Friday, June 17, 2011

My House of Bull

This week, we welcomed a new foster puppy into the house. Mikey hails from North Minneapolis, where he was thrown over the fence of the neighborhood dog lover one night. It's been almost two years since we had a puppy in the herd, and I'd forgotten how much I enjoy them. Not the chewing, peeing, whining part, of course. I love how puppies are a fresh slate. I'm not spending time trying to undo someone else's training. Mikey doesn't get caught up in what he thinks he should be doing; he goes right ahead and does what works. Mikey (named after the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle) is a pretty typical pit bull puppy. He likes to jump and chase. He chews on stuff. He plays hard and sleeps harder. At five months old, he's just hit the age where it's not cute anymore when he humps things.

Perfect! I thought. Rude dog meets rude B: a match made in heaven.

I'm kind of an idiot sometimes. Somehow, it didn't occur to me that rude dog + rude dog = badness. I've been slowly expanding Rubi's circle of doggie friends for the past few months. I'm careful to chose dogs with very clear body language and play styles similar to Rubi's. Rubi likes to play hard: lots of body slamming and paw punches. So far, these play dates have been a huge success. B's greeting behaviors have improved a great deal. Instead of running to the other dog and immediately punching them in the head in an effort to get them to play, she now takes the time to sniff – head first, then genitals – and allows herself to be sniffed back. Then she head butts them to initiate play. It's not perfect, but it's a big improvement from where she was.

The difference between Rubi's other playmates and Mikey is experience, I think. I hadn't noticed before how much the other dogs were directing the play sessions. In a healthy play session, dogs occasionally take a break, even if it's just for a few seconds. It's interesting to watch: B and the other dog will be wrestling, and the other dog will turn away as in a body slam or shoulder check. But instead of turning back to B, the other dog will hold its face in another direction for just an extra instant. And bang! They stop for a few seconds, maybe sniff the ground, eat some grass, or check in with me. Then they're off again, chasing and playing. It's so subtle that it's easy to miss, but this type of momentary de-escalation is super important.

Playing with Mikey, who doesn't quite know how or when to de-escalate, puts the pressure on B to lead the play session. B, for her part, hasn't really had to do anything but read and listen to the other dog's cues – cues that Mikey simply isn't adept at giving out yet. Watching the two of them play is like watching teenagers make out; it's all elbows and awkwardness. I have to watch them very carefully to make sure they don't get too intense. Dogs that are too intense, moving a little too fast and a little too aggressively, can easily cross the line from "play" to "fight." When I see B and Mikey start to toe this line, if neither of them can interrupt themselves, I step in and artificially de-escalate them.

One of the many reasons I waited so long to start setting up play dates with B was that I wanted her to have a super solid interruption cue. B can't afford more negative experiences with other dogs, so I need a way to make it a positive experience to stop playing with another dog. This is where it helps to have dogs who can teach each other. For example, if B and Maus are playing, I can call "Dogs! Enough," and Maus will disengage from B and trot over to me because he knows I have treats for him. At first, B would continue to maul Maus into playing with her. Then it was just a matter of distracting her with the treats. We'd do a few sits, maybe a hand touch or two, and then I'd dismiss them to go play again. Now, after a few million repetitions, when B hears "Dogs! Enough," she stops playing instantly and trots over to get her reward. She can even do this when playing with new dogs now (brag, knock on wood). It is possible to teach two dogs an interruption cue without either having one; it's just trickier to get them focused on you when they're both trying to distract each other.

With support from an observant handler and the regular use of our interruption cue, Rubi has slowly been figuring out when she needs to de-escalate her and Mikey's play sessions. I don't need to cue her to disengage nearly as often as I did when Mikey first came. Who says you can't teach an old dog new tricks?

Speaking of tricky oldish dogs, this weekend we will also be dog-sitting George. I *heart* George. He was one of our favorite foster dogs ever, and when his owner needed to go out of town, we jumped on the opportunity to have him at our house again. George is much more like Rubi's previous playmates: easy-going, forgiving, and a total bull dozer in play style. Rubi is utterly smitten with him and has been whoring herself shamelessly to get him to play with her.

Every girl has a line that shall not be crossed, however. At my house, dogs sleep on the floor in the bedroom at night. It's not that I have anything against letting dogs sleep in the bed. I just find it hard to get any sleep with 200 pounds of farting, twitching, snoring bulldog on my chest. So the dogs get their choice of four plush dog beds sprawled across the thick carpet in the bedroom. Not bad sleeping quarters, if you're a dog.

Rubi, out of the generosity of her little pittie heart, decided that she loved her new friend George so much that she would share her bed with him. The two of them snuggled in close together as one big pit ball, but it wasn't long before George started to stretch out, slowly pushing B off the bed. With an expression of slight alarm, she stood up and pawed at him, but George was unimpressed. Rubi walked around him and sniffed his butt before moving in to start licking his - *ahem* - boy parts.

George stretch and rolled onto his back to give her better access. Rubi stopped and gave him a look that I can only describe as sheer disgust. George, still on his back, twisted around to look at her as if saying, "Whut? Why'd you stop?"

B blinked and walked away, schmoozing up to the people bed where I lay sniggering. She tried to kiss me and wiggle her way onto the bed for a snuggle. "Ew," I told her. "Go away." Hey, it wasn't not my fault she let a boy steal her bed.

Rubi surveyed the floor, the other dogs curled into their beds fast asleep. With an injured look in my direction, B slowly lowered herself onto the floor. Then she gave a deep, tortured sigh.

Really, her life is so difficult.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Impulse Control Part Three: Rile and Recover and Recover

Memorial Day weekend Allister and I had the joy of attending the Positive Vybe seminar hosted by the Minnesota Disc Dog Club. Positive Vybe is run by Ron Watson and Apryl Lea, and they've been working with high drive, high energy, and high maintenance dogs longer than I've been alive. I intentionally waited to write this post until after the seminar because I knew I'd obtain bucketfulls of new information to share with everyone. Ron and Apryl are amazing teachers, and I can only pray that I have a fragment of their patience, kindness, and humor in teaching. They put up with all manner of crap without even swearing (well, not swearing much), the least of which was having me follow them around for the whole seminar picking up scraps of knowledge the way a crow harasses people for shiny objects.

As a result, I filled my brain up to the point where I had to start writing things down. (I never take notes, mainly for fear that I won't be able to understand them later.) I learned a ton about disc sport, but I also picked some valuable insights into dog behavior. I'd like to think Allister picked up a few things, too, but you never know with the weasel.

 For example, I now know that it's a lot easier to throw discs when you're mildly (okay, moderately) inebriated. I know that Allister needs at least twenty minutes to adjust to a new place before I can ask him to really get to work. I learned the value of video taping training sessions.

And I also learned that I am nowhere near knowledgeable enough to write an entire blog post on rile and recovery.

I can't even find a firm definition of what rile and recovery is. I've heard the phrase tossed around in dog training circles for years, but I've never really sat down and tried to put a firm label and training plan onto it. Whoops. Should've thought of that before I decided to make it part three, huh?

The way I understand it, rile and recovery is the method of getting a dog super excited (usually with the use of a toy), and then asking the dog to do something that requires thinking. For example, I'm playing ball with Rubi. She brings it back to me, and I ask her to sit. Once she sits, I throw the ball again. It forces the dog to think at a higher level of arousal. It's also a way for the dog to learn that if he or she does what is asked and thinks through the problem, the dog has the power to keep the game going. Rile and recovery is great for dogs with impulse control issues because it forces them to curb their impulses in order to get what they want. It also helps shy dogs build confidence and gives focus to high drive dogs.

What do I mean by high drive dogs? Drive is how much a dog desires something. When a dog is obsessed with squirrels, for instance, we might say she has a lot of prey drive – a high desire to chase and or hunt/kill/eat small animals. Discs dogs need to have high toy drive; they have to want those pieces of plastic. There are ways to develop drive. Dogs with medium or low toy drive can be encouraged and focused to create higher drive. And dogs that have high drives in other areas – for example, the desire to chase and play with other dogs – often have to potential to become high drive in an area of our choosing. It's then possible to take that high drive mentality and, using rile and recovery, create a dog that has higher control and focus when ever any drive is stimulated.

One of the big ideas I came away with from the Pvybe seminar was that I'm underutilizing Rubi's drive. Rubi can be very drivey and obsessive, and thus far, my training has mostly focused on curbing her drive – asking her to relax and take it down a notch. In theory, by increasing Rubi's drive in other areas (toys will be easiest, I imagine), and then forcing her to focusing using rile and recovery, I should be able to help her maintain self control in that highly aroused state of mind. Wouldn't that be cool?

For Ron, it seems like the corner stone of his rile and recovery system is eye contact. Before any activity, then dog must give eye contact. Then he rewards the dog with movement. So he gets eye contact, and then gives the dog an activity that involves movement – chase a disc is obvious, but we also rewarded with hand touches, jumps, and other forms of targeting. I'll be honest, on my list of "stuff to reward dogs with" nowhere will you find "movement." It's definitely on there now! I was surprised with how well this works, but when I sat down to think about it, movement makes sense. For dogs like Allister and Rubi, for whom sitting still is difficult, moving is internally gratifying (a "primary reinforcer" for those of you who speak dog geek). By giving them a specific movement to perform, I'm also giving them the opportunity to earn another reward – a treat or a toy (a secondary reinforcer). Double the reward, double the fun! And also double the focus?

Another interesting concept that I learned about was the idea of a dismissal cue. The concept isn't entirely foreign to me, it showed up in Leslie McDivitt's Control Unleashed among other places, but until now, I hadn't given it much thought. To teach a dog to dismiss, you first get them really interested in you by playing a game, doing fun training, something like that. The you give your dismissal cue and let the dog go do their own thing. Ron and Apryl tell their dogs to "go do dog stuff," which I like but has proven too much of a mouth full for me; my dismissal cue is simply, "go play." Then you ignore the dog for a bit go let them sniff grass, pee on stuff, eat dirt – you know, dog stuff. When the dog looks back to the handler to see if anything interesting is going on – yes! and restart the game. Once the dog is really digging the game, dismiss them. Lather, rinse, repeat. The benefit is two fold. First, increases a dog's desire (drive!) to work with their person because the person is a) really fun and b) a limited resource. Second, it makes the environment less interesting because the dog is (or thinks it will get) ample opportunity to check out the environment, but only limited chances to work with the person.

So, much to my pleasure, we have some things to work on. I say that with absolute sincerity: as long as Rubi's reactivity continues to get in the way, I hope I will continue to find new ideas to help her. One of my favorite parts about my chosen careers is that there's always room for more knowledge. Isn't that awesome?

Thursday, June 9, 2011