some picture proof of how dangerous pit bulls are:

This is what happened on Wednesday when Rubi and Mikey collided at full speed. There was much blood. It was very impressive. I think B may have gotten a new face scar out of it, particularly consider how many times in a single day she's run into something and opened it up again (she has happy head?). Oh well. Of the many words I've used to describe Rubi, I don't think 'pretty" has ever been one of them.

Sunday, October 2, 2011


(This first picture of Allister belongs to me. They next two belong to Paige Reyes.)

Allister and I started a new sport this spring: agility. I've never done agility, so of course Allister's never done agility. This has led to several comical blind-leading-the-brilliant moments. Last week in class, one of the other student's asked me why the instructor was having us do an exercise a certain way.

"I have no idea," I responded cheerfully, "but I trust that the instructor knows what she's doing, so I'm just going to do what she tells me."

I researched this instructor very carefully before signing up for class. I talked to her students, studied her training style, looked into her accomplishments, checked out her reputation. In this moment last week, it struck me - dogs have none of that. They don't know our reputation or accomplishments. They have no background information to base our relationship on at all. Yet the majority of dogs trust us anyway. Allister believes that I know what I'm doing; only I know how fallible I am. How incredible is that?

I am awed and humbled by the canine faith in humanity.

I listened to a lecture once on rescue culture. The speaker, knowing how easily words influence thoughts and behaviors, felt that we were doing dogs a disservice by using the word "rescue." To be "rescued" implies victimization and creates a savior/victim interaction. In short, an "I saved you, now you owe me" inequality that belies the co-dependent relationship between dogs and humans. Dogs are not victims; they are not helpless. They are survivors. If I were to die today, I doubt Rubi would give me a second thought (and I would not want her to - she should be spared the grief that humans feel). Instead, she would adapt to her changed world. She would continue to manipulate and influence her environment to the best of her abilities. If she is capable of such thoughts, she certainly would not consider herself a victim.

So here is my Rubi: she who survived all the shit the world could throw at her, then sat up and begged for more.

‎"Shelter dogs aren't broken. They've simply experienced more life than other dogs. If they were human, we would call them wise. They would be the ones with tales to tell and stories to write. The ones dealt a bad hand who responded with courage. Don't pity a shelter dog. ADOPT one. And be proud to have their greatness by your side."