Monday, May 23, 2011

Impulse Control Part Two: Canine, Heel Thyself

Heel work is why I fell in love with competition obedience. It's beautiful: dog and handler moving in sweet tandem, adjusting and responding to the slightest of cues, utterly absorbed in each other in a ballet-like dance. Heeling done right is as much work for the handle as it is for the dog. I'll be the first to admit that my heel work isn't always pretty. My dance style is also more reminiscent of "drunk monkey" than "graceful swan." Nevertheless, I think heeling is a valuable exercise because it reinforces that most important of themes: impulse control. Heeling, at its core, is just attention on the move. And I've written before about how important attention is.

My favorite way to teach heel is through shaping. Actually, my favorite way to teach many exercises is through shaping. Shaping gives a dog room to figure things out for themselves. As a result, shaping creates some of the strongest behaviors. I start to teach heel though a game called "choose to heel." The dog and I go into a boring room – I usually start with my living room, but any uninteresting (to the dog!) room with space to move is fine. I let the dog wander around and check stuff out to her little heart's desire, but as soon as she glances at me or acknowledges me in any way – click! I toss her a treat. It may take a while, particularly if the room in question is particularly interesting or my treats are particularly boring, but remember: dogs repeat what you reward. Before long, the dog is focusing on me more than on the environment. I wander the room and mark the dog for getting closer and closer to heel position: on my left side, moving with me, and preferably looking at me. I have a picture in my mind of what "heel" looks like, and I mark each successive approximation to that picture – usually over several training sessions. Short and sweet is the way to go, especially when you're doing something that exercises your dog's mind.

Once the dog comes right to heel when we start the game and she seems to understand where heel position is, then I start messing with her (I love messing with my dogs . . . you may have noticed this . . . ). I throw in sharper turns, pace changes, new environments, and other more challenging activities until the dog can heel anywhere with any distractions (well, in theory anyway; in practice, heeling is one of those things like recalls and stays – it can always be better).

I do not do choose-to-heel with Rubi very often. We do it every once in a while, but Rubi doesn't handle shaping well. It's frustrating for her, and she tends to get stuck easily, so I spare us both the headache. There are some exercises I made sure to teach through shaping – her auto watches, for example, or the mat work – things that I really want that strong, solid behavioral responses for. But I find other methods to use for activities as non-essential to Rubi's health and well-being as heeling.

With Rubi, I start by luring her into heel position at my side. That can be hard enough for some dogs whom are used to getting rewarded for sitting in front of people. Once she was comfortable at my side, then I took a step – just one! – and marked/rewarded her for staying with me. She doesn't have to look at me, she doesn't have to sit when I stop; she just has to move with me when I move. I mark her before she gets out of position, and I feed her at my left side. It's important to feed her in heel position because if I feed her somewhere else – say, in front of me – then that's where she'll want to be. Rubi goes where the food is, that's for sure! Once she gets her food, I set her up again, and we take another step. Lather, rinse, repeat about half a dozen times. Then, instead of just taking one step, we take two. After she has two steps, I start varying the number of steps we go before I mark/reward. It's hard to pick random numbers of steps, so I tend pick a number combination and follow that schedule. For example, if I choose my phone number, I mark every two steps, then one, then eight, and so forth.

If - okay, when - Rubi moves out of heel position, I stop moving, just like with loose-leash walking. Rubi gets out of position because she has found something she wants. If she moves out of position, I make sure she doesn't get it. However, if I see something she wants, and she fights that first impulse to go launching after it even for a second, chances are very good that I will let her go check it out. Being in heel position is more rewarding than being out of heel position.

Once Rubi can go twenty-five steps without being marked, then I start adding other variables: the paces changes, turns, automatic sits. Sitting when you stop isn't actually "heel" behavior in the strictest sense. Heel is being in a position at my left side with the area from her ear to her shoulder in line with my pants' seam. Automatic sits are gravy  (although they are pretty awesome, tasty gravy). Personally, I think people tend to place too much value on heel, and that makes it a lot less fun. It's hard for a dog to maintain its undivided attention on just one thing for any length of time. Dog sports understand this; there isn't a single dog sport that requires your dog to heel for more than two minutes. Work on heel too much, and it becomes a chore. Do it right, and it's beautiful.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Leave It, and Other Forms of Torture

(This originally started out as a blog about tougher exercises for impulse control, but somewhere along the way, I realized that I couldn't shut-up. So, I divided the post into three parts. Here's Part One: Leave It and Other forms of Torture. Stay Tuned for Part Two!) 

There are certain exercises that Rubi and I will be working on for the rest of her life. Auto watches and recalls, for example. And then there's our old stand-by, impulse control. I've already written about impulse control here and a few other times, although I just noticed now that I haven't actually dedicated a post to it yet - a terrible oversight on my part. Impulse control is just what it sounds like: it's teach a dog to curb their first, impulsive reaction to a stimulus. Most training falls into the category of impulse control, but there are certain exercises we go back to again and again because we can always make them more difficult. The key is to impulse control is to continue raising the stakes bit by bit to keep the games interesting and just challenging enough. Repeating the same thing over and over the same way leads to boredom for handler and dog (and also something about it leading to insanity, but I'm sure the voices in my head would warn me about something like that).

Leave It, and Other Forms of Torture
There are a lot of ways to teach "leave it," but my favorite culminates in the treats-on-the-paws trick. I start by showing Rubi a treat, and then I put the treat under my shoe. She wants the treat, so she paws at my shoe, whines a bit, and trying to suck the treat through my foot by inhaling so hard her eyes pop out. Eventually, she looks or moves away in frustration and click! I mark and hand a her a treat that's even better that what's under my shoe. Tasty! We repeat until she's no longer interested in what's under my shoe.

Then, I stop putting the treat under my shoe, and start moving it closer to her. The tricky part is making sure she never gets the treat on the floor, either by making sure it's close enough to step on or by blocking her with my body or leash. Rubi figures out that the treat on the floor isn't really where it's at. Looking away from the treat, especially at me, is how she gets the good stuff. And also by looking pathetic.

Rubi is very good at looking pathetic (also note the dog sitting behind her - yay!).

Treats-on-the-paws lends merges very easily into another crowd pleaser: throwing treats at your dog. This one starts the same: I put a treat under my foot and mark when she moves or looks away. Then, instead of moving the treat closer to her, I start dropping the treat from a few inches up. Moving treats are always more interesting than stationary treats, so I'm careful to drop it close enough to my foot that I can still step on it to keep her from getting the treat. Eventually, she'll figure out that she can't get the treat on the floor, but the faster she looks back to me, the faster she'll get a better treat from my hand. Once B no longer flinches toward the treat when I drop it from waist height, I start throwing it closer and closer to her. I need to be careful what angle I throw it at, though, since B will snatch them out of the air if I throw them too close to her face. There isn't anything wrong with that in my book; I've actively taught her to do that as part of another trick. It'd be really cruel of me to be upset at Rubi for doing something I've intentionally taught her to do. So I angle the treats down and between her legs, while she stares at me calmly and waits for the treat she actually gets to eat. Most of the time, anyway.

And just in case you thought Rubi was the only dog in the whole wide world that I torment like this . . .

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Vaya Con Dios, Dude

Andy went forever home on Sunday. I can't imagine a better place for him than the home he went to, but my house is still that much quieter without that big, dumb rottie boy.

Not that I'm going admit to missing him . . .

 . . . He's better off where he is now, trust me.

I believe that all dogs come into my life to teach me something, even the foster dogs, and Andy was no exception. Like all my fosters, the lessons he taught make me a better owner to my dogs. At the heart of it, Andy taught me that I can still foster. My herd isn't the same as it was four years ago when I had two easy-going, dog-friendly and dog-savvy canines. There are some volatile personalities in my current herd, not the least of whom is Rubi. All this considered, everyone was fairly well-behaved these last seven weeks. The generous application of stuffed and frozen Kongs helped, I'm sure.

Rubi - well, I'd say she conducted herself like a lady, but my brain has trouble putting "lady" and "Rubi" into the same sentence.

Suffice to say she did better than I thought she would. She was perfectly willing to be distracted by her Kong while crated with a strange dog in her house. She didn't make a peep watching him through the baby gates. One of the on-going problems B has had is the way she relates to other dogs (well, duh, right?). She has two methods for dealing with them: fight or play. When she meets a dog that doesn't want to play with her, she invariably harasses them so much that the other dog tells her off - and then it's game on. But with Andy, I saw something new. She would bump him a few times, play bow, and when that didn't work she would go find something else to do. She willingly ignored a strange dog.

I honestly didn't know she had it in her.

Andy also reminded me of a few lessons I'd forgotten. For instance: there's no age - or size - limit on puppyhood. Don't put tasty things in the garbage. Watch boy dogs carefully lest they get the urge to pee on your TV. When a 90lb dog is running at you full bore, get out of the way. Don't leave your wrist splint lying around on the kitchen counter where dogs can eat it.

Most importantly, Andy reminded me of the simple joy of saving a dog and finding the perfect home for him. That's a thrill that makes all those other lessons pale in comparison.