Thursday, October 20, 2011

Back to School

After six monthes in the wilds of our own inspiration, Rubi and I are back in class. Our first class was Tuesday at The Dog Loft. It's a genuine reactive dog class, and there are three other dogs in the class. All of them were referred to the class by behaviorists, and all of them are on some sort of behavioral medication. L is a shepard mix who is reactive to the whole world. M is a tri-colored fluffy dog who is dog reactive. And J is a pit bull who is so like Maus used to be that, well, I love him. Not to mention it's our first class with another pit bull in it, so we (hopefully) won't have to go though the whole "ZOMG, super scarey pit bull!" phase. J should have everyone broken in for us already. ;)

I'll admit, I was worried about going back to school. The last time we were in class, it went so badly that I didn't blog about it (and I tell you guys pretty much everything) - and we didn't go back for six months. But I was also concerned that B would be too much for these dogs. B is rather . . . exuberant, and these dogs seem, well, anti-exuberant. Exuberant is hard for most reactive dogs. M missed Rubi's debut on Tuesday, so there were only two dogs there, J and L. The room class is held in is basically a long rectangle. B went in first, and we arranged barriers across half the room so that she couldn't see the other dogs unless we intended her to. On the other side of the barriers was J, who is at least dog tolerant. Across another set of barriers, closest to the door, was L.

I brought B early since I knew we would need to go in first. Turns out we were quite a bit early, so I took the opportunity to do a little relaxation protocol. And also do targeting on the pause box because why not?

Once the other dogs started coming in, we got serious about relaxing. I know B could tell there were other dogs in the room, but she did a fantastic job with our initial mat work. Remember how long it took me to get a  hip bump from her during Changing Attitudes? That would be seven weeks. Here's class on Tuesday, in a new building, with new dogs:

Oh, wait - there's more . . . 

Rubi also did something she's never done outside of the house: she sought out physical contact.

Rubi, like many dogs, doesn't care to be touched when she's working. "Manners" and "affection" seem to fall into different categories in her brain, and she has trouble doing both at the same time. That's not to say you can't touch her when she's working. It just tends to drive her to distraction, and it's definitely not something she's ever been relaxed enough to request. Being touched while working is an important part of Rubi's training, and we've been working on it for over a year now. It's important not only because people like to pet Rubi or because of her work with the dog safety program, but also for those inevitable trips to the vet. The more relaxed Rubi can stay while being touched, the more stress-free and enjoyable they will be not only for Rubi, but for everyone involved.

On Tuesday, while doing TTouch on the mat, I stopped for a few seconds (sometimes I get distracted, too). And Rubi nudged my hand to get me to pet her again, just like when we're snuggled up on the couch at home. it was such a little thing, but is was the high light of my night. Baby steps, right?

Eventually, I got tired of sitting still, and we moved around a bit. We still did a fair amount of mat work, but we also did some slow heeling. Slow heeling is a lot more difficult that fast heeling because it's boring for the dog; is you want to keep your dog interested and moving with you, move quickly. But I didn't want to get Rubi's heart rate up, so we moved slowly and I upped the rate of reinforcement to keep it interesting for Rubi. I also moved the mat closer to J for a while, and we did a few drive-by glances at him. I think B could have tolerated more, but J is people reactive, so I didn't want to stress him out, either.

I've made the final decision that Rubi's whining isn't a good indication of how close she is to threshold. I've been dancing around the idea for a while, but I'm pretty sure about this one. I think one of the reasons it took me so long to reach this conclusion is that people are verbal creatures. We make noise, and we want the noise that other creatures make to mean something, too. Rubi is a moderately vocal dog anyway: she moans when you scratch her in the right place, she snorts pretty much all the time, and she whines whenever there's something interesting going on, whether it's something she would typically react at or not. It's a little like wagging her tail. She does it as long as there's something entertaining going on, and I'm pretty sure she has no idea that she's doing it. Better indicators of Rubi's emotional state are how hard she takes treats, her ear set (they more tighter and more forward the more stressed she is), the amount white around her eyes, and open mouthed vocalization (which is closely related to "screaming like a stuck pig"). Vocalization matters to people, not so much to dogs.

I was really pleased with how class went. It's a little like landing a plane. Anytime we don't crash and burn, it's a good day. But I was also able to see the real progress we've made. My homework for this week is to clean up my criteria. I can read Rubi and her stress levels very well, but I need to decide what I'm going to ask from her at certain levels of stress. Rubi doesn't get homework, because she is smart enough not to make plans.


  1. Jane Fallander. It's a lot of hanging out doing our own thing. The class isn't really for new people to learn how to handle their dogs, it's a maintinance class for people who already have an idea of what to do and whose dog need the exposure. I bet it'd be great for you and Jun (or Elo, but the other dogs in the class remind me more of Jun than of Elo).

  2. That sounds like a great class! A lot of times it is like you need to just practice in an ideal situation. Hope Rubi keeps improving!