Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Castles in the Sky

"My life has no purpose, no direction, no aim, no meaning,
and yet I'm happy.
I can't figure it out. What am I doing right?"
                                                              ~Charles M. Schulz

The leaves are off the trees, the snow has fallen, Thanksgiving has come and gone, and the herd beasts and I have settled into our winter routines. The dogs and I are chuggin' along toward the accomplishment of our goals - with one exception.

Three guesses who, and the first two don't count.

"I like to eat dirt."

It's not that things are going poorly for Rubi or that she's not making any progress. I just don't know where I'm going with her. Up until now, my only goal for her has been "Suck less." A worthy goal, and one we're making steady progress toward but not exactly measurable or timely.

When I first decided to adopt B, I had high hopes to get involved in an active sport like weight pull or agility. Unfortunately, I've come to the reluctant conclusion that she just isn't physically sound enough to do these things. I briefly considered dock diving - it's active and low impact - but I find my own strong adversion to water makes this option unappealing. There's always obedience and/or rally. B already has all the novice rally exercises down, but I just don't feel that this is something she would enjoy. Be able to do, yes; title at, sure. But it'd be like jamming a square peg in a round hole - uncomfortable for both of us. And of course, there's a therapy title, but right now that's so far into the future as to seem impossible.

Whenever I pick a sport for my dogs, I try to pick something they have a natural aptitude and enjoyment for. Maus loves nose work; Piper Ann can't find treats if you point to them on the floor. Piper Ann loves obedience; Allister despises anything that involves sitting still. Could I force any of them to do these things? Sure, but why? And to whose benefit? Certainly not the dogs'.

So what is Rubi good at, and what does she enjoy?

At the core of her, Rubi's reactivity and other "problems" arise from her passion for, well, everything. Rubi lives her life with gusto, do ALL the things, ALL at once! Joy! She's thrilled to be anywhere, doing anything, enthusiastic to the last hair on her body. Everything she does, she does with all that she has, even sleep! (Trying to wake B up in the morning is always an adventure - she sleeps like she's hungover. Possibly due to being drunk on life the during her waking hours). She is her own furry deity of happiness.

Well. That's helpful.

Do they make titles in being good at life?

Actually, they do. A few years ago, the APDT created the Canine Life and Social Skills (C.L.A.S.S.) program. Unlike the AKC's Canine Good Citizen test, which was developed as an entry to comeptitive sports, C.L.A.S.S. was designed to test dogs on real skills important for dealing in a world that's crawling with people. As with many sports, there are three levels: BA, MA, and PhD. At the "novice" or BA level, the dogs (and handlers!) are tested on their ability to wait before going through a door, come, loose leash walking and attention, meeting an unfamiliar person, leave it, wait for a food bowl, stay, settle, and give up a treat. There are also bonus activities that allow you to pass "with honors."

All of these are activities that I feel are important enough that B is already familiar with them. Maybe not familiar enough to pass the test, but that gives us something to work toward. Working on these exercises will also give me a concrete measure of B's progress. I'm fairly certain that the BA level would give her a lot of trouble if we had to take it today. But with a few months of polish, I bet we do fine.

So, now I have a goal. All I have to figure out now is how to get from point A to point B.

"Point B" Get it? Ha! I'm punny.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Rubi's Threshold Continuum

Because sometimes it's helpful to write stuff down.

Stage One:
-sleeping or extremely drowsy
-requires excessive encouragement to move
-gives me dirty looks for touching her/talking to her/being awake
-occasional groans, does whine/bark in her sleep
-does not wag tail

Stage Two:
-tail wagging
-spine relaxed
-responds readily to requests
-learns new activities easily
-occasional paw raises
-mild panting
-occasional tongue flicks
-seeks out affection

Stage Three:
-tail wagging
-body slightly tense
-moderately difficult to teach new behaviors
-generalizes old behaviors easily
-pupils dialate
-frequent paw raises and tongue flicks
-2-3 closed-mouth whines per minute
-accepts all food rewards
-moderate panting
-interested in enviroment, but easily redirected to task at hand
-mild hypervigilance

Stage Four:
-tail wagging
-unable to focus on new behaviors
-generalizes old behaviors with difficulty
-pupils dialated
-frequent paw raises, tongue flicks, and closed-mouth whines
-1-2 open mouth whines per minute
-accepts only high value food rewards
-frequently distracted by enviroment, moderately difficult to redirect
-moderate panting
-mild whale eye and hypervigilance
-holds weight balanced in forequarters
-frequency playbows if interacting with new dogs
-aggressively sniffs the ground

Stage Five:
-tail wagging
-constant lunging into enviroment
-does not redirect from focus
-moderate panting
-near constant open-mouth vocalizations
-does not accept food
-pupils dialated
-unable to preform well-known behaviors
-mild whale eye

Sunday, November 13, 2011


Rubi's had a busy November, and we haven't even hit mid-month yet.

Last week ARLP's Rott n' Pit Ed had to temporarily move from their nice, warm, cozy indoor space to an outdoor park. Rubi really needs work on "dogs outside on leash," so we braved the November wind to crash the party.

It went really well. Can I say how much I love that Rubi has a threshold? There is a distance at which she can see another dog and be pretty okay with it. I know I've mentioned it before, but it's like pictures of her relaxing on her mat around other dogs - it's cool every time it happens. We started out at about seventy-five yards away from the other dogs, and slowly worked are way up to the class over about forty-five minutes. We ended up close enough that we could've joined class, but at least two of the other dogs we mildly to moderately reactive, and I didn't want to disrupt them. Also, the park was crawling with other people's dogs, so we had plenty to watch.

RNPed's instructor, Jen, hadn't seen Rubi since before I adopted her (I think). Jen has B in class briefly before when Rubi was with on of her previous foster homes. After class, when everyone else had left and we had watched them leave, Jen turned to us and said, "Wow, I didn't hear her scream once. Nice job." This could be the best compliment anyone has ever given me about Rubi.

Saturday was ARLP's volunteer appreciation dinner (yum, pasta bar), and since I was speaking, I brought Rubi along as a demo dog. She proceeded to whore herself to everyone looking at her which, since she was demo dog, was everyone but me. The situation was easily remedied by increasing my rate of reinforcement and switching to higher value treats, but still, it's always a little disappointing when your dogs don't behave as well as you expect them to. I attribute most of her inattention to waiting so long to work and then how hot the room was. Rubi has never tolerated heat well. On the up side, Rubi was pretty happy to chill in her crate with a Kong in a room with 50+ people and a live band. That's a handy thing to know your dog is capable of. Rubi also got a nice certificate for our trophy wall for her participation in the Dog Safety Program (you should click on that link and go see the new, cute picture of Rubi on the website).

Late and groggy the next morning, Rubi and I packed up again to work with the dogs at RNPed. This day did not go as well as last week. She threw two tantrums. The first was entirely my fault for not having eyes in the back of my head and missing a dog behind us until it started barking. We went back to the car for a little while for a time out. I was really happy to see that B's car/canine behaviors are still excellent, considering how much we worked on them last winter and how little we worked on them over the summer.

Rubi's second tantrum was a case of not being able to control other people. I asked someone to keep their distance, and they did not. It's still my fault for not being able to protect my dog, but if I never wanted things like this to happen, we would be spending all our time in the basement where there are no strange dogs and no windows. Sometimes bad things happen no matter how hard you try to keep them at bay. It's simply the way of the world. That doesn't mean if I see a similar situation in the future that I'm not going to do my best to avoid it; I'm just not going to beat myself up over it this time.

Luckily for me, Rubi is not Maus, and is still able to function after having an "episode." Fifteen minutes after arriving, we were able to join the other dogs for class.

There are five new-to-Rubi dogs in the above picture. There are also two unknown dogs within twenty feet that aren't in the picture, plus one Andy a picnic table away. A new behavior that I've noticed recently is that B has been more comfortable sitting still and watching the other dogs than moving and watching the other dogs. So while before Rubi needed to be doing something around the other dogs or she'd find something to do, now she seems more comfortable sitting next to me doing auto watches or on her mat doing, um, mat things. I'm not sure what's causing the change, but I can't say I' upset about it. It's a lot easier to stay still around other dogs than it is to find an exercise that's moving but not moving too much and getting her more excited.

Rubi had a very good class by our standards. She was able to generalize a behavior to a new object - fetching a leash and targeting on a plastic lid. Rubi continues to have difficulty hearing other dogs. As you know, this isn't a new issue, but it's been sustained long enough without improvement that I think I need to find a new way of dealing with it. Maybe I should buy one of those dogs barking desensitization CDs? In addition to being able to learn, Rubi was also willing to play tug with me, although she wasn't as focused as she is, say, at home.

Training Rubi is a full contact sport.
 (photo by Paige Reyes)

All in all, we started out rough but finished nicely. Then on the way home, Rubi attacked and killed a giraffe. So I made a blanket from its skin for her. Thank you for reading the whole blog entry.

My dog is bad ass. 

Friday, November 4, 2011

Ken Ramirez: The Path to Enlightened Training

It's a really awesome time to be a dog trainer. There's so much new information coming out to improve not only behavior and training but also our relationship with dogs. Ken Ramirez isn't just a dog trainer. He's the executive vice-president of animal collections and animal training at the Shedd Aquarium in Chicago. He's in charge of about 3,200 animals (and people think I have a lot of critters), and he's trained not only marine mammals, but also snapping turtles, sharks, and komodo dragons. Ken says learning principles are the same across all species. "You can train a Harvard graduate the same way you teach an earthworm," Ken tells us.

Well, he should know.

On Sunday, Ken started by talking to us about two types of reinforces: primary and secondary. A primary reinforcer is "inherently reinforcing" like food, water, or sex. Ken also puts the "drives" into this category, so play, prey, social interaction, and so on. However, he adds that while the drives themselves are primary reinforcers, but the object of the drive must be learned.   

Huh, what?

Okay, take play drive: your dog has a natural desire to play. But he or she has to learn to play with a toy - the object of the drive. I personally think that play drive is fascinating all in itself. Play in predators is usually practice for hunting. So the same behaviors you see in prey drive tend to come out in play. Hunting in wolves is broken down into six parts: orient -> eye -> stalk -> chase -> grab-bite -> kill-bite (Coppinger, Dogs). Selective breeding of dogs has created exaggerations in the hunting pattern. Border collies, for example, have been bred with an exaggerated eye and stalk but little to no kill-bite. By knowing which of your dog's hunting behaviors have been exaggerated (note I said "your dog" not "your dog's breed"), you can better pick out an effective toy for training and engaging play drive.

So, let's look at Rubi. She a terrier, so you'd think grab-bite would be a big one for her. She does love to play tug, but more than that, she loves to chase. Squirrels, anyone? She'll drop any tug for the chance to chase her big red ball. Unfortunately, throwing a ball is not the greatest real life reward for training. It works, but once the ball is out of my hands, I have no control of it. Plus we don't always have the space for me to throw a ball.

Here's where Ken's method for teaching secondary reinforcers may come in handy. A secondary reinforcer "acquires its reinforcing value through association with primary reinforcers." So you can teach a dog to enjoy a secondary reinforcer of your choosing by associating it with a primary reinforcer. Ken uses the example of pairing food (primary) with clapping your hands (secondary). But I'd like to try increasing Rubi's desire for a tug toy. This has the benefit of engaging two primary reinforcers: play and food. I feel like this should increase the strength of the secondary reinforcer (aka, the tug toy), but maybe I'm just American and think that more is better.

Anyway, according to Ken's method, we first train the tug by pairing it with food. So, present tug, tug tug, food. This has the advantage of teaching the dog to release the tug  - always tricky - by having them drop it to get food. Lather, rinse, repeat through several sessions until the dog lights up when they see the tug. Then ask for a simple, well established behavior, mark the behavior, and tug. Do this a maximum of three times in a training session. Once the dog is working well for for the tug, ask for a harder, well established behavior. Work your way up until you're asking for harder, newer behaviors. Once you've generalized your new tug to all behaviors, then you can start gradually increasing the frequency of use.

The hard part about secondary reinforcers is that, well, they're less reinforcing than the primary reinforcer. This means that you should never use more secondary reinforcers in a training session that primary reinforcers. If you do, your dog will slowly become less motivated to work with you because the reinforcement just isn't there. Ken states a 20/80 ratio of secondary to primary reinforcers is about right. You will also need to regularly pair your secondary reinforcer with a primary reinforcer in order to maintain its strength. Ken also says to avoid using the same secondary reinforcer twice in a row.

So how do you decide what reinforcer is best for you and your dog? Here's the big R again: relationship. Certain rewards are going to more effective in different situations. Knowing and understanding your dog is the best way to figure out what is going to be most motivating for him or her in any environment. Not to mention that secondary reinforcers are useless without a personal history.

For example, "good" is a verbal secondary reinforcer in my house. If Rubi and I passed a dog on a walk, you can bet I wouldn't be telling her "good" - I'd be shoving food in her mouth as fast as she'd take it. But on the same walk, passing the same dog, with Piper Ann, a "good" would more than suffice. But if I were walking someone else's dog, I wouldn't even think of using the word "good"; to that dog, it's just another meaningless word. There's no history there. No real relationship. And relationship as we hear time and time again, is one of the most important parts of having a dog.