Thursday, January 27, 2011

Level Three, Week One

My husband was late dropping Rubi off for class yesterday, so I was able to watch the everyone else assemble without her. Rubi is one of four dogs in the class, and two of the other dogs are reactive. I get along with most people, but one of the reactive dogs is handled by a woman I genuinely loathe. (She went to the club leadership and told them that Piper Ann attacked her dog in a class – as if Piper Ann would do such a thing even if I let her! Yes, I know, I hold a grudge, it's not one of my better qualities, I understand that.) I considered pulling Rubi from the class right then.

Suck it up, I told myself. We made it through that first night of Changing Attitudes, we can do this.

I set up a barrier in one of the obedience ring's corners and set-up B's mat so we would have a place to escape to. Zach arrived a few minutes later, and I met Rubi and him in the lobby. He and I took a few seconds to catch up – he'd gotten lost on his way in – and I claimed B and turned to go to class.

And there was Loki right behind us.

Surprised the heck out of me. Rubi knows Loki from CA, he's the first dog we ever did a CGC-style greet with. B clearly knew he was there, he was only a couple of feet behind me, but she'd given me no indication that there was another dog so close. And in the lobby, no less!

We're off to a good start. B and I make our way into the ring. She's a bit distracted, but nothing too ridiculous. We've been working on going through entry ways for a while now. I actually started this way back when she was still a foster dog. We approach a doorway or ring barrier and B has to sit and look at me. Once she does so, I release her to go through the door. Going through the door is B's reward for staying and paying attention, although every once and a while she gets a treat for it. Here's the important part: once we go through the door, she has to reorient to me before we proceed into the room. She always gets rewarded for looking back at me when we go into a new space, because I want this habit to be very strong. And it's a difficult exercise for her. Think of it this way: when you go into a new place, would you rather check it out or look back the way you came? I let B look around and check out her surroundings, but I want her to understand that she needs to check in with me before she can explore. We practice this check-in a lot: going through doorways, going through gates, going outside, getting out of the car, getting out of the crate.

And tonight all the hard work pays off. We go though the gate into the ring, B does a quick sweep to see where we are, and then she looks back to me for her reward. Good job! While I've got her attention, I ask her to move into heel position. If I just release her into the ring, she's going to get herself into all kinds of trouble. So we heel over to our little area behind the barrier. Class almost always begins with some lecture and introductions, and I don't want B to just sit there and stare at the other dogs, working herself up while everyone talks. I ask her to go to her mat; she trots over to it, lies down, and proceeds to start talking at me.

Oh, hai, lobby dog.

She can't see the other dogs, and none of them are chatting it up, so she can't really hear them, either. I wonder if I've possibly poisoned the "go to mat" command by letting her whine and protest on it. If "mat" means go "lie down and cry" instead of "go lie down and settle," I'll have to retrain the command. But she doesn't do this anywhere else, and up until today, she didn't do this when she couldn't see other dogs.

Rubi baffles me sometimes.

Instead of having poisoned the command somehow, it's more likely that lying on the mat isn't taking up enough of her brain space or energy (there's that energy thing again). It's too easy for her, and she's yelling at me because she doesn't having enough to do. So we do a few minutes of the relaxation protocol. This is our abridged, on-the-road version: Step back, reward, step back, reward, walk 1/3 around the dog, reward, wait five seconds, reward, step back, reward, and so on. Rubi's response is near instantaneous. Her eyes soften, her body relaxes slightly, her cries go from heartfelt lungfuls to soft whimpers and then stop all together. How did I ever get along without the relaxation protocol?

Well, for one, I never had a dog that I needed so badly to be able to settle on cue. And it is on cue; I always start with a step back. It doesn't seem to take much more than that for B to go, "okay, I got this, we're doing controlled boredom, time to chill and let her feed me." After working the RP for about five minutes, we step outside our barrier and watch the other dogs. It doesn't take long before B starts to unravel. She's not crying again or ignoring me, but I can see her tighten up again. I want to change her gears before she does loses it; I want to set her up to succeed. So after maybe two minutes of watching the other dogs, we go back to the mat, and I run her through the RP for another five minutes.

After that, B pretty much settled down for the rest of the class. We worked on heeling, variations on down, stands, retrieves, and, of course, lots of watching the other dogs. I even felt secure enough to work her without the gentle leader for a while, which was good for the both of us since we can't use it for the CGC. The highlight of the night was when my arch nemesis's dog started staring and growling at B. Rubi looked at him, and I could see her think about it for a second – and then she turned to look at me instead of volunteering to run over and rearrange the other dog's face! Jackpot! *

At the end of class, Rubi, the class instructor, and I stuck around to tell one of the other handlers about Reactive Rovers. Of course, once the handler left, the instructor and I hung out and talked dog. I mentioned that Rubi's next big goal was to pass the Canine Good Citizen test, but I wasn't 100% sure what our plans were after that.

"Oh," the instructor said, "you two should get therapy dog certified."

Oh, happy moment. I'm not sure if my future plans for B include therapy certification for a variety of reasons. To be honest, I'm having trouble seeing beyond the CGC right now. I'll probably have a crisis of goals if we ever do manage to pass it. But it's awfully nice to know that someone else sees Rubi's inner charms.

* While Rubi is not aggressive, she doesn't tolerate rudeness well. She feels that any dog that is out of line needs to be shown who's really Queen B of the World.

Monday, January 24, 2011

The First Step

Things are getting worse. Kind of. Sometimes. Under certain conditions. Okay, let me describe it to you: for the last few weeks, Rubi and I have gone early to class to practice watching dogs in the lobby for thirty or so minutes. And for the last few weeks, Rubi has been getting progressively LOUDER during these sessions. But that's it. Her attention has actually improved. She looks at me more often, and follows my cues with about 90% reliability (which is pretty good). She also offers hip bumps and head downs and the occasional lie-on-my-side. This would be awesome if she weren't talking to me at the same time. And she is talking to me; the majority of the time when she's vocalizing, she's looking at me. Rubi reminds me a bit of Allister, actually. For those of you who don't know my youngest dog, Allister, he's a charming little guy. Drivey, but not over the top, and smart as a whip. However, Allister has An Opinion. On everything. And he wants the world to know.

But while Allister is chatting on principle, Rubi's chattiness is definitely related to the other dogs. Last week after doing our thing in the lobby, we went to the lecture class for CA (no dogs) and demonstrated a few of the foundation behaviors. And Rubi was fine. Come to think of it, though, B is also "fine" when we go from lobby work straight to class, where there are other dogs.

Okay, I admit it: we have a problem. And I don't know what's wrong.

I have about half a dozen theories, none of which fit the symptoms exactly. My best guess right now is that she's just not getting enough exercise. In case you are lucky enough to live elsewhere or have gone into hibernation for the season, it's friggin' cold out. This limits our exercise abilities quite a bit. B needs to run, and there's not a good way to do it in 1,500 square feet of house. (If I had the money, I'd get a treadmill. I do not have the money.) But if B were suffering from a lack of physical stimulation, I'd expect her behavior to get worse overall, and it's hasn't. She's the same old B at home. In addition, last Monday when I took her to the club while it was closed  and there were no other dogs around (perk of being an instructor), she didn't require an extended warm-up period. The other top possibility for B's worsening behavior is that I am asking too much of her too quickly. She's just not ready to work that closely with other dogs. If this is true, than when we start Level Three this week, there's a good chance it will be a disaster. I will be assisting with Level 2 before I take B to Level Three, so we won't get a chance to practice looking stupid in the lobby. It's pretty much look stupid in class because B isn't ready to be around dogs like that. On the other hand, if B is "just" under exercised, starting class right away might not be a bad thing. Instead of trying to relax around other dogs, we'll be up and wearing off energy around other dogs. If it's the energy and not the dogs that is the problem, we should be okay. If it's the other dogs and not the energy, we'll pretty much suck like lampreys.

With teeth.

On a less freaky/more awesome note, Rubi and I conquered a huge milestone in our relationship the other day: we worked off leash in class (not around other dogs, just in general). Like many dogs with Rubi's training background, she believes that if there's no leash connecting us, she doesn't have to listen.  You can't correct her, you can't keep her from running willy-nilly about the ring, you can't force her to do anything. And she's right. I can't force her to stay with me.  And on some level, my own insecurities got the best of me, and I agreed with her. Why would she want to stay with me when there are so many more interesting things out there? I'm not really that exciting. I can't compete with other dogs, other people, or the lint on the floor on the other side of the ring. Our relationship isn't that good.

Well, it turns out I am cooler than some of that stuff (I'm pretty sure she still thinks other dogs are more awesome than me). But, hey, check it out! I'm cooler than lint! YAY! Rubi did seem to have trouble with the pattern of rally. She was all "Exercise, treat, yay! Be free! oh, wait, another exercise, treat, be free! What, again? oh good! . . . " But each time I asked her to return to me, she did. It was a big step in learning to trust, not just for her, but for me. Ask any competitive team - dog or human - what the foundation is for working together, and they'll tell you it's trust. And it's not enough that your teammate be able to trust you. In order to win big, you have to trust them, too.

During class, I gave the instructor my camera hoping to get a few pictures for the blog. Unfortunately, they all turned out blurred enough to be considered modern art. But as I studied them further, I was amazed at how clearly I could see one quality: Rubi is having fun. In the thick of it, I think I sometimes forget that Rubi loves training. Once Rubi decides to go for something, she throws her whole being into it, one hundred ten percent. She can certainly never be faulted for a lack of enthusiasm. And on that note, I give you The Art of Training Rubi:

Tuesday, January 18, 2011


Has your brain ever just fallen out of your head?

It happens to me every once in a while. For instance, last week at work, they were "updating" our computers. If you're lucky enough not to require computers for your job, you might not realize that "update" is actually tech-speck for "now your computer will not do any of the things you really, really, really need to do, nyah nyah nyahnyah nyah." How do I react when my computer doesn't work? I start pressing buttons harder. I hit it a few times. I swear. A lot. Because I am convinced on some level that if I can find the right combination of violence and cursing, my computer will be intimidated into working the way I intend it to (the stupid piece of *^&%&*).

This is called an "extinction burst."

The phenomena is actually one of those handy evolutionary survival techniques. When what we do doesn't work anymore, we try harder. Pretend you're a lion in Africa. You're chasing a gazelle and you're running really fast but dang it, the little bugger gets away. What do you do? Do you curl up and starve? Do you attempt a previously untried new strategy for catching gazelle? Most likely, you try chasing it again, only you try harder next time. And, y'know, maybe swear a little.

Or a lot (really, what do I know about lions?).

Speaking of swearing, extinction bursts can be a real hit to the ego if you happen to have a five year old reactive pit bull. You're cruising along thinking, hey, we're not doing so bad - in fact, I might classify this as "good" when WHAM! Psycho dog re-emerges and you get left holding the leash wondering why you suddenly suck as a trainer.

I have one advantage and one advantage only over most of the people I teach: experience. I'm not a guru of dog behavior, nor do I have some special gift. I had to learn this stuff from the ground up, too. In my experience, the best way to combat an extinction burst is with consistency. Keep doing what you're doing. Eventually this, too, shall pass. Many people give up when the behavior suddenly worsens. The dog who whines at the dinner table is ignored - right up until he starts barking at the dinner table. Then he gets attention to shut him up. Now, when he realizes whining isn't working for him anymore, he'll go to bark faster because, hey, it worked last time. On the other hand, if you ignore the dog when he starts barking, eventually he'll stop and realize that making noise isn't working for him anymore.

Extinction bursts are the oncoming train at the end of the tunnel. Once the train passes, the light of day is clear. Metaphor aside, extinction bursts mean the the dog is about to realize the previously rewarding behavior isn't working anymore. If she barks at other dogs, she's still not going to get closer to them. Promise. Then that behavior will go away - or at least, severely diminish - and she will start trying new things to get closer to other dogs. She probably won't give up, but that's okay. I just need to be there when it happens, to guide her to the different behaviors I want.

Friday, January 7, 2011

You Want Me To Do That Where?!?

Like may trainers, if I had a dollar for everytime someone came to me with a plantive cry of, "But she always does it at home!" or "But he's so good in class!" I could retire from my day job and move someplace where it isn't so cold that my eye lashes freeze to my eye brows everytime I go outside. The trouble behind complaints like these stems from a concept called "generalization." As often as you hear dog owners lament that their pet only follows orders in one place or the other, you will hear dog trainers say, "Dogs don't generalize well."

I tried to find a really good definition for generalization, but it turns out that this is one of those concepts that easier to understand than it is to explain understandably. Mirriam-Webster defines generalization as "the act or process whereby a learned response is made to a stimulus similar to but not identical with the conditioned stimulus." That's nice and simple, right? (pretend you heard that last sentence in a really sarcastic voice) In dog training terms, generalization is a dogs ability to take a learn concept from one enviroment into another.

So say your proverbial cat sits on the hot stove top. She won't sit on the hot stove top anymore, but neither will she sit on a cold one. That's generalization. But what if it's the same stove in a different house? Or a different stove? Or the same stove with different burners? That's the tricky part of generalization.

Many people forget that generalization is more than just a change in location - it's anything new, from the time of day to the number of people watching (just ask anyone who competes with their dog). Rubi and I will be working on generalization for the rest of her life. Thanks to our second round of Changing Attitudes, I now know what she's capable of around other dogs. Relaxation isn't just a lofty ideal anymore; it's an attainable goal. Now that we've built that foundation - in one little room with one type of flooring at a certain time of day with a limited number of other dogs - it's time to start taking that behavior on the road.

Since finishing CA, Rubi and I have been hanging out in the lobby at TCOTC. Same building, but it's a very different area. It's connects to the ring room, where most of the obedience classes are held, and where everyone else goes through to get to their classes. There's a lot of dog and people traffic, and the lobby isn't as big as the CA classroom, so it's harder to get away from things when B does get over stimulated. Our first few forays into the lobby went fairly well. I've come to really cherish the strategy of throwing a handful of treats on the ground when another dog reacts at Rubi. In addition to taking B's mind off the other dog, it also sends that dog a calming signal: no big deal here, I'm just sniffing the ground.

Last Wednesday pretty much sucked, though. Looking through the perfection of hindsight, I can really see that I expected to much from B in a newish area after two weeks on holiday. Before, we had spent the majority of time in the lobby just watching the other dogs. But this time I really wanted B to do stuff, and that didn't go over so well. It think it added stress and, as a result, she was more prone to reacting. Of course, the two weeks off didn't help, either. We're really too early in our training for me to expect B to behave after being away from other dogs for extended periods of time. Really, the week between classes is too long to go between interacting with largish amounts of other dogs, but gosh darn it, it's cold out, and there aren't many places where we can be comfortable (physically and mentally) around other dogs.

On the other hand, dig through enough cloud and usually, you'll uncover some silver. I mean, we didn't die, no one got bit - those always fit into the "Column of Good." While the other dogs were in their rings, I did manage to get B to lie on her side long enough to get a picture. Although she sure doesn't look relaxed.

Come to think of it, we were able to work on some actual conditioned relaxation - not forced or pseudo forced. While doing mat work, she put her head down twice, and I was able to marked/rewarded that. She also hip bumped a few times for me. So, yay! there. We were also able to practice our CGC greetings sans Gentle Leader, thanks to the generousity and patience of our friends, Jen and Blue. Oh, and I got this awesome picture of me torturing B - er, I mean, practicing impluse control by putting treats on her paws and getting eye contact before releasing her to eat them.

Actually, she doesn't look very happy in that picture, either. Of course, I'm not sure I wouldn't be thinking, "But . . . but . . . why me?" if someone handed me a big chunk of chocolate and told me I couldn't eat it.