Thursday, April 12, 2012

Building Faith

Due to various time conflicts, including the girls and my trip to the BWCA, it looks like Jai and I won’t be able to attend our special needs class until the end of May/beginning of June. I don’t mind because this will give me a chance to work on building a solid relationship and getting to know Jai a little more. Relationship building – like creating a friendship with any human – takes time. But there are certain activities we can do to speed up the process. One-on-one time is going to move us along faster than time spent with the whole horde. You can imagine that with five dogs, individual time is at a premium in my house. However, even just twenty minutes a day can be huge if we use our time wisely.

12-15 minutes: Relaxation Protocol
I have a love/hate relationship with the relaxation protocol. On the one hand, this single exercise has made a bigger impact on helping Rubi relax than any of our other exercises put together. We’ve evolved far enough in our RP training that if we’re out in public, and Rubi starts to get over stimulated, all I need to do is have her lay down, take a step back, step in, give her a treat, and see the stress melt away. We don’t even need the mat anymore. This has been incredibly useful for managing Rubi, and I’d like to have it for Jai.

On the other hand, the relaxation protocol is the most god-awfully boring thing I have ever done with my dogs. All the dog has to do is lay there on their mat and not fall asleep; all I do is feed them cookies, do the funky human dance, and try not to fall asleep. It’s like meditation for dogs. It’s like torture for me, what with my inability to sit still for longer than ten seconds. Jai loves it because it’s easy, and he gets cookies. I’ve incorporated into our twenty minutes because otherwise, I would find so many excuses not to do it that it would never get done. And I really do think that relaxation is going to be an important skill for Jai to have later on.

2-3 minutes: Drive Building
Jai is not a dog-sport quality dog. He’d be fine as someone’s pet for the rest of his life. I am perfectly happy with this as it makes Jai very easy to live with, but it means that he doesn't have a huge innate desire to work or play with me. I’ve talked before about how much I appreciate Piper and Allister’s willingness to work for toys as it opens up a whole new realm of rewards that I can use. I’m also a big believer in play therapy. When you were a little kid, how did you make friends? You played with them. Just like over-threshold meltdowns cause the release of stress hormones, play stimulates the release of happy neurotransmitters that promote relaxation and bonding (those are serotonin and dopamine, for those of you who are keeping track).

I’ve done a little trial and error to see what kind of toys Jai likes, and right now, we’re working primarily with tugs toys. Jai doesn’t have a strong enough toy drive yet for me to use it as a functional reward for activities, so mostly we’re concentrating on just having fun. Our only rule is “no skin/teeth contact.” If his teeth touch my skin, it’s game over, and the toy goes away for the day. As the owner of large, powerful dogs and pit bulls in particular, this isn’t something I mess around with, especially during tug – a game that encourages dogs to clamp down hard and pull. Other than that, I make sure that Jai gets lots of opportunity to “win” the game – that is, to pull the tug out of my hands. This helps to build his confidence. More often then not, Jai happily bring the toy back to me to restart the game (unlike Rubi, who would then steal the toy and try to get me to chase her). This is exactly what I want to see.

We’ve been working a little bit on “mine” as well, which is my cue for getting him to release whatever is in his mouth. I cue “mine” with my body. Because of my gimp arm, I only tug with one hand. My dogs know that when I touch the toy with my left hand, I want them to release it. Jai doesn’t know this yet, so I hold on to the toy with both hands and try to make it as “quiet” as possible. I don’t tug back. Quiet toys are boring, so Jai eventually lets go to give me the “um, hey, why’d we stop” look, and I mark and give him a cookie and restart the game. There are a lot of ways to teach a dog to let go of something, but this method has always worked well for me.

I’m careful to keep our tug games within the two to three minute mark. Short drive building sessions ensure that I leave Jai wanting more which is always a perk when trying to build any sort of drive, from play to working to food. Less is more.

2-3 minutes: Fluency Training
Jai has a foundational understanding of pretty much all the basic manner exercises like sit, down, out of the room, heel, and touch. Every other day or so, we’ve been working on generalizing these behaviors to new situations. Laying down on different surfaces, touch my hand in whatever position it’s offered (or, if you’re Jai, lick my hand in whatever position it’s offered – boy can’t control his tongue), choose to heel at varying paces, and sit faster than the tectonic plates move. Jai’s sweet, but ZOMG, zombie clowns could take over the world in the time it takes him to get his butt on the ground. I mark and reward the responses I like and ignore the responses I don’t care for. Jai is smart, and adjusts his responses so that he gets more cookies.

Picture of Jai's butt courtesy of Paige Reyes. 
Also, you're welcome. 

2-3 minutes: Shaping
Behavioral shaping is defined as “A technique that is used in operant conditioning in which the behavior is modified by stepwise reinforcement of behaviors that produce progressively closer approximations of the desired behavior.” For non-nerds, shaping is having a picture in your mind of how a certain behavior should look, and then marking and rewarding each step that brings you closer to that picture. A common shaping exercise is “101 Things to Do with a Box.” When Jai and I play the box game, I start by marking and rewarding him for any interactions with the box. Depending on what he seems predisposed to do with it, I’ll make a picture in my mind of what I want, and I’ll reward each behavior that brings us closer to the finished picture. If Jai wants to put the box in his mouth, my finished picture might be picking the box up and bringing it to me. As it turns out, Jai steps in the box with one foot, so I mark/reward that. After a few repetitions of that, the reward point becomes two feet in the box. I mark each behavior he does that brings us closer to all four feet in the box. Thrilling, right?

Shaping at this point is less about creating certain behaviors and more about teaching the dog to think and problem solve. When I got Rubi, a dog from a primarily punishment-based training background, she had two behaviors that she offered to get what she wanted: sit and stare or lunge and scream. By playing shaping games with Rubi, I was able to set up a safe environment for her to experiment with other behaviors. After all, there aren’t any wrong behaviors in shaping, just behaviors that don’t get rewarded. We started with easy games like the box game, and slowly worked our way up to harder, more stimulating games like “how do I get my mom to move closer to those other dogs?” Rubi now has a stock of about eight behaviors that she will reliably offer before resorting to lunging and screaming. This is a handy buffer to have when working her around her triggers. Thinking dogs are a lot easier to work with than machines that have been programmed to do only two things.

My goal isn’t to create a thinking dog, though, or a relaxed one or a drivey one or an obedient one – these are bonuses created by pursuing my actually goal. My only goal with Jai right now is to create the foundations for a solid working relationship. Rubi and Jai are similar in that while they both like people, they’ve been pushed around a bit, and their trust is hard earned. A dog’s trust is like a bank account: each positive interaction is money in the bank, and each negative interaction is money withdrawn. The more you have in the bank, the more you can do. It took about fourteen to sixteen months before Rubi had enough trust in me to see us through the difficult interactions in life. By building up Jai’s trust in me early on, I’m hoping he won’t have to struggle with believing he has to go it alone as long as Rubi did.


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