Sunday, December 27, 2009

The Year in Review, Part 2: Skills and Attitudes

Earning titles and ribbons is fun, of course, but Maisy and I learned a lot, too. This is the second of three entries reviewing how Maisy and I spent 2009, and in this entry, I’ll talk about the skills we’ve developed, and the way Maisy’s attitude has changed.

Obedience wise, Maisy and I worked on many, many things. I’m really proud of how far her heeling has come. Just over a year ago, loose leash walking was still pretty tricky for us. Now, Maisy has a decent heel position. She can heel on and off leash with a lot of attention (although that depends on the distraction level, of course). She has learned to find heel position with either a hand cue, a verbal cue, or my body position.

In addition to improved heeling in straight lines, she’s really improved her ability to stay in heel position while I move in odd directions. The halt-left pivot 90 degrees was the most terrifying thing to me when I signed up for our first trial, but now she can left pivot 360 degrees even with distractions! She can also do the halt-sidestep right-halt and remain in a pretty good heel position.

I’m thrilled with her ability to heel past the distraction of a food bowl with treats in it! Although she has a momentary lapse now and then, she usually doesn’t even look at it anymore! I’m especially proud that I was able to teach this without using the words “leave it” excessively.

Maisy’s heeling has probably improved more than mine, but this year, I have learned about walking at a brisk pace and improved my foot work. I’m better at walking in a straight line (which is harder than it sounds), too.

Maisy’s fronts, while still not where I want them, have improved a great deal. In fact, they are nearly perfect at home! Not only does she come in centered and straight, she’s getting much closer! One thing I had to improve while working on fronts was about treat delivery. Once I took the bait bag off my hip and became consistent about giving the treat in the center of my body, her fronts improved a lot.

I introduced a lot of new concepts to her as well. Although we have a lot of work to do to finish these behaviors, Maisy and I have started working on jumps, retrieving a dumbbell, using a pivot board, and backing up.

I also successfully desensitized Maisy to a Dremel for her nails (although I wouldn’t say that I’ve fully counter-conditioned her- she doesn’t love it, but it’s better than using a nail clipper), and really improved her eye contact and attention behaviors through doggie zen. I’m also really proud that I finally figured out how to legally use treats in the APDT rally ring!

On the reactivity front,I think that one of the biggest areas in which Maisy developed skills this year is her ability to relax. In January, we started our first Control Unleashed style class, which is a class specifically designed for reactive dogs. A big component to CU style classes is teaching the dog to relax and be calm in the face of triggers. One method to accomplish this is through mat work, which may be combined with massage and TTouch. Maisy really struggled with this. She seemed very uncomfortable, and wiggled all over the place in an effort to get away from me when I first started massaging her.

The instructor also encouraged me to reward calm and relaxed behaviors at home. This is harder than it sounds; when your dog is lying quietly and being good, you tend to take them for granted. This year, I really had to learn to look for and reward calm behaviors. It was a weird experience for both of us. Back in January, I wrote the following in my journal:

THIS IS SO HARD. I tried doing this [rewarding relaxed behavior] today- I gave her verbal praise for lying nicely in the living room and she just looked at me like “what the hell? I’m not DOING anything.” A couple of times she’s gotten up and run away.

These days, Maisy is very comfortable on her mat, and I see her relaxed around the house a lot more often, and while she doesn’t love massages, she does appreciate a few well-placed pets. Not only is she more willing to relax by stretching out in the house, she has become more snuggly with me. She often chooses to curl up next to me, which is incredibly endearing. I also think this is a sign of our improved relationship due to all of the work we’ve done together.

Maisy’s fear has also decreased. Over the last year, she has learned to go through agility tunnels (on her own terms, not on my cue), and sit in a canine-eating hula hoop. She is also generally more willing to interact with objects. Although she has no interest in stepping on an A-Frame or a teeter, she is quite willing to go sniff them for a treat. This is huge for her!

Another neat way her fear has decreased is her willingness to move things. Maisy has a lot of fear of movement, and until recently, she wouldn’t even nose aside a door to retrieve her beloved tennis ball. Now, though, she is not only nosing aside doors but actively pushing her way in to the room where I feed the cats, and escaping from her crate. For three years, we’ve never once latched her crate at home- we knew she wouldn’t try to open it. Recently, however, we’ve found her out and about when we get home. Most people would probably be upset by this, but honestly, I’m just thrilled that she’s become so brave! I also like that it offers her the choice of remaining safely inside her crate or leaving on her terms while we’re gone.

Her reactivity has fluctuated a lot this year, and it’s hard to know where we stand on that front. Still, I think it’s improving. It seems like her reactivity has become less emotional and more of a habit or learned behavior, which truly is a good thing, even if it is still frustrating. I’ve identified a lot of her triggers, and am becoming better at both preventing reactivity and interrupting and managing it, and Maisy’s become better at seeing a trigger and offering an alternative behavior (usually frantic eye contact) in the expectation of a treat. Good dog!

Overall, Maisy has become a very easy dog to live with. I probably wouldn’t even know that she’s reactive if it weren’t for the fact that I want to go to obedience trials. She’s genuinely mellowed out and become less anxious at home. She’s also pretty good in low-pressure environments. Although we still have the occasional issue while on walks or at a pet store, she’s usually good in those environments, too. People tend to look at Maisy with admiration, and once, a lady in a pet store looked at Maisy, and then looked at her dog and said, “Why can’t you be more like that dog?” Since I have thought that endless times, I was so thrilled that Maisy was finally the “other dog.”

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