Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Putting Humpty Dumpty Together Again

When I first got Rubi, I'm was pretty torn about how to handle the few days after a meltdown. On one hand, I know that nasty stress hormones stay in a dog's body for around three days. This often manifests in a lowering of thresholds and increased hyper vigilance. On the other hand, Rubi does not handle "having time to think" very well. Keeping her away from other dogs invariable creates more problems for us down the road. Desensitization has been a huge part of Rubi's training - dogs just aren't as interesting when she sees them all the time.

Through trial and error (and some more error), we've got recovery down to a science. I do keep Rubi away from strange dogs for a while, thereby allowing her stress hormone levels to decrease again. But I don't let her stew. We took this opportunity (isn't it great when you can think of being attacked by another dog as an "opportunity"?) to go back and do some more thorough desensitization of a few variables. I was throwing new stuff at Rubi pretty quickly, and new variables always have the potential to change behavior. As the old idiom goes, dogs don't generalize well. For Rubi, I added "walking with another dog (Piper)" pretty quickly after "wearing a backpack." While Rubi has been handling both pretty well, since we're not doing anything else . . .

To get her more acclimated to the backpack, Rubi get to wear it every time we left the house. She loves going adventuring, so this was a sure-fire way to create a positive association in her head between the backpack and good things. Rubi's car manners have remained excellent ever since we worked on them almost exclusively two winters ago, and most of my day-to-day errands don't involve going to places frequented by dogs.

"OMG, lady! Why are you so slow? Let's go!"

We also did a few days of front yard obedience. Working in the front yard is a nice balance between new places where dogs might appear out of anywhere and places that are really familiar to Rubi such as the house or the back yard. This time around, we discovered a new advantage to working in the front yard: with the arrival of warmed weather, everyone has let their dogs outside, and there are dogs barking freaking everywhere. Rubi and I got some solid work in counter conditioning (dog bark = cookie) her to the sound of dogs barking, and she's now the best she's every been. She can actually ignore other dogs barking!


I addition to the individual training, I also volunteered to pup-sit for a few days. Ducati is a teenager, and developmentally, he's about where Mikey was: rude with a side of dumb boy. Rubi has come a long way in the short time since Mikey was here. Watching her play with Jai is gorgeous. She picks up signals and gives them back appropriately, can initial a break when she needs to calm herself, role trades and rough houses with the best of them. She no longer looks like the awkward bully on the playground. Watching her play with Jai is like watching a comfortable conversation between old friends. I honestly never thought she'd come this far.

This is what beautiful looks like. 

As if being able to watch Rubi play like a normal dog weren't enough of a gift, she's taken it farther than I could have ever hoped. With Ducati, not only is she able to give and receive signals and respond appropriately, she's also gained the ability to give a proper correction. She no longer feels the need to bite when a simple snark will do. And when she's in over her head, she's happy to come back and let me sort it out. There are not words for how proud I am of her. 

"I am Queen B the Awesome, and these are my minions, Thing One and Thing Two. 
And also my court jester. 
You may now worship me. "

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

On Training the Dog in Front of You

German Shepards scare the ever-lovin' hell out of me.

This is stupid. I know this is stupid. German Shepards are no more dangerous than Rottweilers or labs or chihuahuas. In fact, the American Temperament Test Society gives German Shepards as a breed an 86% pass rate - the same pass rate as the American Pit Bull Terrier. I've tried hard to change my attitude, and I now have a pretty good working relationship with the breed. I can teach or take a class with a GSD in it and not get a sweaty palmed and nervous. I can even touch one, as long as it doesn't make any sudden moves.

But when the shit hits the fan, my viscera go right ahead and give my brain the finger.

So when the girls and I were aggressively charged by an off-leash German Shepard on a walk a few days ago, I just about had to go home and change my underwear. Rubi was all ready to kick some ass, and Piper believes that anyone who messes with her family deserves to have their face ripped off, so things could have gotten really bloody really fast. Luckily, GSDs are not stupid, and when it realized that we were not going to turn around and flee for our lives, the GSD retreated to its owner. (Who waved and said sorry. Someone once asked me why I don't carry anti-dog spray on our walks. It's because I'm worried I'll end up using it on the stupid end of the not-leash.)

The girls were physically unharmed and I was preoccupied with restarting my heart, so I tried my best to put the incident out of my head. Shit happens. I'm not going to stop walking my dogs because other people suck.

Denial was working pretty well for me until the day after. That is the day when Rubi and I went on our walk (sans Piper), and she had a complete meltdown at a dog a street and a half away. It's been a while since I've heard that banshee scream out of my little blonde bitch. That right there is about six months of training lost.

Surprisingly, I'm not angry. Don't get me wrong, I was annoyed when we went home from the meltdown and Rubi proceeded to scream at dogs walking by our house. And then decided to bark at the dogs she could hear barking outside our house from inside her timeout room. I also still wish I could go back and mace that idiot who let their dog off leash. But I'm not really mad at Rubi.

Rubi can't help who she is anymore than I can help being afraid of German Shepards. We are who we are and because of who we are, we will sometimes have to go back and retrain things. Sometimes, we will have to go back and retrain a lot of things. I went over both incidents in my head at least a million times - as we reactive dog owners are wont to do - and I can't think of anything I would have changed about either one. Rubi and Piper have been walking well together, and I had no reason to suspect that they wouldn't be able to handle any average incident that might occur. I also had no reason to expect that Rubi would still be feeling the effects the next day; she's rarely taken more than a few hours to recover from anything.

I can't change the past, and I can't see the future. And wishing won't fix the flaws in either of us. Maybe tomorrow Rubi will be better. Maybe not. Either way, I'll work with whoever she is at whatever level she's capable of with whatever curve balls get thrown our way.

Lesson Learned: Que sera, sera, c'est la vie, and love the one you're with.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

The Human Element

This is Denver. Who knew it was possible to be in Denver and be so far away from mountains? *sigh*

Nursing and dog training have more similarities than you'd think. Nothing prepared me for nursing as well as working in an animal shelter: the heartbreak, the joy, and the down right dirty disgusting. Because of my education as a nurse, I can better look at much of the new research and training methods with dogs from a critical analysis standpoint. I spent last weekend in Denver studying a concept called “motivational interviewing.” This is exciting for me not only because the information will benefit my patients and coworkers, but also because of its implications for my dogs as well as my dog training students. It's impossible for me to pin down a two and a half day workshop into a few blog posts, so here's a few of the highlights.

Tough Love Doesn't Work
Motivational interviewing started as a way to help drug addicts stop using. It's evolved as a tool to improve positive outcomes in many medical areas from addiction to chronic disease management to medication compliance. Motivational interviewing stems from a pivotal moment in addiction counseling when providers realized that tough love does not work. Tough love is the process of sitting someone down and telling them what they're doing wrong. In dog trainer lingo, it's positive punishment. What the psychologist found that tough love did do was created shame, generate excuses on the part of the subject (I know it's bad for me, but . . . ), and damaged the relationship between counselor and client. It damages trust and security in the relationship. Ranting does not change behaviors.

This realization occurred in mental health over twenty years ago. In general medicine and in dog training, though, tough love is still common practice - not only toward dogs, but also toward their owners. As dog trainers, we know a great a deal about the use of punishment. One of the most important considerations with the use of punishment is that punishment will always increase anxiety. As dog trainers, we need to ask ourselves if we can afford to increase anxiety in a given situation – not only with a particular dog, but also with our clients. Telling someone, “You're wrong,” or using a negating word like, “That's great, but . . . “ it is often just as damaging as giving a dog a poorly timed correction.

The Free-Will Problem
The shift from tough love and punishment into motivational interviewing and positive reinforcement was caused by the fact that we can't force people to do anything. I know that as a nurse, I cannot make a patient take their medications. This is a huge relief to me: I am not responsible for that patient taking their medications. That patient ultimately has that responsibility. Once I surrendered that responsibility to the patient, it relieved me of a great deal of pressure. Many dog trainers that I watch seem to have difficulty because they operate on the premise that they must fix the dog/owner problem. In medicine, we call the need to fix problems the “righting reflex.” When we encounter resistance to our efforts to fix a problem, our first impulse if often to try and force the issue.

The difficulty with using force is that people have free will. If God could not keep Adam and Eve from eating the fruit, what makes me think that I can force any other living thing into the decision I have chosen for them? I am not God.

This is a particularly difficult concept when it come to our relationship with dogs. Here, the use of punishment and management have created the illusion that we can make decisions for the dog. The truth is, these tools allow us to limit a dog's choices. Force merely suppresses the choices we don't want; management removes the opportunity to make a decision at all. It is still the dog's decision to pick a behavior that works for them. If a dog is motivated enough to get something, using punishment will cause them to find another way to get what they want. That's not to say that I never use punishment or management with a dog. I simply acknowledge that in high-value situations, I will not be able to out-stubborn my dogs. If they want something badly enough, they will find a way around me.

"Go ahead. Argue with me. 
I have ALL day to think of ways to get around you. 
Best of luck getting what you want. "

Engaging in a wrestling match with a patient or a client or a dog is exhausting, and I simply don't have the energy for it. Luckily, just because I cannot make a person or dog make the decision I approve of, this does not mean that I am powerless.

The Dance
Half the battle of behavior change – for dogs and for humans – is identifying the true problem in a situation. In order to be able to do this, I have to be able to set aside my own preconceived notions about what the problem should be. For example, people often ask me how much leash tension is okay when you're teaching your dog loose leash walking. My ideal is no tension at all. My response to the owner is, “How much pulling is acceptable to you?” If it's not an issue, let's not invest our energy in fixing something that isn't broken. (Note: if I'm worried that the dog will damage their larynx pulling, I will bring that up – but ultimately, the decision about how much tension is acceptable is a decision that the owner must make on their own.)

The same applies to dogs: I do not get to decide for a dog what their core concern is. If you're having trouble identifying what is motivating a dog, keep this in mind: dogs aren't concerned about their behavior. It does not bother Maus to growl at people. Maus's core concern is creating space between him and people so that he doesn't have to interact with them. If I don't find a way to address this base concern, he will find another way to get what he wants. I may eliminate Maus's growling, but if I don't address his desire to move people away, he will find another way to get it done. For a dog with fear-based issues such as Maus's, the next decision he makes may be to move people away with his teeth instead of his voice.

In contrast - while there are many people who are motivated to address their dog's core concern - these people seem to be in the minority. The majority of people I see are primarily concerned with changing their dog's behavior. They want their dog to stop screaming at other dogs. They want their dog to stop growling at people. As trainers, acknowledging the core concern of the human must take place before we can address the dog's core concern. We do not have any enduring effect on another person's dog. That responsibility is in the hands of the owner. Most people love their dogs and want to help them, but that may not be as important to them as stopping the immediate behavior. As trainers, this is important information for us to see because unless we address the person's most important concern, we will not be able to move forward and help the owner to help their dog.

Once we see the discrepancy between the dog's core concerns and the owner's, the human response is to jump in and educate the owner. See problem = fix problem. The righting reflex kicks in. I'm not saying that the education isn't important. But the righting reflex presumes that we have the information that the owner needs to fix the problem, and this premise can be dangerous. I know a lot about behavior modification and the core concerns of dogs. What I do not know is this specific dog. The owner is the expert in their own dog. They are the ones who see the behavior (although they may not always know what they're seeing), and who know how the dog will react. If I come into a case and see a fearful dog who growling at people, awesome! I know that counter conditioning works really well for dogs like these. But I need to draw on the owner's expertise as well. Is it all people? Gender specific? Only people with hats? These are questions that I would need to have an intimate understanding of this particular dog to be able to answer, and I simply won't have that information if it's just me and the dog in an hour long assessment. Luckily, I have an expert in this dog right at my finger tips. What we need is an exchange of expertise.

More than knowing their dog, people are experts in what they themselves are capable of and willing to do. Owner motivation is the first step in canine behavior modification. I can do a lot with counter conditioning, but if the owner isn't interested or motivated in learning the technique, then all the education I can provide will not be effective. It may be that in this situation, management will be a better solution. If an owner has a strong desire to use a method that I am uncomfortable with, and they make the decision to pursue this method in understanding of all the expertise I have on the matter, then this may be a client that I should refer out to another trainer. Preferably one who is experienced in the technique the client wishes to pursue. I cannot force someone to make the decision that I want; the responsibility for their decision lies with them. On the other hand, I am not required to do something that I am ethically opposed to. I cannot help every person. I cannot save every dog. This does not make me any less of a trainer (although if I'm referring all of my clients out to other people, I may want to take a sincere look at what I'm doing).

There is often a disconnect in teaching dog training between the owner, the dog trainer, and the dog. I believe this disconnect is caused in part by the trainer's core motivations. Most dog trainers went into the field because they love dogs. This is a fine motivation to have - it's what got me where I am. But it's a little like going into nursing for money: in the long run, it's not what's going to keep you happy day after day. In both cases, you need to love people. I cannot train someone else's dog to lifelong reliability; that is up to the owner. I need to set the owner up for success. Relationship is important, and if you're going to help the dog, you need to help the person first.

We spent several hours during our seminar on the subject of relationship building between provider and client - far more information than I could summarize in an entire blog post, let alone the last few paragraphs. What I took away was the importance of being genuine and caring in your teaching. Here's my cheat: when uncertain about how to approach a client, ask yourself, "How does this show the person that I care about them?" It's easy for us to show we care about dogs, but people listen and take the advise of teachers who care about them.

The End
Teaching is more than dumping information from one brain into another. It's as gloriously complex as the people - and dogs! - involved. Treating people as obstacles to be worked through is as fruitless as treating people as diseases and not as individuals. The human element adds the excitement of the unexpected. I've never taught anyone anything and not learned something myself in return. Personally, my goal in teaching is not to act as a database of knowledge; the knowledge I have is common enough if you know where to look for it. Instead, I wish to inspire. Inspiration can carry astronauts to the moon, pirates to treasure, zombies to clicker training, and owners to a more intimate understanding of their dogs. My knowledge is limited; inspiration is infinite. All I have to do is encourage it. 

Friday, March 9, 2012

Just the Facts

This week, I'm in Denver for work (the non-dog, nurse work). When I think of Denver, I think of two things: mountains and some of the more narrow minded breed specific legislation in the country. Negative prejudice is so much part of pit bull ownership that I barely notice it anymore. People who cross the street when they see my dogs and I out for a walk. They avoid my car if my dogs are sitting in it - even if all the windows are closed. And at least one coworker has told me, "I know you think your dogs are nice, but I'm still afraid of them."

Never mind the fact that there's no conclusive way to determine how many pit bulls bite or cause fatal attacks every year. "Pit bull" is not a breed, and there's no faster way to get a group of "pit bull people" arguing then to ask them to agree on what a "pit bull" is. Without consensus among breed fanciers, how is it possible for the public to be able to correctly identify a pit bull? So in order to look at any dog bite statistics, we have to look at all dog breeds, not just pit bulls.

Maus says, "No pit bulls here. Just us cows."

So what are the facts? The Pet Food Institute estimates that there are about 75 million dogs currently living in the US. According to the CDC, about 4.5 million people are bitten every year with 885,000 of those bites requiring medical attention. (Personally, I would really like to know how they're identifying bites that occur and do not require medical attention. Survey? Police reports? Show of hands? But it's the CDC, so I'll give them the benefit of the doubt.) Seems like a lot, right? But of those 4.5 million dog bites each year, there is an average of sixteen fatal dog attacks. 

That's a 0.0002 percent chance that if you are bitten by a dog, the bite will be fatal. 

There's a ton of information out there on dog bite prevention, so I'm not going to spend a ton of time repeating what's already been said. Instead, I'd like to put the "dog bite epidemic" into perspective. So here's a little food for thought:

4.5 million people are bitten by dogs every year. But . . . 

Compared to the sixteen fatal dog bites every year (from all breeds) . . . 
My goal here isn't to say that dog bites are okay or that you should be afraid of bathtubs or peanut or zeppelins. Dogs bites are a serious issue. But as with any of the above problems, education is the key to prevention, not fear and media sensationalism. As "pit bull" owners have been saying for years, "Educate. Don't legislate."

Monday, March 5, 2012

Katy Goes Home

I took a goodly amount of teasing over Katy through the past few weeks. After all, she's not a pit bull. She might not even be a dog. Who really knows what's under all that hair? Personally, I'll be sticking with my Muppet Guinea Pig theory. But no matter the species, there let there be no doubt that Katy is very dear to me.

Katy is the first animal I ever "rescued." She's the first dog I brought home and said, "This is it. She lives here now. Deal with it." If Katy never learned much beyond "sit" and "pee outside," it's because she never needed to. Her heart has carried her where her education did not. Katy's happiness has never failed to make her family feel loved. Her joy has never failed to make her new friends. Perhaps Katy is smarter than I give her credit for.

They say that there are three days in your dog's life that you will always remember: the day you brought them home, the day you realized they would die, and the day they left you. In the last few weeks, I have come to realize that Katy is not long for this world. She may have years, but sooner than I would care to believe, her small but significant presence will be gone from my life.

Katy is the last of my Before Dogs. She was there for me before my marriage. Before college and car payment and a steady job. Before my mortgage. Before it even crossed my mind to refer to myself as an "adult." When my heart dog died, it was Katy's fluffy head that caught my tears. And because she has been there for all of this, it is hard for me to wrap my head around the idea that she may not be there for the Next Big Thing.

So I will take a page from Katy's book. I will try to set aside my own selfishness and just be there for my friend as she enters this next stage in her life. I know I cannot give her everything, but I will give her all that I can. And I will know that in the end, though we be far apart, I am as precious to her as she is to me.

Photo by Paige

“It doesn't happen all at once," said the Skin Horse. "You become. It takes a long time. That's why it doesn't happen often to people who break easily, or have sharp edges, or who have to be carefully kept. Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby. But these things don't matter at all, because once you are Real you can't be ugly, except to people who don't understand.”              
                                                                                      - Margery Williams,                                                                                                                   The Velveteen Rabbit

Friday, March 2, 2012

*insert fun here*

For dogs, gaining confidence is like throwing a pebble into a puddle: it ripples out from the center. A dog who isn't comfortable at home isn't going to be comfortable out on walks. A dog that isn't comfortable on walks isn't going to be confident in more stimulating environments. Like good behavior, confidence starts at home and works its way outward. Jai's confidence has been increasing steadily since day one. He no longer pancakes at strangers in the house, he loves the "training game," he doesn't startle when he hears the word "no." It's time to take our show on the road.

Jai is an interesting, ambivalent dog. He approaches new experiences with curiosity and courage, but he worries. You can see it in the tension in his shoulders, the tightness of his ears, and the carriage of his tail. He likes going for walks. Jai meets me at the door, excited to go, but he seems to spend the walk concerned that at any moment, zombies will appear out of nowhere and try to eat our brains. It makes things a little stressful for both of us.

Picture by Paige Reyes.

So I stepped back and looked at what I wanted from our walks. In the house, Jai is relaxed. He does keeps his ears a little tighter than most dogs, but his body is relaxed . He doesn't constantly wag his tail the way most pit bulls do, that slow metronome tick that shows they're alive, the faster flag back and forth when they've found something fun, the whole body wiggle when they're thrilled to be alive. Still, when he's happy and engaged, his tail wags. So that's our current goal for walks: increase the fun as measured in tail wags.

And holy bejeezus is a big effort. Jai likes to work, so I've been finding ways to insert training into our walks. I've been marking and rewarding eye contact, and as a result, Jai is paying more attention to me and less attention to where zombies might be. But this in and of itself isn't fun enough for tail wags. So we've been stopping periodically to do a few sits, downs (he downs on cold asphalt! this amazes me), and touches. This works to get his tail moving, but once we start walking again, he goes back on zombie-watch. I've started teaching emergency retreats and adding brief spurts of running into our walks. Jai likes running, so these are usually good for a few wags, but like I said - it's a lot of work. Right now, we're averaging about seven wag per mile. Hopefully, I'll start to see this number rise. Otherwise, it's back to the drawing board.

Picture by Paige Reyes.

Each foster dog I take on makes me a better trainer for my own dogs. As I worked to come up with a plan for Jai's walks, I took a hard look at what Rubi and I are doing on her walks. I tend to view Rubi's walks as a way to get her more exposure to other dogs. As a result, we tend to cruise around, looking for other dogs, then stop to do a little training. Do you see what I have done here? I have taken the fun out of walks. It's like giving someone super-awesome candy only when they're nauseous. I have taken something she really loves and am only offering it to her when she's in a moderately-aroused, highly distractable, slightly anxious frame of mind. If I let this go on long enough, she may start associating the two, and my asking for behaviors could become a cue for her to start looking for the other dog - even if there isn't one around.

Whew! That was a close one! I potentially could have screwed up my dog. Instead, I'll start adding some fun play-training into our walks when there aren't other dogs present. Rubi's farther along in her training, so in addition to sits, retreats, and touches (Rubi does not lay down on cold asphalt thankyousoverymuch), we also practice formal heeling, stays, recalls, and a few tricks. In anticipation of our trip in May, we've also dug out Piper's old backpack to wear around the neighborhood. It doesn't fit the best, but it's fine for short trips to get used to carrying extra weight. I've also started to reinforce Rubi for just walking at my side without heeling. This will be an important skill for her to have when we start taking Piper Ann along on our walks.

I'm careful, though, to allow Rubi plenty of free time to explore her environment. I'm not one of those trainers who insist the dog walk by my side at all times. That's always seemed rather cruel to me. It's like taking a little kid to an amusement park and forcing them to walk next to you and not go on any of the rides. If it weren't for me, Rubi would not be on a walk; but if it weren't for Rubi, I probably wouldn't be walking, either. We do a little of what I want, and we do a little of what she wants. Freedom on walks is earned through not pulling and providing me with regular attention, but I make sure that Rubi has ample opportunities to do what she enjoys on our walks. It's a team effort, and everyone should be having fun.