Saturday, April 19, 2014

We're Alive!

Whoops, I sort of fell off the face of the world there, now didn't I? If you follow the blog Facebook page, you know that I've been sick. Not the kind of sick where I've missed work, but the kind of sick that every bit of energy I had has gone to work and sleep. Since I've been gone for three weeks, how about a quick update on where things stand?

I think the big "storyline" that's been dropped is Napi. And that's actually pretty accurate, because my illness meant that Napi didn't get to finish his reactive dog class. I'm really bummed about that because if I'm honest, I'm much more motivated to train when I have a class to keep me accountable.

I'm not sure that Napi's meds are doing much. He's been on them for 5 weeks now, so I guess I'm being a bit impatient, but I know I saw more progress with Maisy when she was 5 weeks out than I have with Napi. Of course, it's kind of an apple/orange kind of comparison; Maisy and I had been actively working on her reactivity for two years by the time she'd started meds. I'm also really missing the the very detailed behavior logs (including a good baseline) that I had with Maisy. Without it, it's really hard to see progress.

Unexpected friends.
One good thing about being sick: I've discovered how incredibly sweet Napi is. He is a world-class cuddler, and I've grown incredibly fond of him. I may not want to do this whole reactive-dog-thing again, but he's definitely worth it.

Perhaps the most interesting thing lately has been Maisy's relationship with Napi. She has decided that she quite likes him, thank-you-very-much, and plays with him way more than I would have expected. As a matter of fact, at this very moment she's trying to get into Napi and Pyg's wrestling session. They have also started to be a bit cuddly together, something I have very rarely seen in Maisy. I'll be very curious to see how this pans out.

Maisy's health- which seems to be her main storyline right now- is actually pretty good! She saw the ophthalmologist at the beginning of the month, and her corneal dystrophy has actually improved! I wanted to ask the doctor if it was an April Fool's joke... We did increase the strength of her eye drops, but I'm so glad to have seen even a slight improvement. And, after Maisy's most recent massage/acupressure/reiki session with Michelle Bame of Caring Canine Massage, she's been even more playful.

Last night, I took Lola to her first beginning obedience class. She is very different than Maisy or Pyg to train; slower, more thoughtful, and more deliberate. She's an eager student, and I'd very much like to get her CGC and maybe even a novice obedience title with her. I think it would be a good experience.

Lola is friendly-reactive. I've had a few of these dogs in classes, but never handled one directly before. Lola gets so damn excited to see friends that she can lose her mind. We had to spend the first 15 minutes of class behind a barrier in order to keep Lola from barking, and even after that, she would get pretty distracted by the other dogs. I think I'm going to enjoy working with her a lot. I know I like living with her.

I'm not sure which one is cuter.
Pyg started the beginning obedience class last night, too- my fiance handled him during class. Let me just say that I was impressed with both of them. Pyg is a quick little dog; working with him can be a bit like having a butterfly on crack on a leash. He's everywhere, he's excited, he's intense. I love these qualities, but it was challenging for someone brand new to clicker training. Cesar rocked it, though- his timing is amazing, and they did really well together.

The longer I have Pyg, the more I love him. He's just got a great little personality. This morning I took him to an agility trial because I wanted something very specific from a vendor that was going to be there. He handled the environment like a pro. After a few minutes to settle in, he would see something exciting, and then turn to me for a cookie. By the end, he was sitting and watching me intently. We did a few sits and downs, and then left. I am very excited to do competitive stuff with him. He'll be fun!

 I've been editing the second Fenzi-Jones book, and I'm pretty excited about it. This one is on motivation, and I think it's better than the first one. I cannot tell you how often I'll get all excited when I work on a passage, either because I totally agree (and had to learn the hard way) or because I've never been able to find the words to talk about it they way they have.

Other than that, not much to report. Just resting and recharging so I can get back to life! I'm not teaching right now and find that I really miss it. Pyg and I are getting ready for a 40 mile backpacking trip (less than a month!), so we've been hiking a lot to get us both physically ready. I'm sure that will be a riot...

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Minnesota Animal Welfare Conference: Suzanne Hetts on Punishment, Part 2

Punishment should rarely, if ever, be a trainer’s first choice. But Suzanne argues that it’s something we shouldn’t completely dismiss, either. By applying critical thinking skills instead of emotions, we can make better training decisions. And, though it makes me a tad uncomfortable to say it, sometimes those decisions will include punishment.

So how do we decide if punishment should be used? This flow chart, included in our handouts, and available online at this link (on page 19) is very helpful.

Punishment can only be used to eliminate a behavior you don’t like. That said, it’s best to create a reinforcement-based program to create a behavior you do like instead. However, when behaviors are dangerous, they need to be addressed immediately, and the benefits outweigh the risks of using punishment (and make no mistake- there are risks), a punishment-based program may be needed.

If you’ve found yourself in such a situation, Suzanne provided some criteria to ensure that the punishment is effective. The more of these conditions you meet, the more humane the punishment will be. It will still be punishment, of course, but it will reduce the risks of fallout.

Start with Response Prevention
“Response prevention” is where you prevent the unwanted behavior from happening. This is an excellent first step: if you can completely prevent a behavior by changing something, you may not even need a punishment-based solution. However, if you do need to use punishment, response prevention is equally important because…

Punishment Must Be Consistent
When it’s not, the dog may decide that the behavior is worth the risk. For example, if I got a ticket every time I was speeding, I probably would stay within the speed limit. As it stands, though, I’ve had one speeding ticket in the past ten years. Considering the frequency of speeding to being ticketed ratio, it seems worth it. To be effective, the dog must believe that the behavior will automatically trigger the punishment. This is why Suzanne says that…

Remote Punishment is Better Than Interactive Punishment
Dogs are excellent at picking up on discriminative cues that predict events. If you are always the one that delivers punishment, the dog will begin to associate you with the feeling of being punished. For this reason, “booby traps” that appear unrelated to your proximity or presence are preferable to punishments that involve you directly.

It Must Be Immediate
Punishment also must be immediate, and definitely no more than three seconds after the behavior happens. If it’s not, punishment simply becomes aversive: an unpleasant thing that happens randomly with no effect on the behavior.

Dogs Must be Able to “Turn Off” the Punishment
If the punishment must start immediately upon the behavior happening, it must also cease as soon as the behavior stops happening. If the punisher continues to happen after the behavior stops, it will be affecting all those subsequent behaviors. This unnecessarily muddies the waters, making it much harder for the dog to understand what he should and shouldn’t do.

Choose the Correct Intensity
Finally, punishment must be severe enough that it will stop the behavior within 3 to 5 applications, but not so strong that it creates unwanted side effects of fear or aggression. This is probably the hardest criteria to implement, since it requires some guesswork.

If it’s not clear by now, using punishment effectively and humanely requires quite a bit of knowledge, skill, and prior planning. It’s not something to be undertaken in the heat of the moment. The vast majority of the time, there are solutions other than punishment that will be equally effective if you take the time to figure it out.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Project Gratitude: Team Katie and Steve, Walking for Susquehanna Service Dogs

Okay gang, this one is important to me.

During the two-year period that my marriage fell apart, Maisy was my lifeline. She kept me sane during a very crazy time, and I honestly don't know how I would have made it through without her. I know I'm not alone in finding comfort in an animal; I have friends who also depend on their dogs for a variety of things.

My friend Katie is one of those friends. Although I've never met her in person, I consider her a kindred spirit. Like me, she has a dog who has helped her. Unlike me, she has a service dog. Steve helps Katie navigate the world by performing very specific tasks for her, and this has made a world of difference for her.

Steve gives her the gift of independence, and Katie wants to share this gift. Service dogs are notoriously expensive, and organizations that train them often depend on donations and fundraising. This is why Katie is raising money for Susquehanna Service Dogs.

So in honor of Maisy, I'm donating money to Team Katie and Steve's as they walk for Susquehanna Service Dogs. I really hope some of you will join me in supporting them. CLICK HERE to donate!

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Napi's Second Reactive Dog Class: So Much Better!

Napi's second reactive dog class went much, much better than the first one did.

As before, when we entered the building, he piloerected and barked all the way to our station, and it was impossible to distract him with food. Once we got into our little corner, he barked a little, but quieted down much faster and was overall quieter than he'd been the week before. He also started eating much sooner, although he did "run out of stomach" (got full) about 45 minutes into class. Small dogs are so hard that way. After that point, he found petting and close contact to be very soothing, which makes me think he might benefit from a Thunder Shirt. Although Napi spent most of his time pacing at the end of his leash, I was very excited that he was willing to sit this week! It wasn't relaxed, and calling it "settled" would be a stretch, but definitely an improvement.

Once again this week, we worked primarily on classical counter-conditioning. In my opinion, this is the most powerful tool a dog trainer has for behavior modification. It's not a "sexy" technique, and to those not in the know, it doesn't look like much. Sitting somewhere and just feeding a dog, regardless of his behavior, seems strange and even counter-intuitive. I sometimes have trouble getting my students on board with this, but creating positive feelings about being in a new environment around new people and new dogs will allow a dog to calm down enough to begin thinking and not simply reacting.

This paid off for us in spades because not only was the class better overall, we also had a nice five minute stretch where Napi was able to "become operant" - by which I mean, we were able to work on actively teaching a skill. While classical conditioning is simply about creating an association regardless of the dog's behavior (“being here means I get yummy food no matter what I do”), operant conditioning requires the dog to do something specific in order to get the food (“now I have to earn my cookies”).

People new to training think that it's all about getting the dog to do something, so I often see my students ask their dogs for operant behavior before the dog is ready – and able - to offer it. The truth is, in the first week of a reactive dog class, most dogs are either at or over their threshold. Although not ideal, it's nearly impossible to avoid. When a dog is in this state, he simply cannot think well enough to perform behaviors. He's too busy freaking out about what's going on in his environment. He has to be emotionally comfortable before he can learn anything, and classical counter-conditioning is the key to this. This is why I encourage my students to simply feed the dog. It doesn't matter if he's sitting or standing, barking or quiet, or even if he's responding to cues. Just feed the dog.

Some dogs can move to operant skills work in the first week. Others, like Napi, can't. This is okay. Behavior modification is not a race against others. Napi is definitely a turtle in that respect; he will not overcome his past quickly. This is why I spent the entire first class just feeding him. And it's why I spent most of the second class (55 minutes) just feeding him. But we were able to do a bit of doing this week. Although it's not something we typically teach in reactive dog class, I worked on teaching Napi to make eye contact. I chose this task because I wanted to reward him for coming in and looking to me instead of roaming around at the end of his leash. Bonus: he learned what the clicker means!

I have to admit, I really did not want to take on another reactive dog. And I wouldn't have, had it not been for the fact that he came as a package deal with my fiance. But I'm actually kind of enjoying it. I'm already really pleased with Napi's progress, and I'm very excited to see what happens when the meds kick in. 

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Minnesota Animal Welfare Conference: Suzanne Hetts on Punishment, Part 1

Punishment is not the problem. So says Suzanne Hetts, PhD, CAAB, CVJ, who elaborates that it is the mis-use of punishment that is a problem. Well, that, and the way we talk about it, which is the subject of today’s post.

Anyone who has been around the dog world for more than, oh, five minutes knows that discussing punishment is “politically sensitive.” Some people refuse to talk about it. Others refuse to listen to people talk about it. Some label anyone who talks about the topic as an animal abuser (or worse- comparing folks to Nazis or child molesters).

There are two big problems with a categorical refusal to discuss punishment. First, Suzanne says that we undermine the profession when we do so. If we don’t talk about it, we lose credibility. Whether we like it or not, punishment exists, and the general public knows that. Refusing to acknowledge that makes us appear willfully ignorant. Worse yet, some trainers don’t talk about punishment accurately or scientifically. For example, some will state that punishment doesn’t work. That’s just a blatant lie. Punishment can and does suppress behavior (that’s sort of the definition of punishment in operant conditioning).

The second problem that Suzanne identifies is that when we refuse to discuss or consider punishment, we miss out on possibly useful options. While Suzanne would rarely use punishment as a first resort, she says there are times it can be helpful. And even if a trainer doesn’t use punishment, she does need to understand it.

A big reason for this is the fact that the general public often defaults to punishment-based solutions. I can’t imagine there are any dog trainers out there that haven’t had a client ask, “How can I get my dog to stop…” Scientifically, stopping behavior requires punishment. Of course, most of us know that the best solution is to reframe the question in terms of what the client wants the dog to do.

And anyway, even if we are opposed to punishment in theory, Suzanne argues that many of the solutions that positive trainers use or recommend are punishing or aversive. For example, the use of a head collars or body blocks are punishing to some dogs, while withholding reinforcement can cause frustration. Still, these are commonly used techniques.

In the end, what it seems to come down to is that humans (trainers and clients alike) have a negative reaction just to the word “punishment.” Think about it; the words “corrections” or “discipline” are far more pervasive, and pack a much smaller emotional punch. Semantics aside, Suzanne encouraged us to consider if we’re really opposed to punishment in and of itself, or if we are actually opposed to confrontational methods.

I find this distinction to be a useful one. I will not use pain or fear to train my dog, but I have no problem telling her she can’t do something, or enforcing a time-out if needed. I will not engage in power struggles, especially with larger, stronger dogs, but I sure will use tools like head halters that give me an advantage. While punishment can become confrontational, it doesn’t have to be. Punishment is not one-dimensional. It’s not all-or-nothing, and our conversations about it shouldn’t be, either.

So what should we discuss when talking about punishment? Ah, you’ll have to tune in next week to find out.

Friday, March 14, 2014

Napi Joins the Cool Dogs

All the cool dogs take drugs. And now Napi is one of the cool dogs.

I took Napi to the vet today to discuss the possibility of behavioral medication for his extreme fear. First, I'm just gonna say it: I love my vet clinic. I chose Lake Harriet Vet in Minneapolis because I liked their mix of holistic and western medicine. I was thrilled to find out that across the board, their staff are really good at handling dogs with special needs. Today was no exception.

I called when I arrived to let the staff know that we needed to go straight into a room. They were more than willing to do this for us. We were a bit early, so we waited about 10 minutes before the tech came in. Napi was quite reactive during this time; he barked every time he heard a noise or someone walked past the door and refused to eat any of the yummy foods I'd brought with.

Here's a video of Napi before the tech came in. I did edit it lightly to remove stuff when he was off camera. He did start eating just at the end of the video; most of that is off camera, of course!

Napi finally started eating just before the tech came in. Naturally, her presence freaked him out a bit, so he stopped eating and started barking. She very wisely completely ignored him, and he quieted within a few minutes and was willing to eat peanut butter again.

When the vet came in, Napi had decided that peanut butter is better than barking, and he just made a little wuff and went back to the food. Yay! He did bark once in awhile during the exam, but overall, was very good. This gives me a lot of hope for his future progress.

For her part, the vet didn't push Napi for the sake of the exam; instead we agreed to try 5mg of fluoxetine daily, with the possibility of moving up to 10mg daily if needed. The vet also suggested a situational med - trazodone, up to 25mg every 12-24 hours - and I was thrilled that she suggested both the as-needed med and that it wasn't ace.

So. Fingers crossed this is the right med for Napi! I am super excited to see how much progress he can make between meds and training.