Monday, November 26, 2012

Jai Goes for a Walk

Yesterday, Jai joined me and twenty three other dog handler teams for the weekly Twin Cities Pack Walk. Piper and Maus have gone on these walks several times, and it’s a great chance to get around other dogs and handlers in a safe and friendly environment. Many of the other handlers have reactive dogs, so the group takes the whole “no on leash greetings, no off leash dogs” thing pretty seriously. I've hemmed and hawed for a while about bringing Jai on a walk, and I finally just went ahead and took the plunge.
Jai's in this picture. You can tell because my lime green coat is in this picture.
Photo by Paige

Jai’s been doing well in his regular level one class, but walks in general can still be difficult for him, what with all the places there might be zombies hiding, ready to jump out and attack us. Bringing along another dog often helps Jai relax, but it also increases his arousal in general. For him, there’s a fine line between distracted enough not to obsess over the environment and too distracted to work.

The pack walk definitely pushed that line hard, and I learned an awful lot about my dog in just a couple of miles. For one, he’s a horrible, horrible puller when there’s anything interesting going on. Apparently, my leash training skills are not what they should be, but, hey – that’s why god invented Gentle Leaders, right? I found that Jai pulled less and was much more comfortable if he could be in the middle of the pack as opposed to distanced away from the other dogs. Jai also took treats the entire walk, which was awesome because he’s not a terribly food motivated dog, and he stops taking treats as soon as he starts getting over stimulated.
Don't mind us, we're just pulling along here.
Photo by Paige.

Jai did have one bad meltdown on the walk when the pack had to turn around and start back toward the parking lot. This mean that dogs were coming toward us, and it was, quite simply, too much for my Fatty McCheesehead. Once we got through the other dogs, though, I pulled over to the side, and Jai recovered remarkably fast. Jai is a good dog, but he typically takes a long time to recover from going over threshold, with stressors tending to mount until he’s too wild eyed and traumatized to continue working. Not so this time.
Jai, about fifteen seconds after him meltdown,
looking happier and more relaxed than he does on most of our regular walks.
Photo by Paige.

Perhaps most remarkable yesterday was not so much what happen, but what didn't happen. Jai didn't have his ears pinned back and his tail down as is often the case on our individual walks when we’re in a new area. While in the pack closer to the other dogs, Jai was very good about minding his manners and not getting in the other dogs’ space. I didn't really expect that, and was pleasantly surprised. He also didn't freeze even once, which is a huge deal for him.

Jai’s freezing has been an interesting challenge. I've mentioned before, but Jai’s big problem isn't so much other dogs as it is suddenly environmental changes and unfamiliar places. Often times when there is a change in his environment – anything from, say, dogs suddenly coming toward him instead of moving with him to people stepping out of houses to a plastic bag blowing across the street half a block away – Jai will freeze mid step and need to stare at the stimulus until he decides it’s not a threat. While frozen, nothing exist for Jai other than that new stimulus: not me, not peanut butter, not the car coming straight toward us because he decided to freeze in the middle of the street.

Hangin' out, watchin' other dogs, not frozen.
Photo by Paige. 
I can pick Jai up and remove him from the situation, but it increases his stress level dramatically. I've found that the best way to handle Jai getting stuck is to be patient and wait for him to unstuck himself. The episodes usually last between ten seconds to two minutes, and as soon as he moves or looks away from the stimulus, I make sure to reward heavily. I’m not sure that I have any science behind rewarding Jai redirecting his focus after becoming frozen, but I figure dogs repeat what you reward, and maybe if I reward him for coming out of it, he’ll unfreeze faster and freeze less frequently.

I may not have any science, but anecdotally, this systems seems to be working pretty well. On our regular walks, Jai has gone from taking half an hour or more to walk a single block to freezing only three or four times a mile. He also doesn't freeze for nearly as long, and it’s been quite a while since he’s frozen for more that fifteen seconds.

And during the pack walk, he didn't freeze at all.

I’m not sure that we’ll be doing the pack walk again soon, but I’m glad we did it. I’m still on the fence about whether or not I feel it was too stressful for him. I do think that overall, Jai enjoyed himself, but I think we've more training that needs to be done before we jump into that situation again.

No matter whether we join the pack walk next week or never go again, I hope that Jai knows on some level how brave I think he is, how beautiful and smart and courageous. How delighted I am that he works so hard for me, even when things are scary. And how proud I am to walk – or wait still - next to him for however many miles we have to travel together.

My brave dog,
photo by Paige.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Little Brag

Rubi has a history of being very, ah, adverse to invasive body handling. When I picked her up from her previous foster home, he told me that the only time he felt that she might bite him was when he tried to trim her nails. Which wasn't terribly shocking since she had been returned to the rescue for biting the person who alpha rolled her. After living with Rubi for so long, I can say with absolute certainty that Rubi will only bite if she feels in fear for her life. And that being physically manipulated, given her history of traumatic handling, sometimes makes her feel that people are going to kill her.

Rubi and I have worked very hard to help her overcome her fear of handling, and it's paid off in so many ways. But you can imagine that between the other dogs and the handling issues, vet visits tend to be a bit stress inducing. Last year, Rubi handled the dogs fairly well, but being handled by strangers made her very uncomfortable. We worked on this, and if I was expecting just general restraining at this years vet visit, I wouldn't have been too concerned.

But Rubi's been gimping. One walks, when we first start and before she's gotten really warmed up, she often hop-skip a few steps. It's a movement I associate with Katy, who had  severe bilateral patellar luxation. Basically, Katy's knees weren't built right, and this cause her knee caps to pop out of place. She would then do that funny little hop-skip step to get her knee caps back into place. Unless surgically corrected, patellar luxation is degenerative and can cause a lot of pain for the dog. Needless to say, I really didn't want Rubi to have this condition.

I sure do miss this little dog.
Photo by Paige.

After a thorough exam (which Rubi handled beautifully), Dr Megan determined that Rubi's knees were most likely fine. Which was immediately followed by the bad news that it might be her hips. Rubi is an active dog, so if there's a problem with her structurally, I want to know about it so that I can do whatever necessary to keep her as active as she needs to be. This meant that Rubi needed xrays to find out exactly what was going on in her back end.

Cue dramatic music.

I am so very proud to say that Rubi handled her xrays like a pro. This involved being picked up and placed on the xray table, positioned by at least two strangers, held still while pics were taken, being repositioned and held still again, and then being picked up and set back on the ground. It doesn't get much more invasive than that.

There's no ribbon for "I Didn't Bite the Vet," but I feel like there should be. It's really the little victories that mean the most when you have dogs with special needs. Moments like this are so much bigger than any title I've ever worked toward or achieved.

And the results of the xrays? Rubi has a touch of spinal arthritis, not an uncommon finding in a seven year old dog. The prescription is take glucosamine and fish oil, stay active, and stay lean. So basically, we'll just keep doing what we've been doing. It seems to be working pretty well.

Picture of the best crazy dog ever. 

Monday, November 19, 2012

Tricky Dogs

A few days ago, I finished teaching a tricks class for ARLP's Rott n' Pit Ed. I only get an opportunity to teach a tricks class every few years, and I always jump on the chance. Tricks are one of the things I love teaching not only dogs, but people as well.

Tally, Jai's side action, learns to sit up and beg.
Photo by Jen.

I think part of the difference in attitude between tricks and standard obedience classes is simply the language. As humans, we place a lot of value on words, and the word “obedient” itself has connotations of strictness and even force. This could be at least part of the reason people don’t care if their dog performs shakes paws or not, but if their dog won’t sit on command, that’s personal. Neither behavior is difficult to each, but one is a “trick,” and the other is taught as obedience. (Side story: I once heard a vet tell a woman at a busy, crazy event that the woman’s dog was dominant and dangerous because the dog wouldn't sit on command. I think my ears almost started bleeding.)

I believe that one of the biggest mistakes you can make in dog training is taking yourself too seriously. Sure, there are exercises that might save your dog’s life like “come,” but even this cue is taught more solidly if your treat it like a game. Tricks are fun. They’re not work, they’re playing with your dog, and it’s a lot easier to laugh when you’re playing than when you’re working. Even for myself, I started having a lot more fun with my dogs when I stopped referring to them as “training sessions” and started saying that I was “going to go play with the dogs.”

Tricky dog line up, photo by Jen.
Rubi likes it when other dogs skip class because it means she gets to stay out and play longer.

Another perk to teaching tricks is breed related. I work primarily with Rottweilers and pit bulls, and I own mostly reactive dogs. The public is often afraid of these types of dogs. It’s hard, though, to be afraid of dogs with painted nails or pretty clothes or adorable tricks. Tricks are good publicity. For Rubi and Piper, who work with kids through ARLP’s Dog Safety Program, I often use tricks to keep the kids entertained and engaged. During Rubi’s last program, we taught each of the kids how to use a clicker to “teach” Rubi a trick, much to the kids’ delight.

Each of my dogs also has a particular sport that he or she plays, and most of these sports are different. But one thing they all know is a variety of tricks. I use tricks as both a way to build relationships and as a method for teaching dogs problem solving skills. Many of the tricks I teach rely on some amount of shaping – that is, marking and reward smalls steps toward a bigger picture. At each step, the dog has to figure out what they’re being rewarded for. There’s no punishment for guessing wrong, so the dogs are encouraged to try different behaviors to get what they want. This is a huge skill for reactive dogs, who often get stuck repeating the same behavior over and over again (usually the behavior we don’t want). Not to mention the confidence given to shy dogs when they try something new and the world doesn't explode around their ears.
And so it is with dog training as it is with so many other real life activities: how you do it matters at least as much as what you're doing. Tricks open our minds to a place where training is fun, less like work and more like play. If teaching “roll over” can be fun, so can teaching “heel.” It’s all a matter of perspective.

Less stress, more smiles.
Photo by Paige.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Hitting Our Stride

Jai came to live with me on January 25th, 2012. Give or take a few weeks, that's about nine months, and only now do I finally feel like we have a good relationship.

That's not to say that I feel like we've been muddling along accomplishing nothing for the last ten months. We've made great leaps in soothing his anxiety. It's just that a good relationship with a dog, particularly a dog with "issues," takes time.  There's no way around that. I'm just glad it didn't take eighteen months to get to like it did with Rubi.

Part of this relationship is just getting to know each other. Now, when I take Jai into new situations, I'm pretty confident about how he'll behave. This week, we had three outing that went exactly as I'd planned. The first was to my aunt's house where Jai didn't run and hide from my uncles even once (he did that on his first trip there, I was very sad for him). He was also the perfect gentleman when my aunt's little dog tried to eat his face, another non-surprise for me.

Our second field trip was out to our friend Rachel's house for a play date with her girl, Greta. Greta was more interested in my treats than in Jai, and Jai was more interested in peeing on everything in Rachel's backyard than in Jai, but nothing even mildly interesting happened. Jai didn't pace the fence or whine or get anxious at all. And I was not surprised. I knew him, and I knew what he was likely to do. It's nice to know that even if we're not always on the same page, at least we're reading the same book.

Jai and Greta.
I want to make an award for cutest couple, just so I can give it to them. 

Lastly, Jai and I crashed Sunday's Rott'n'Pit Ed. Classes were temporarily moved to a new building, and I'm still working on remedial socialization with him, so I jumped on the chance to expose him to a new place. With new dogs. Lots of new dogs, as it turned out - there were twenty or so boarding dogs there, plus the dogs going in and out for class. We planted ourselves in the entry way and practiced watching everyone come and go. I snagged a few pictures, and looking through them, the difference between who Jai was and who he is now - well, see for yourself.

In case you forgot, here's a picture of Jai at the end of his first night at his first reactive dog class:

And here he is on Sunday:

Not really relaxed, but I have to say, I like the new "working dog" look.

He wants to hang out with me when he's bored, he looks to me for instruction when he's worried, and he wants to play with me when he wants to have a good time. But relationship goes two ways, out and in. It was no surprise to anyone that I decided to keep Jai. But there's a difference between keeping a dog and being utterly smitten with him. I love Jai. I love that he's so sensitive and curious about the world around him. I love how resilient he is, how hard he struggles and how hugely he succeeds. How he still wants to be with me even when I'm cranky or miserable or doing nothing at all. How I get all giggly and giddy when I talk about him or see him first thing in the morning or after a long day at work, like a sixteen year old with a crush.

Dude! He's SO hawt!!!

Photo by Paige