Thursday, February 24, 2011

Good Bad Days

Sometimes, it's good to have a bad day. It keeps me from getting complacent.

Rubi apparently used up all her good behavior at the CGC test and had none left for class last night. Right away I knew something was up because Rubi was taking treats a little harder than usual. A hard mouth is one of her more subtle cues that her head isn't screwed on quite as tight as it needs to be. She was also really hyperactive; not really reactive, but like those little kids you see playing and think, "oi, they make me feel old just looking at them." On the other hand, Rubi is usually a little wound up at the beginning of class, and we can normally work through it in a few minutes. So we started with a little relaxation protocol, and then moved on to warm up heeling with the rest of the class. This is about the time I started wondering if my husband slipped B some expresso before class as revenge for making him clean out the basement. Heeling went something like this:

Me: Rubi, heel.

Rubi: Heel? Oh, I know that one, did you know I can heel at eye level? *leap in heel position, leap in heel position, leap in heel position* Hey! A ring mat! Oh, look other dogs – what are we doing? Right heel, I know that one! *boing, boing, boing* OMG, LOOK! LINT!!!!!!

Me: *face palm*

The class then left the ring to go practice stays in the lobby. At this point, I think you can imagine how that went. We lasted about two minutes, around five seconds of which Rubi actually spent in stay position. I decided to go back into the ring for some alone time with the mat before B could do something to really embarrass me.

Back in the ring, we did another cycle of the relaxation protocol, and that did seem to help her take it down a notch. I still wasn't thrilled with the idea of actually moving with her, so once we finished that, we moved on to some of the impulse control exercises. We did some Zen doggie, and then my favorite torture trick, treats on the paws.

Somewhere between the relaxation protocol and the impulse control, I figured out part of what had B so worked up. Last night was the first night the Really Reliable Recall (RRR) class was in the ring next to us. I've never taken RRR (although I sometimes fantasize about taking it with B), but it seems to be a lot of running across the ring screaming with dogs bark for extra emphasis. Good fun if you're in the class, less fun if you have the reactive pit bull a plastic barrier away.

I've mentioned before about how B seems to have issues with hearing other dogs. I don't think this is a new problem. More likely, it's something that's always been there, and I'm picking up on it now that her other issues are becoming more manageable. Kind of like you might not notice you have a headache if you just broke your arm; but once your arm starts to heal, your head starts to really bug you. So I increased my rate of reinforcement (aka, gave B more treats) for whatever we were doing when dogs were running in the next ring, and it didn't take long before B began to settle down a bit. Not fantastically calm, mind you, but workable.

After stays, the rest of the class had gone into the meeting room to practice . . . well, I forgot because I wasn't there, but they went somewhere I couldn't see them to rejoin them, so B and I worked on a new version of "leave it." B does pretty well at ignoring treats when I ask her to as evidenced by her fluency with zen doggie and treats on the paws, so I changed the rules a little. I had Rubi sit next to me, and then I threw a treat on the ground a few feet away. I didn't let her go get the treat, and when she looked back at me to see what the deal was, I marked and rewarded her from my hand. Then I threw another treat, and she looked back to me a little faster, because she's not entirely stupid. Pretty soon, she was barely glancing at the treat when I threw it, so I started throwing it closer to her. By the time the rest of the class rejoined us in the ring, I was actually throwing the treats at Rubi, and she was ignoring them.

Tell you what, start throwing treats at your dog, and they really start to think you're more interesting than floor lint. Apparently, you don't even have to let them eat the treats.

After that little victory, Rubi and I managed to get through the rest of class without too much trouble. I didn't push her – we definitely didn't do any of the more difficult exercises like heeling off leash, but we were able to do sit stays right next to the RRR ring. I kept increasing my rate of reinforcement when the other dogs were running, and I did that throughout the night.

We hung out in the lobby after class and watched the other dogs leave, and by then B was about back to normal. She even managed not to scare the ever-livin' daylights (ie, lunge) out of the little dust mop whose owner let wander into our bubble (hallelujah!). But the brightest silver lining of the night came when we were leaving and ran into another dog on the path to the parking lot. The path is about four feet wide and has high snow banks on either side, so there's not really any room to retreat. B was able to hold it together while a large, black dog passed next to us on the path. Admittedly, she wasn't happy about it, and I certainly wouldn't have wanted to do it off-leash, but we managed the whole thing with only a touch of whining – a big accomplishment for my little reactive rover.

So overall, a good bad day.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

The Forest and the Trees

Those of you who follow Rubi and I via other means know that B and I passed her CGC yesterday. A few months ago, I came to the realization that I don't actually enjoy showing my dogs. I enjoy training them, and I wish that were enough. But as a people trainer, I have trouble convincing myself that anyone should take me seriously if I don't have titles on my dogs. After all, I wouldn't study under a trainer if he or she hadn't titled dogs in the sports they were teaching. The actual process of showing a dog, though, I don't particularly care for. There's all the expense of the show, plus the logistics of getting the dog to show, setting up, getting ready, managing my own ring nerves - it's just not high on my list of fun activities. I'll continue to show, because I like having titles on my dogs, but actually getting those titles is a big PITA to me.

So maybe it's just residual ring nerves, but I can't help but feel that this CGC is a little bit of an empty accomplishment. Sure, we passed. In a familiar place. With people we kinda knew. With dogs we kinda knew. B can walk passed another dog - just like 80% of the other dogs out there. But God forbid the other dog should show interest in her. B still has a pretty big bubble, at least according to my standards. She still lunges at dogs that come within about five feet of us, although she does usually come back when I ask her to. It's kind of an "oops, sorry, mom, I forgot" moment. Rubi continues to be pretty sensitive to the sound of other dogs. For example, if a dog starts barking somewhere, and Rubi can't see it, she'll often start reacting at whatever dog is closest to us, even if she was sitting next to that dog perfectly comfortably a moment before. Clearly, we've still got some heavy desensitization to work through there. Recently, Rubi also seems to be having trouble with "floating head syndrome." Now that the ginormous snow drifts outside the house have started to melt, we can see people walking by - or, at least, the heads of people walking by. Seeing floating heads walk by is apparently unnerving, and B's taken to reacting to them. I could have sworn we had this problem fixed already, but it has translated over to the club as well, and B has been reacting to dogs who's heads she can see floating over the tops of the solid ring barriers. Lovely.

But on the other hand, WE FREAKIN' PASSED THE CGC!

Of the many things I am grateful for, I'm very glad I started the blog. It allows me too look back and see that yes, being able to walk past another dog is, in fact, Kind Of A Big Deal. Not only did she do well, she nailed this part of the test; I couldn't have asked for a better run. We passed the CGC, and we passed it a full three months before I'd expected to, and only six months after I'd actively begun to work on Rubi's reactivity. That's pretty awesome, and I'm glad I have something to remind me how great it is. Sure, we've still got a few kinks in the programming, but we've come a long way. 

Rubi has lived with us for about nine months now, and she's changed subtly but impressively in that time. She no longer seems to regard me as another bit of furniture: fun to jump on and occasionally comfortable, but much less interesting than most everything else. She trusts me now, looks to me for guidance in strange situations, and accepts that I might know what's best when I tell her not to do something. It's not perfect, but it's a long way from where we started. Rubi has also found her place in our family. She understands each of the other dogs, how they play, who's good to snuggle with, and that "enough" is not a challenge or a threat to her safety. She knows that the cats aren't anything to be afraid of (yes, she was afraid of the cats when she first came - "Vicious pit bulls" indeed). Our lives have slipped into a comfortable, reassuring routine. 

So what is the CGC title worth? A few letters that say so little about the progress we have made and how far we've come. We have improved each other's lives, and that is the real accomplishment. 

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Wordless Wednesday: School Night

Touch . . . or possibly a right finish.

 Hind end awareness (aka: put you butt on the stool).

Weave, because I don't trip over enough things in my life.

Putting oneself on a pedestal.

Um . . . apparently she did something to get a treat . . .


Much love to our friend Niki for playing photographer. You rock.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Baby, It's Cold Outside

For those who might not know, it is really hard to work with a reactive dog when it's cold enough outside to freeze the spots off your leopard print. Needless to say, Rubi and I haven't been hitting our goal of training outside the house three times a week – a goal I made when it was considerably warmer outside. I've discovered that we need to get out at least once a week or our training starts to deteriorate. We've been managing twice a week, one day being class, of course. The other day, we get creative.

When trying to generalize behaviors, I routinely tell my students to practice in their front yard or driveway. It's convenient, and yet it's not a place we tend to spend a lot of time in.  The driveway is a place we pass through on our way to somewhere else: familiar to a dog but not ordinary. Obviously, the driveway becomes a much less desirable place to train when it resembles the frozen tundra (only colder), so Rubi and I practice in the next best HEATED area.

We hang out in the car.

I think vehicle manners often get overlooked. It's hard to train a dog and drive at the same time, but it's pretty easy to manage car behaviors. When I first got Rubi, she went into the crate, I threw a sheet over it so she couldn't see anything to react at, and away we went. However, with a shortage of heated places to train, the car has become a regular haven. We started out practicing relaxation exercises in thecar in the driveway. Sit, down, and stand can all be comfortably done in the passenger seat. So can touch, shake (right and left), zen doggie, and several of the impulse control exercises like treats on the paws and the name game. Once we mastered these things while sitting in the driveway, we moved into store parking lots. We practiced at the bank, at the grocery store, at Target, and once while getting the oil changed. Basically, if I'm running errands, I pop Rubi in the car and we take a few extra minutes to train everywhere we stop. We can also practice auto watches on the people and occasional dog that passes through our area. Now, we can even do auto watches while drive passed other dogs: Rubi sees the dog, looks at me, I mark her with a word and pass her a treat.* Just like in class!

Now that the weather is turning toward thoughts of spring, literally everyone and their dog seems to be out enjoying the warmth (welcome to the Minnesota heat wave – a whole 38 degrees above zero!). This gives us a plethora of practice with dog-dog interactions, but it limits the amount of off-site non-dog training we can do. I feel that non-dog training is as important as the reactivity rehab. We need time to work with each other without the added stress and seriousness of being around other dogs. I've had the pleasure of using TCOTC a few times when it was empty – one of the perks of being an assistant – but since I have trouble convincing myself to get up before the butt crack of dawn to train my dogs on the other side of town, I've been rather inconsistent with using the club during off hours.

Yesterday, I did what was convenient for me. I took Rubi with me to the library to drop off books, and we spent some quality time in the parking lot practicing obedience. It was nice to be able to get out and stretch our legs a bit, plus the multitude of people going in and out of the building was a great distraction. Not as intense as other dogs in a new area, but super interesting to Rubi (and in a few cases, pretty distracting to me as well). Perfect! We did heel work, stays, sits, downs, stands, and touches - basically, nothing too difficult as this was a new place to work in. In addition the easy stuff, we practiced watching people the same way we practice watching other dogs: look at the person, look at me, mark, get a treat. This is much easier for B than watching dogs in a new place, so she did great. All in all, an awesome training session on a beautiful day.

What more could you ask for?

* Please note, Rubi is ALWAYS properly secured while I am driving. She's doing really well with car manners, but I'm not willing to bet both our lives on it.

Friday, February 4, 2011

Reactivity vs Reactivity

A friend and I were recently talking about our reactive dogs. "Reactivity is reactivity, right?" she asked me. "The trigger doesn't really change the approach at all. Wouldn't you agree?" What an excellent question! A while back, I believe I described as "any unwanted behavior a dog offers when presented with a trigger" (I think I did anyway, I can't find it now). So under the idea that an unwanted behavior is an unwanted behavior, then yes, reactivity is reactivity. On the other hand, there's a wide variety unwanted behaviors, and just as many causes and triggers as there are different dogs. Nowhere is this more apparent than with my own two reactive pit bulls.

Maus is a gentle soul and a nervous one. I often refer to him as the bravest of my dogs, because EVERYTHING scares him, and he tries so hard to be good anyway. He's the type of dog that is afraid of fire hydrants (I'm not kidding) and twitches at plastic bags. For the first year that I had him, it took at least fifteen minutes just to convince him that going outside for a walk was kind of a good thing. Sometimes. Maybe. He's still the only dog in the house that isnt's required to sit before going out the front door. It's just not a big motivator for him: "Here, Maus, sit and behave so we can go do something you don't like." Maus's main trigger is people, which is a Big Deal in and of itself. I'm much less willing to take risks with him than I would be with a dog that has a different trigger. Biting a human is pretty much the worse thing a dog can ever do. I'm lucky, though, that when Maus is confronted with a trigger, his first reflex is to run away. I remember once at the vet, Maus tried to hide by climbing over me, under his chair, and through the wall behind us - and that was before the vet even looked at him. Maus has eye contact issues: he'll stare at something and he can't bring himself to look away. His eyes start getting wider and he goes very still. He growls – not loudly, not viciously, but quiet and steady. If I let him get past this point, he might bark a few times, and he's air snapped once or twice. There's not a lot of show to Maus, and personally, I think that makes him pretty scary. So I watch him obsessively, work him slowly, and keep things very calm and relaxed.

If Maus if like a calm, chill fall day, than Rubi is the boiling heat of summer. She does everything with full force and gusto – trust me, you know when she's reacting. Everyone in North America knows when Rubi is reacting. I've never seen Rubi retreat from anything. It's like someone removed the "caution" part of her brain, an intense contrast to Maus who is cautious and suspicious of most everything. It's hard to imagine two dogs less like each other. B likes to move, Maus likes to sit and watch. B moves forward when she reacts, Maus runs away. The root cause of Rubi's reactivity is definitly frustration - "I want it, and I want it NOW!" - whereas Maus is motivated out of fear. Rubi loves to work; she'll go for hours and never show signs of flagging. Whereas Maus tends to think he's done after about forty-five minutes of intense training (if we're doing somthing low-key, he'll hang in there for longer). After so many months of training, I'm 90% confident that Rubi's behavior is learn. She has enough drive and energy that she found he own channels for it when people weren't able to keep up with her. I believe Maus's issues are primarily genetic. He had, by all accounts, every possible advantage that a homeless dog could get growing-up: a foster home, good training, lots of socialization, the whole package. And yet, here he is, neurotic as a lemming (I imagine lemmings are quite neurotic, although I admit that I do not understand the lemming mind).

Is it possible that there's a gentic component to Rubi's issues? Oh, undoubtedly. After all, it's unlikely that Rubi would be reactive if she wasn't such a high drive, high energy dog. In order for any animal to be capable of any activity, it has to be physically and mentally able to do it - both genetic qualities. Fish do not perform neurosurgery. And pigs, no matter how much we might wish otherwise, do not fly. But if Rubi were given the same advantages in puppy hood that Maus enjoyed, would she have the same problems that she or Maus have now? I find it unlikely.  However, that doesn't mean her issues are easier to fix because they are learned behaviors. I've met many dogs in her situation who were unable to overcome their pasts, just as there are many genetically unsound dogs who are similarly trapped in their own minds. I've mentioned before that a reactive dog is always a reactive dog; there is no "cure" for reactivity. It's not just not within a reactive dog's capabilities to undo that  hyper awareness of other dogs (or people or skateboards or fire hydrants - whatever your demon might be).

In the end, reactive dogs have a handicap. How deep it goes and how heavy it weighs depends on the individual dog. While the core techniques for most reactive dogs remain the same, the best way to lighten each dog's burden is as unique and intricate as the dog. It's one of the reasons relationship is so important; knowing the dog is one step closer to understanding how to best to help them. And, of course, while a cure might be out of reach, you never know how well you might be able to fake it. Pigs not might fly, but who's to say how high they can jump?