Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Confident, Connected, and Still Rubi

Zach and Rubi finished their reactive dog class, Calm, Confident and, Connected, last week. Where do I start?

Well, it was an adventure, that's for sure.

My goals for the CCC class were less Rubi-oriented and more Zach-oriented. I like reactive dogs. They are my niche in the training world, and it's unlikely that my home herd will every be made of entirely non-reactive dogs. That's fine for me and my weirdness, but Zach married into dogs. He didn't really have them growing up, and as a result, has trouble reading the body cues and arousal levels of normal dogs, let alone the special needs mongrels I seem to prefer. I wanted Zach to gain skills reading and handling reactive dogs.

I debated for a while whether I would have him take the class with Rubi or Maus. Maus is slower than Rubi - slower to react, slower to build up to threshold, and more forgiving of poor timing. Speaking from experience, it's sometimes nice to have a slower dog to learn on. Maus's body signals are also much clearer than Rubi's. On the other hand, CCC is a class focused on dog-dog reactivity, and of the many issues Maus has, dog reactivity is not one of them. In all honesty, he probably doesn't really count as a reactive dog anymore; his behaviors are pretty dang good. Maus's current problems are emotional in nature and while training will play a role in his future, that will be more technical training than Zach will need to know. I need Zach to be able to read reactive dogs well enough to keep them from going over-threshold. He won't need to get them to relax in a group of strange people.

At least, I hope not.

I think having Zach and Rubi work together was a better decision than I originally predicted. For one thing, having a dog that reacts quickly - not just to triggers, but to life in general - forces you to clean-up your timing in a big hurry. Zach's handling skills improved a lot during this class, and while he might not be able to read the dogs as well as I'd like, he now has the basic skills needed to deal with them effectively. Another advantage to working with Rubi is that Rubi is ENTHUSIASTIC. She loves working, loves learning, and loves reacting. Having her devote that passion toward her handler is a huge ego boost. She's a fun dog to work with.

I'll be honest: this was a hard class for me. Zach has the potential to be a really great trainer, but his skills aren't there yet. As a result, a lot of the more precise behaviors I require of Rubi have . . . regressed a bit. This was really hard to watch. I'm glad I did, because now I know what I'll have to retrain, but that didn't stop me from silently chanting, It's okay, it's alright, I can fix that, that's fixable, shut-up, shut-up, shuddup . . . 

Even so, I have to say - they looked good together.

Saturday, February 18, 2012

My Heartache Dog

I just finished going to a seminar with Jane Killion, and I have a totally kick-ass post coming hopefully soon about creating an operant dog, except I'm tired and a little brain fried (okay, a lot brain fried) and I really shouldn't be allowed near my blog. Except I want to tell you what happened with Maus.

For those of you who don't know Maus, he's the dog who should have been perfect and wasn't. It turns out that the Powers That Be give you the dog you need, not the dog you want (except when they give you Piper so that you don't go crazy).  Everyone tells me that Maus has come a long way. He wags his tail and goes up to new people. He doesn't flip out at fire hydrants. He has titles. Really crazy dogs don't have titles, I guess.

This picture of me and Maus at the seminar courtesy of this crazy chick I know. 
You should totally read her blog if you have a reactive dog or like competition obedience 
or think corgi mixes with miss-matched ears are cute.  

Jane Killion had never met me or Maus before today. About thirty seconds into our working session, she said, "Do you see? This dog is really biddable, but he's very full of fear, and he's working very hard through it."

Do you see how incredible this sentence is to me? Maus is not okay. Acting okay is not the same as being okay. In one single phrase, Jane affirmed my own assessment of my dog and gave me a whole new perspective on my capabilities as a trainer. I have often said that Maus is the bravest of my dogs, not because he he lacks fear, but because everything scares him, and he tries so damn hard anyway. Because he loves me and trusts me that much. And I have been torturing my dog with his own courage by listening to what other people say instead of listening to what Maus is telling me.

I feel like crying, but I'm not sure if it's because of what I've put Maus through or because I'm NOT CRAZY (about this, anyway) or because I have a chance to fix my mistake and that is the BEST NEWS EVER! I am so lucky to have a dog that loves me and doesn't give up on me even when I'm an idiot. Thank you, Maus.

Thank you, thank you, thank you. You're the best dog in the whole world.

Photo of me making out with Maus by Sarah Thornton.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

If I Had to Do It All Over Again . . .

Last week, I was asked to go out and see one of the dogs currently in an ARLP foster home. "You'll love her," Rachel told me. "She's just like Rubi." Rachel actually said this as if it were a good thing. I contacted the foster family (Hi! Jess and Dan), and they told me that they'd read the blog and agree with Rachel - this girl is just like Rubi. I spent the week racking my brain, trying to decide where I would begin if I had to start training Rubi all over again. Then, we settled on a day, and I went out to meet the little clone.

Everyone, meet Tulip:

And I have great news: Tulip is not Rubi.

Thank God.

Rubi, for all her strength and vivaciousness and passion, has not been an easy dog. We've come a long way - compared to where we were. Compared to other, average, "normal" dogs, we're still pretty F'd up. I wouldn't wish Rubi on anyone, let alone such an awesome foster family.

I was pretty relieved to see how different Rubi and Tulip are. This is silly because all dogs are different, let alone reactive dogs. While Rubi and Tulip are the same breed, size, energy level, and general temperament, there are subtle but important differences between the two. For one, Tulip is maybe two years old. This means she's had a lot less time to practice her bad behaviors. In theory - and so far, in reality - this should make it easier to teach her alternate ways of behaving (hold on while I go find some wood to knock on).

Thus far, Tulip issues seem primarily related to her low frustration tolerance, with a little lack of exposure, insecurity, and under-exercise thrown in for color (the two week shut-down is not kind to dogs who need a lot of physical exercise, plus Tulip just got spayed). In comparison, Rubi's issues are mostly improper/lack of socialization, plus a whole bunch of other crap that would depress me just to list. The result is that, at first glance, these girls look an awful lot the same.

For instance, both turn into wailing, screaming, flailing banshees when they go over threshold. But Tulip has a threshold, a point at which she can be in the presence of other dogs and not flip out. When I got her, Rubi did not. Tulip is also much faster to try new behaviors in order to get what she wants, whereas that is something I spent a looong time conditioning in Rubi. Tulip also seems to lack the poor dog-dog socialization that Rubi and I have spent so many hours trying to overcome. Tulip's canine body language is pretty good, and she can use and respond to subtle calming signals with other dogs - a skill that will definitely come in handy as we start to wok her more out in the community.

Rubi and Tulip do share one pretty big issue: a low tolerance for frustration. When they're not sure how something is suppose to work, they get upset. When they get upset, they throw tantrums. For Tulip, this shows up not only in the presence of other dogs, but also in crate training and during meal times. A big part of helping Tulip to deal with her frustration will be to teach her alternate behaviors. Screaming and flailing is not going to get your food bowl on the floor any faster. Sitting quietly and politely will. It'll be a longish, hardish process, but Tulip's a smart cookie and her foster parents are intelligent, dedicated (awesome, supercool, friendly, loving, patient) people, so I'm sure we'll get there.

The other part of increasing Tulip's frustration tolerance will be impulse control, impulse control, and then a little impulse control. Poor frustration tolerance and lack of impulse control is a very common problem in most terrier breeds. Historically, terriers (the name of which comes from the latin word terra, meaning "earth") were created to chase other animals - often bigger animals - underground and then contain their prey until the dogs' handlers could dig them out or the terrier killed the other animal. Can you see where making quick decisions was important in this line of work? Having second thoughts, a reluctance to "go to ground," could mean that a dog was removed from the gene pool, either by the people who owned them or the game animal that sensed weakness in its hunter. So poor impulse control was bred into the terrier breeds - great for hunting, less awesome in the middle of the city.

That said, Tulip actually has pretty good impulse control. With only a few days work, she can already hold a stay while a high level distraction flaunts his kitty butt passed her. It seems that Tulip issue is less that she can't control herself and more that no one's ever asked her to control herself. Either that, or she's a lot smarter than I give her credit for.

Add in some manners practice, structured exercise, counter conditioning, and desensitization, and Tulip should be all polished up for adoption. Now let me just go find that piece of wood to knock on - the dogs do so love making me eat my
words . . .

And just in case you were wondering, if I had to do it all over again with Rubi - I totally would. In a heartbeat. I love the hell out of my big blonde bitch.

Hint: all the good picture on the blog were by Paige Reyes.

Saturday, February 11, 2012


Fostering is hard. There is the emotion burden of caring for a dog you may never see again. There are also difficult decisions to be made about training and temperament and disposition. Time spent away from my own dogs. Crate training. Damage to property - my carpets will certainly never smell right. Disagreements between dogs to be broken up. The cost of toys and treats, wear and tear on things my own dogs should have the privilege of destroying. Gas money spent transporting the foster from vet appointments to adoption days to training classes.

But every once in a while, I catch one of those crystallizing moments when I look at my foster and really see them. I think to myself, "This is so worth it - you are so worth it."

I just had one of those moments, and I wanted to share it with you.

Rest easy, Jai. All's well.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

The Dog Your Dog Could Be

Hello Ladies.

Look at your dog. 
Now back to me. 
Now back at your dog.
Now back to me.

Sadly, your dog is not me. 
But I could be your dog.

Look down, 
back up, 
where are you?
You're on a walk with the dog your dog could be.

What's in your hand,
back at me.
I have it, 
It's a piece of cheese for that dog you love. 
Look again, 
the cheese is now belly rubs.

Anything is possible when you have a dog like me.

I am by a plate.