Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Almost Wordless Wednesday

I'm so glad I taught Jai that camera = ears forward = cookies, because now I get pictures like this:

Just sayin'.

Monday, September 24, 2012

When Things Go Wrong

Jai's encounter with off leash dogs didn't go as well as Rubi's. In fact, we haven't had a good time outside the house in about two weeks. (Just in case anyone was wondering, it is not Off Leash Dog Month. It is just September). But even before this month happened, we had sort of plateaued anyway, so we're probably over due for a ruthless examination of our training plan.

I did switch Rubi out for Jai in their Growl class, and I'm really glad I did. It's been fantastic having another set of educated eyes looking at my dog. Having someone see him from another angle has been invaluable.

Because from this angle, I tend to get distracted by all the sexy.

One of the things we picked up on is that Jai's real problem isn't other dogs. Other dogs are just what tip him over the edge. Jai's major issue is actually agoraphobia - a fear of new places. It's not even neophobia (the fear of new things, like Maus has). New objects are inspected with confidence and curiosity. But any new place is subject to suspicion because zombies could jump out of anywhere and eat us. After about forty-five minutes in a new place, it's like someone flicks a switch and suddenly Jai is ready to get down to work. And he is a beautiful worker, capable of doing all the exercises he does at home with precision and accuracy. But until he decides he's safe, he needs to obsessively watch everything around him, and trying to refocus him only makes him anxious.

Jai also has a lot of trouble with sudden environmental changes. Not objects, objects are fine. But people and dogs coming into a room once he's there require careful observation for sign of zombism (spell check says that's not a word, but whatever, I can make up words if I feel like it). Jai does much better coming into a room full of dogs than he does if he's already in a room and other students come in. As an observer, this is fascinating behavior. As a trainer, it poses some unique challenges. And as an owner, it makes me hurt for my dog's brain.

I can help Jai. Exposure therapy is already working for him. Taking him to new, safe places, and letting him watch his environment until he realizes that he's safe. But I can't control other people. I hate it, but it's true, and it means that the off-leash dogs aren't going away. Still, I can't think of many other ways to help Jai's agoraphobia then to take him places. And the places I can take a great, big dog are places where other dogs are. Rock, meet hard place. Of course, I'm too Irish to give up without a fight.

I train Jai roughly every other day. What I mean by that is every other day, I sit down or go out with him and we learn stuff together.  I taught him to lay under the table. Shake and wave. Roll over. Heel. Silly things, mostly, that serve no other purpose than to reinforce our relationship and entertain each other. So instead of doing this at home, we're going to go to our park. The one I take Rubi to that's a block away from our house. We're going to do our little fifteen minute training sessions there because there are rarely off-leash dogs there, and even if there are, that's where the hockey rink is.

And God help the "owner" whose off-leash dog harrasses us in our park because after heaving that seventy pound dog into the hockey rink, because that's a lot of work, and I'm going to be hungry, and I'm going to hunt that person down and eat them for dinner. 

Jai's new zombie-hunting collar.
Poor dog doesn't know about his owner's cannibalistic tenancies. 

I've put a lot of thought into where best to take Jai for classes. I really don't feel that he needs another Growl class, but the quiet and calm of such classes suit him. I've decided that we should look into nose work classes. The sport was originally developed with reactive dogs in mind, and most classes are still organized around the idea that their student are not going to be 100% okay with other dogs. For Jai, this means a quiet, calm class that will encourage him to check the environment out - just what (I think) he needs.

And so progress is made! One baby step at a time . . .

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Sometimes People Suck

I'm normally pretty easy going. I draw the line at off-leash dogs. If I'm walking the "normal" dogs, you're lucky if I ignore you and flip you the bird as I walk away. If I'm walking the reactive dogs, you'll get an earful about what a horrible, stupid, scummy person you are. I realize this probably isn't the most helpful of reactions, and since this has been a particularly rough week (we've been lucky to meet just one off-leash dog on each of our walks), here's my attempt to be constructively - instead of destructively - pissed off. So, tips for dealing with off-leash dogs:

This is a picture (by Paige!) from Jai's Gotcha Day Party.
I just felt like there should be pictures of off-leash dogs
in my blog post about off leash dogs.

Set Yourself Up For Success:

  • Scope out the route before you take your dogs out. I take my normal dogs with me when I check out a new area, but if you don't have normal dogs (god love you), go by yourself. Most off-leash dogs tend to be repeat offenders, so knowing the blocks and trails to avoid can be a big help. Off leash dogs are less likely to hand out around busier roads, or during the early morning or late night. 
  • Take your cell phone. Have animal control or the cops' number programmed into it. In my experience, most off-leash dogs have owners lurking about somewhere, but some don't, and I'd hate for someone else to walk into the same situation I just did. Not to mention, emergency numbers are important if there's ever, well, an emergency. For that matter, know the location of your closest emergency vet. 
  • Have control of your dog. Train important things like auto watches, emergency retreats, and to walk on both sides of you before you risk running into off-leash dogs. If your not 100% certain of your dog's training, make sure you have physical control over them. I use gentle leaders with my dogs because I am not a perfect trainer - but I am a scrawny white chick with a gimp arm and big, strong dogs. 
  • Carry a spray deterrent and practice using it. I like citronella sprays because they stop most stoppable dogs, but aren't horribly adversive if I accidentally spray my own dog. Or myself. Or the other "owner." Because if you spray the other owner, it's probably assault or something, and I could go to jail. Not that I've thought about it . . . 

Training Jai is fun! Except when there are off-leash dogs.
Then it sucks. Photo by Paige

Take a Deep Breath:
  • Retreat, RETREAT! It's okay to turn around and go the other way. It took me a long time to figure this out, but boy! Walking away before the other dog sees you sure does work well! Remember not to run though - most dogs instinctively notice and chase things that run.
  • If approached by an off-leash dog, try to stay calm. I'm not above yelling expletives at "owners," but I check my own dog and the other dog for signed of aggression first. If people start screaming, it can push a tense situation over the edge into violence, and ultimately, that's what I'm trying to avoid. 
  • Throw treats at the other dog. Preferably smelly, raunchy treats that will give the dog diarrhea all over their "owner's" carpet later on. Make your escape while the other dog is distracted. 
  • If you think your dog will be okay with meeting the other dog, stay calm, keep a loose leash, and let them say "hi." I tend to error on the side of caution here, particularly when it comes to my reactive dogs, but most dogs actually get along fine with most other dogs. Just, you know, not the ones I have. 
  • Use your spray deterrent. Aim for the face. Start screaming. Throw your dog over the nearest fence that doesn't have another dog in it. If I know a meeting is inevitable and not going to go well, all bets are off. And if it comes down to it, I'm going to protect my dog above all else. Not everyone is this way, so make sure you know how to break up a dog fight.  

Let It Go:
  • Go home, give your dog a cookie, and make yourself a stiff drink. Remember, stress hormones stay with you for forty-eight to seventy-two hours. If you had a bad incident with an off-leash dog, chances are either your brain is shot or your dog's is. Go home and spoil yourselves.
  • Don't get hung up on what you could have done better. While I have hope otherwise, the truth is that off leash dogs are sort of inevitable. They're out there, and if you walk your dog, you're going to run into them. Think critically about the situation: Was there anything you could have done better? If the answer if no, think of what went well. And if you can't think of anything that went well - well, any day above ground is a good one, as we say in my profession. 
  • Give people the benefit of the doubt. Most "owners" of off-leash dogs are not intention assholes. They love their dogs and feel that letting them off leash is good for them. These people are just ignorant and inconsiderate, which doesn't automatically make them evil. I find I sleep better at night if I don't hate the whole human race. 
This blog post (which I am not writing while sober - weeeeee!!!!) occurred because Rubi and I had an incident tonight with an aggressive, off-leash dog with no "owner" in sight. B and I escaped to a hockey rink and were stranded there for thirty minutes until the cops were called. No one was hurt, thankfully, including the other dog. After all, it's not the other dog's fault that their owner is an inconsiderate, ignorant asshole. 

Rubi handled herself like a dream, and I know she's not so socially stupid that she doesn't recognize an aggressive dog when it tries to eat her. She followed my instructions to the letter, and once again, I am so proud of her. It might be the training we've done, and I'm sure that's partly why she behaved so well, but I also like to think that her excellent behavior was largely due to our relationship. She trusted me to keep her safe and to look out for her best interest, and I know how hard that is for her. I'm honored and awed by the responsibility she has given me. 

And well, she didn't go ape shit - I'll drink to that!

"If you're a rock star and you know it
Photo by Paige.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Of Leadership and Love

I’m lucky to work in a hospital that really pushes for nursing leadership. Nurse comprise the largest portion of the medical workforce, so it makes sense to encourage nurses to have a part in the direction and managing of the system. I’m not much of a leader myself - I prefer my humble peon status – but I think the topic of leadership is fascinating. What makes a leader good? What makes a leader fantastic? How do you know if people are following you or chasing you? (Hint: are they carrying pitchforks?)

During all of the leadership trainings, a required activity seems to be the group listing of qualities a good leader possesses. Traits like kindness, fairness, patience, good communication skills, a sense of humor, compassion, humility, intelligence, and courage. I am always intrigued by this activity because “leadership” has come to mean something rather different in dog training. It seems that in the context of canines, leadership is just a more politically correct way of saying that you are dominant or alpha – two words that I have never seen come up when discussing human leadership.

The connotation of leadership in dog training implies that if your dog is not exceptionally behaved or shows any sort of personality, it reflects poorly on you as their leader. Dogs that chase squirrels? Why can’t you control them? Dogs growls at people? Why aren’t you telling him to stop? Dog won’t sit when you tell her? Why aren’t you making her sit? If you're a good enough leader, your dog won't misbehave. 

In my opinion, the leadership of canines seems to be less “fun” and more “terrible burden.”

Human leadership workshops rarely (never that I can remember, but I’m not perfect yet) talk about “making” people do anything. Humans seem to understand on at least a logical level that you can’t force anyone to do anything. If only we understood that being able to force dogs – or any other living thing – into a behavior is also just an illusion!

Further, there is an implication that if we can’t use force, then we are powerless over the behavior of others. Try to force me to do something, and you will find out how stubborn and pig headed I can be. But as a professional peon, I am not difficult to lead. The people I follow and respect the most are the ones who know me the best. Who know the situations I will flourish in and who place me in situations were my particular skill set will excel. These are the leaders I trust will not give me an objective I cannot achieve. And if I were to get in over my head, I trust that these people will listen and then do something if I were to tell them that I’m in over my head.

Do you see where I’m going with this?

Leadership is not force or dominance or being alpha. It’s knowing people. It’s understanding that maybe your old dog doesn’t want to sit because her knees are bothering her – but she’d be happy to shake paws with you. It’s not putting the dog that growls at people into a crowded room because “he’s gotta learn to deal with it.” It’s trust and strength and creativity and setting the situation up so that everyone can succeed – without letting your ego get in the way.  

Sounds tricky and thankless, doesn’t it?

But leadership is balanced by friendship. Many people, including many great leaders, seem to believe that these are mutual exclusive. I am skeptical. The leaders I follow most wholeheartedly are the ones I can meet with over apple pancakes and discuss dogs and boyfriends and jobs and the nitty-gritty of making the Next Big Thing completely spectacular. The idea seems to be that you can’t reprimand or be critical of people you have an emotional attachment to. And I can see where this would be difficult from the leader’s perspective. As a lifelong follower, though, the people who’s honest criticism I internalize and value the most is that of my friends. The people who know me, and who I know have our best interests at heart.

How terrible to be your dog’s leader, but not their friend!

After all, isn’t that why we love dogs? To open ourselves to their silliness, their devotion and loyalty, their companionship in times of strife, and their joy in times of happiness. If I had to chose, I’d rather be their friend than their leader. To share the couch with them and a good book and a cup of coffee on a rainy day. In short, to do nothing with them but be happy.

In my book, being happy with my dogs is more important than any of that other stuff.

Photo by Paige.

Monday, September 3, 2012

Is It Chilly In Here?

Today, Rubi and I ran into an off-leash dog.

Who actually came when his owner called him.

The owner then proceeded to tell me what a nice job she thought I'd done handling B.

The conversation during which Rubi did not scream like a ninny.

In fact, she didn't so much as whine.

So, I have to ask . . .

Does anyone else feel like hell might have frozen over today?

"I bet you can't wait to see how I'm going to mess with her next, huh?"

In other news, Piper and I took Jai hiking for the first time. Jai would like everyone to know that golden rod flowers don't taste good. Not even a little.

Fo' reals.