Monday, March 28, 2011

Level Three, Week Nine

This week marked the last week of Level Three, and my how the time flies! Looking back, it doesn't seem as though we've made a lot of progress, but as I've mentioned before, the progress is more subtle. Rubi is still a spaz when she first comes through the doors, but she's a fairly controllable spaz. I don't think she's anxious about the other dogs like she was before we started Level Three. Now, it's more of an excited-to-be-in-the-club-working kind of eagerness. I wonder, too, if Zach bringing her in from outside (he's dropped her off the whole session since I assist with a class right before working with B) doesn't get a little wound up as well. I guess we'll find out soon enough.

Rubi and I ended the class on a good note. We were able to work off leash - something we haven't done since about week two or so. And as a crowning achievement, while working off-leash, one of the other dogs escaped his handler twice to run over and, "just say hi" to Rubi.

Rubi, for her part, was all, "oh, hai, other dog. Come back later, mmkay? Am busy right now."

Oh, happy dance.

I love working with this dog; she cracks me up. Before letting her off leash, I worker her on the forty-foot long line. We worked going to her mat from a distance, with a goal of about twenty feet. Rubi doesn't get a lot of distance work what with my insane paranoia about letting her off leash, so I didn't ask her to go to her mat from twenty feet right away. We started at about three feet, then I backed up to five, then to eight, then down to six again, then up to ten - slowly adding on distance, but keeping it easy and rewarding at the same time. Did you ever take a hard test in school and then come across an easy question? One where you were like, "oh, yay! At least I got that one right!" And then it was easier to keep going. It's the same thing when working on variables with a dog. If the work is always increasingly difficult, it's harder to stay motivated. If I throw in something easy every once in a while, it will help keep B's enthusiasm up, and we can work for a little longer.

Rubi decided at about fifteen feet that she didn't have to run to the back to the mat - she could keep an eye on me and move to the mat at the same time! So she started poggo-sticking backwards to the mat, watching me the whole time (because it's hard to run backwards). As if that we're snicker worthy alone, once we hit twenty feet, Rubi got creative. After all, fabric is fabric, isn't it? And there's this wad of fabric much closer than the mat . . .

Sorry for the crappy cell phone pic, but she looks pretty dang pleased with herself, doesn't she? Clever beast.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

The Fifth Dog

That is Andy. He's one of the over two hundred Rottweilers seized from a property in Texas. Andy is our new foster dog, because apparently I decided life was getting boring. Andy is named after Andy Dufresne from Shawshank Redemption - the man "who crawled through a river of shit and came out clean on the other side." Andy isn't clean yet, but he'll be shining by the time he leaves our house.

Andy is the most recent in a fairly long line of dogs to come into my house with a history of neglect and not a lot else - including socialization. I've had enough of them to have a system for dealing with them. Part of that system is the two week shut down. The two week shut down is a way to systematically introduce a new dog to it's environment in manageable pieces. For the first two weeks, the dog stays at home except for necessary vets visits. This gives the dog a chance to learn where everything is and how to navigate this strange new world - a big deal for a dog like Andy, who's previous world was pretty much just dirt, flies, and other Rottweilers. It also gives Andy a chance to get to know and bond with us.

I don't do a lot of training during this first two weeks. For Andy, I've taught him a couple of the basics like sit and down, but he doesn't have to perform them to get life rewards like the chance to go outside or eat a meal. That will come later. Andy has enough on his plate trying to figure out how mirrors work and why jumping on the hot stove is a bad idea. This time is for learning how to be a house dog.

The biggest, hardest part of the shut down for me is crating and rotating. My dogs can be overwhelming one at a time, let alone all at once. So while Andy is out upstairs, the other four are crated downstairs. While my four are out in the yard, Andy is tethered in the basement chilling with Zach. The dogs have no contact at all for at least the first week. It's hard to divide time between the beasts like that, and I always feel like someone is being neglected. Because my focus is on spending time with the dogs, things like laundry, spending time with Zach, and writing in the blog tend to fall by the wayside. So why do it? Well, it gives the dogs a chance to get used to each other, too. Even though the dogs can't see each other, they know there's a strange animal in the house. They learn each others' scent and the sounds they make. Introducing them too quickly can set everyone up for failure - like I said, my four dogs can be intimidating, particularly when you're still trying to figure out if the flushing toilet is going to eat you. And going from four dogs to five requires some readjustment of boundaries and hierarchies. It's a big change for everyone, so it's better to go about it slowly.

Is it worth it? Dog people often have dog friends, and I've had extra dogs in my house several times. Last time was about four months ago, and it was a noisy affair thanks to a certain blonde beast. Rubi does not take quietly to strange dogs in her house. But this time has been strangely . . . silent. No abnormal wails, no whining, no banshee screams. Truthfully, I don't think Rubi has made any noise that she doesn't make on a normal, day-to-day basis. Thanks in part, I'm sure, to the good folks at Kong.

I can't help but hope that this new-found silence is at least a little related to all the training we've put in together. Thanks to counter-conditioning, desensitization, and some old-fashioned alternate behaviors, strange dogs just aren't that exciting anymore. Yesterday, Rubi and Andy saw each other for the first time through the sliding glass door. She looked at him, wagged her tail, and walked away.

Personally, I think her brain has been switched by alien body-snatchers.

Either that, or she's saving all the crazy up for later. No matter the cause, despite all the extra work, I'm enjoying the peace. Perhaps this is the start of a new stage for Rubi. We seemed to have plateaued over the last couple of winter months; Rubi isn't making the leaps in progress that she was when we started. Maybe she's doing better than I thought. The changes are still there, but they're subtler. Sometimes, surprises are good. It's a nice way to start out spring.

Monday, March 7, 2011

The Deep End

I have a pretty well documented obsession with collars. When a new dog comes into my family, I spend hours looking for the perfect first collar - which is silly because I'm pretty much going to buy all the ones I like anyway. I won't tell you how many I have these days. It's well over the fifty mark, and I recent had to clear out a second drawer and divvy them up between "every day collars" and "special occasion." I have collars from a lot of different makers, but by far and wide, my favorite makers are Collar Mania and Ella's Lead.

Collar Mania has my everyday happy collars. They're low priced enough that it's easy to find excuses to buy them:

"Yay, it's Friday!"

"Yay, there's a sale!"

"Yay, I have opposable thumbs!"

You get the picture. The collars are also super sturdy and beautifully crafted. Silk lining? Check. Embroidered personalization? Check. Leather? Check. Fifty zillion different fabrics? Check. If you have trouble making decisions, don't go look at the website. Or you'll end up like me and buy all of them. Remember this collar?

It's from Collar Mania. I got it for Piper about three years ago. Except I'm pretty sure I got it for Rubi, I just didn't know her yet. Fate is funny that way. Here are a few more of my favorite Collar Manias:

Ella's Lead, as you can probably guess from the name, makes leashes as well as collars. I own a few of their leashes, and they're pretty dang nice (my personal favorite is the lead with traffic handle - great for maneuvering in crowds). If you ever feel the need to use your dog's leash to pull your truck, then these are the leads for you!

Anyway, my new addiction isn't Ella's Leads (that's an old addiction), it's their collars. Every time one of my dogs gets a title that was particularly difficult, I've started the tradition of getting one of Ella's Leads leather collars. Why? Because I can also get a matching bracelet!

Shuddup, at least I'm not buying us all matching sweaters. ^That's Piper's set from when we passed the CD, a title that was three years in the making, mostly because of repeated knee surgeries. And also because her handler is a bit of a nut job, but whatever.

So when Rubi passed her CGC, you can bet we were gonna get a new collar and bracelet. We both worked really hard for that, and we deserve good things. But what design to get?

Rubi has lead a charmed life in many ways. She lived passed her second birthday (most pit bulls don't). She always had a home and never ended up in the shelter. She eventually did find a forever home, even though most people wouldn't look twice at a middle aged dog. Who is reactive. And a pit bull. Girlfriend has lived the impossible life. So is it any wonder how her collar ended up?

Yay! for flying pig dogs! Long live the impossible! May we never stop conquering it.

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Would You LAT?

It's a big world, full of marvelous wonders to satiate hungers both common and incredible, but it's not for the weak of spirit. Something those of us with reactive dogs know all too well, when just looking at this brave new world can prove over stimulating. Luckily, there are a few tools to add to your repetoire that can make everything a little easier on the reactive dog's eyes.

One of the new techniques being used with reactive dogs is called the "Look at That" (LAT). This exercise was popularized by trainer Leslie McDevitt in her book Control UnleashedLAT is a chained behavior. What I mean is that it is made up of more than one behavior and then those behaviors are strung together. To be more specific, the dog looks at the trigger, and then looks back at the handler. To get these behaviors, a trigger is presented, and the dog is marked for looking at the trigger.

Many people seem to have trouble with timing right off the bat. They give the dog time to look at the trigger, and then they give the dog time to think about the trigger, which, of course, gives the dog time to react to the trigger. I set a two to three second time limit for looking at triggers with my own dogs. It's long enough for them to see the trigger and really notice it, but it's usually too short an amount of time for them to start acting like morons. Some dogs can handle more than three seconds, but many dogs can only handle an instant. Timing is important. Another common problem - and this is one that crops up a lot even on other exercises - is that people tend to feed the reward close to the dog. The dog sees the trigger and the handler marks and then waves the food under the dog's nose. The dog should hear the click and then look for the treat, and the treat should be given in close to the handler's body. The dog shouldn't be looking for the treat in outer space, although there is a time and place for treats that appear out of nowhere. If the dog is not responding to the marker, either he or she is too close to the trigger (try increasing distance), or the marker doesn't have a strong enough association with the reward (work on conditioning the marking with good stuff away from the trigger).

Once the dogs has the behaviors of look at trigger/look to handler figured out, it's time to put the behavior chain on cue. Personally, this is my biggest problem with the LAT exercise. I don't mind marking a dog to look at other dogs. Heck, I've done it with Rubi. I just have trouble convincing myself to tell a dog to look for her triggers, in large part because I've seen it backfire for people. I labeling this behavior creates hypervigilance. It's like walking to my patio door that looks out on an empty backyard and asking, "Do you see squirrels?" It doesn't matter if there are squirrels out there or not, the dogs are going to start obsessively looking for them. I find the same is true for many people if they say "look at that" - the handler cues before the dog sees the trigger, and the dog starts to obsessively look for the trigger. Sometimes the dog sees the trigger and looks back for a treat. Sometimes they see the trigger and are so aroused by looking for it that they react to the trigger. And sometimes, what the handler thinks is a trigger isn't a trigger at all (for example, the person thinks all dogs are triggers and cues for the white dog walking by, when really their dog only reacts to black dogs), and the dog becomes obsessed with looking for a trigger that isn't there. So I don't cue the LAT.

What I want is for Rubi to see a dog and then look back at me without any action on my part at all - an "auto watch." I started by marking Rubi for looking at other dogs, and even now I still do this if there's a dog I think is going to really upset her. But once Rubi figured out the look at dog/look at me routine, I pretty much stopped marking her for looking at the other dog. Now, I mark her for looking back at me. After she gets her reward, if she looks back at the other dog and then looks back at me, I mark and reward her again. And if she keeps looking at me for another two seconds after that, I'll mark and reward that, too. Ideally, I want to be the most interesting thing in Rubi's environment, and I reward accordingly. It's really rare that I don't reward my dogs for looking at me, and as a result, it's a pretty strong default behavior. When my dogs aren't sure what to do, they look at me - and then they usually keep looking at me until I tell them want to do. I really, really like this, particularly for my reactive dogs.

Here's a reasonably short video of Rubi and I practicing auto watches in the lobby at TCOTC. The video was taken on this day, so you know what I mean when I talk about her blonde moments (no offense to blondes, I should have probably said her "Rubi moments"). I would've turned the sound off altogether, but I wanted you to be able to hear the clicker. The video starts when the first dog appears, and ends before they all leave, so there are dogs present for the whole thing.

I did mark Rubi a few times for returning to heel position. Being still around other dogs is still very difficult for Rubi, so staying in one place is something I want to reinforce. I like that place to be heel position because it helps me to be sure we're both looking at the same thing(s). Around second eighteen, Rubi throws me a few of what I call "flickers." She twitches her head toward the other dogs, but doesn't actually look at them. This is a sign that she's becoming more comfortable with the other dogs and doesn't feel the need to watch them; however, I don't mark her for flickers. That's not the game. The game is look at other dog/look at me or just look at me. It's not to develop small head seizures to fake mom out. After she gives me those flickers, I start building duration for the amount of time she looks at me. I still keep it really easy for her, but I vary the time before she gets the treat from instantly to about four seconds, and by the end of the video, she's giving me a lot of attention. And, of course, you can do a lot with a dog once you have her attention.