Thursday, January 28, 2010

Attentive Heeling

The nicest thing a judge ever said to me was, “your dog looked so happy.” I don’t remember my score or placement, but I remember that compliment. For me, training and trialing is all about having fun with Maisy, so when I watch others compete, I’m impressed not by technical perfection, but by the teams with the alert, happy dog. Picture this dog with me: He’s in heel position, and while he may not be perfectly aligned with his handler’s hip, his tongue is hanging out, his front feet are prancing, his tail’s wagging loosely, and above all, he is so into the game that his eyes never leave his handler’s face.

It’s a beautiful picture, isn’t it? I think so, and indeed, so many people want that focus and attention that they purposely teach their dogs to make eye contact when heeling. You might expect that I would teach eye contact as part of my heeling criteria, too, but the truth is, I don’t. It’s not that I don’t want her attentive and happy, because I do, but I have two reservations about constant eye contact heeling, and both are rooted in the fact that she’s short.

First, in order to maintain eye contact, the dog needs to move forward far enough that he can look up into your face, which can create forging. Of course, it’s not impossible to keep a short dog in the proper position and still maintain eye contact. They can do it, although they often either go wide or they have to lift their heads much higher, which leads me to the second (and more important) reason I don’t want to teach constant eye contact for heeling: the possibility for injury.

In the March 2008 issue of The Whole Dog Journal, there is an article on canine chiropractic. In a discussion of cervical problems in dogs, the article quotes veterinary chiropractor Dr. Sue Ann Lesser as saying, “and then there are all the problems that come with always heeling on only one side… any unilateral activity creates muscle imbalances that can profoundly affect the dog’s gait.”

Now this would be enough to concern me on its own, but last summer, I noticed that Maisy had a slight, subtle limp. We never figured out what caused it, only that because of her conformation (long back, short legs, and her hips are higher than her shoulders), she is prone to back and neck issues. As a result, I have decided that eye contact, no matter how flashy, is not part of the picture I’m trying to create with Maisy.

So, what is my criteria for heeling? To be honest, for a long time, I didn’t think about it much. I knew that Maisy needed to be on my left, that she needed to be in the proper position (which I define as having her collar line up with my pant seam), but I didn’t worry much about where she was looking. As a result, she’s learned that she can look around or at the ground, and she sometimes finds other things more fascinating than me, especially if I’m not handing out treats. This does not make for great scores.

Earlier this week, I created a training plan, and quickly found that I had conflicting ideas about what I wanted. I originally said I wanted to reward for eye contact, but not the entire time. Just that I wanted her to pay attention. But I couldn’t define what that meant, only that I knew it when I saw it. Well, that really left the criteria pretty subjective, and ultimately, that means that I’ll likely be inconsistent and confusing. So, after a lot of thought, I think I’ve nailed down what “attentive healing without eye contact” looks like.

When sitting in heel position, I do want Maisy to make eye contact. Sitting in heel is often a predictor that I’ll be cuing a new behavior, so I do need her focused on me and watching for my signals. Like this:

Pretend she isn't forged in all these pictures, okay? It was hard enough to get the head position right that I wasn't paying attention to her body position!

When we take the first step of heeling, I want her to maintain that eye contact. This isn’t because I’ll be cuing a behavior, but rather because she has a tendency to rush off. She almost always forges the first 2-3 steps of heeling, even though I’ve spent a lot of time clicking for perfect position in that first step. I suspect this is because she gets so excited that we’re Going Somewhere! that she forgets to pay attention. So, this week I started clicking for eye contact during the first step. It’s still too early to tell, but I think it’s working. She seems to be much more focused for the duration when we start with eye contact.

I do not require sustained eye contact, though. After that first step, she may move her head into a more comfortable position, as long is she’s still attentive. A lot of small dog handlers talk about teaching their dog to be attentive by looking at a different body part than eyes- their hip or their knee, for example- but I’ve never quite figured out how to train this; it’s more difficult to determine where the dog is looking when it’s not making eye contact. It’s just not something that I can easily observe, which makes it hard to click.

So, what does attentiveness look like? Attentiveness requires her head to be held higher than normal. Maisy normally walks with her nose pointing to the ground. If you were to measure the angle of her snout, it would be pointing down roughly 45 degrees. From the top, you can see her head, but very little of her snout:

When she is attentive to me, though, her head is held higher, so that the angle of her snout is 90 degrees or even angled slightly upwards. She will often lift her head and make eye contact, and I think she’s “checking in.” From the top, this head position allows me to see most or all of her snout. It would look more like this:

So. That’s what heeling means to me. What does it mean to you?

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Revised Training Plan

In my last post, I set up a training plan for the next fortnight. Laura and I had a nice conversation in the comments about my criteria on heeling, and as I've both worked with Maisy and thought about what she said, I've revised my plan slightly. I'm still training each exercise for 2 minutes, but I've changed some of the criteria and testing slightly.

Exercise: "Get-ins" (sitting in heel position)
Criteria: Sit straight. Position and closeness do not count.
Testing Method: Put Maisy in heel position. Pivot 90 degrees to the left. If Maisy sits straight, click and treat. If not, try again. See how many trials out of ten she does correctly.
Notes: Unchanged from original (but I've seen a 20% increase!).

Exercise: Eye contact during first step of heeling.
Criteria: Maisy must maintain eye contact when I take the first step of heeling.
Testing Method: Put Maisy in heel position and get eye contact (she offers it the vast majority of the time). Step off. If Maisy maintains eye contact for the first step, click and treat. If not, try again. See how many trials out of ten she does correctly.
Notes: This is a pretty big change. Originally, I said I wanted to do 300 peck heeling with eye contact, but I've changed my mind. I don't want eye contact the entire time, just during the first step, and then intermittently afterwards.*

Exercise: Fronts
Criteria: Maisy must sit straight in front of me. She doesn't have to be centered or close, but she does need to be between my feet (so, generally centered).
Testing Method: I call Maisy front, and then pivot 90 degrees to the right. If she moves and sits straight in front of me, I click and treat. If not, I try again. See how many trials out of ten she does correctly.
Notes: Same as originally set up.

Exercise: Heeling with duration.
Criteria: Maisy will maintain attention* while heeling.
Testing Method: I am teaching this one with the 300 peck heeling, except the pecks don't correlate with a single step but rather in roughly 8-10 foot increments. (The reason these increments vary is because I have a large circular route I can follow through my house. Well, it's more of a square, really, and each side of the square varies slightly.) So, I set off in heel, and if Maisy is attentive for one side of the square, I click and treat. Then we do 2 sides, click and treat, then 3, and so on. If she loses her attention at any point, I start over at one side. We do this for two minutes during the training phase. During the test, we work backwards. We try for 3 sides. If she makes it, the test is complete. If not, we try for 2, and so. I record how many sides she completes during the test.
Notes: I know this sounds complicated, but it's not, really. The reason I chose to do it this way is because I wanted to set her up for success. Previously I was going to see how far she could go until she lost attention, but that meant that in order to measure her progress, I had to wait for her to fail. This way, I can build on success, and then test to see if she maintains what she achieved during the training phase. If she doesn't, I lower the criteria and try again. This way, she is always rewarded for doing well, and thus is set up for success.

*Laura rightly pointed out that I had two different criteria for heeling: eye contact and duration, and you're never supposed to work on two criteria at once. Since I don't want eye contact for the entire time we're heeling, it was kind of pointless to do 300 peck heeling with eye contact. Still, I need Maisy to pay attention during heeling, so I've spent quite a bit of time thinking about what attention looks like if she's not making eye contact. I'll post later this week about why I don't want constant eye contact, when I do expect eye contact, and what "attention" looks like. (Sorry to be such a tease, but it really deserves its own post!)

Monday, January 25, 2010

Training Plan!

One thing this weekend really drove home to me is that I've been incredibly complacent in our training. Oh, sure, I train a lot, but I suck at raising criteria. This is kind of silly, because I understand ways to do this: click only better efforts, ask for more duration before clicking, etc. And yet...

So, I've devised a new training plan for the next two weeks. I chose two weeks as my timeline for two reasons. First, we have a trial in two weeks, so I'd like to see some improvements before then! And second, because it seems like a nice amount of time to reassess our progress.

In addition to devising a training plan, I've also developed a method to track our success, so that at the end of our two weeks, I can see exactly how much progress we've made. (This also appeals to my geeky graph-making side.)

I'm going to work on four main behaviors. I will work on them in two minute increments (I have a timer and everything, and let me tell you, two minutes is a LONG time), once or twice a day. The behaviors are:

1. Sitting in heel position ("get-ins"). The criteria for a click is that she is sitting STRAIGHT. In the future, I'll work on straight AND the correct position, and then add in closeness. For now, though, she just has to be straight. I chose this as the criteria because she often wraps around me or sits crooked. The way I'm going to train this is to do 90 degree pivots (then 180, then 270, then 360) in both directions (working on one direction at a time, and eventually including finishes), clicking only for straight sits.

2. Heeling with eye contact. I'm going to use the 300 peck heeling method. I do not require strict eye contact for heeling in general, however, I am going to require eye contact for the first 5-10 feet because I often lose her at the first step.

3. Straight fronts. The criteria is that she must be sitting straight. Okay, there's a second one: she must be sitting straight, and somewhere between my two feet. Closeness and centeredness doesn't matter; as long as she's sitting straight, she'll get the click. I'll reset the exercise by pivoting 90 degrees (and then 180, etc.) to the right (and later the left).

4. Duration heeling. My house is laid out such that I can make a giant circle through five different rooms, for a total of about 40-50 feet. The criteria here is that she stays roughly in heel position (position and closeness don't matter much as long as she's roughly at my left side) and paying attention. I won't require eye contact, but I will require signs of attention- ear set, head position, etc. It's hard to describe, but I know it when I see it.

I'd also really like to work on fast pace heeling as well, but I have no idea how to teach it. Ideas? I've tried throwing toys and treats ahead of us, and she's terrified of a target stick... I'm not sure what else to do, other than just click and treat when she changes speed with me. And... maybe that's enough? Thoughts?

After we've done our training session(s) for the day, I'll wait at least 30 minutes, and then do a test so that I get some data. For the fronts and get-ins, I'll do ten trials and count the number of clicks she gets. I'll increase the difficulty when she gets a 90% success rate.

For the two heeling exercises, I'll do one trial, and measure the distance she covers before failing (and then, of course, do an easier version so she ends on a good note). I'm a bit uncertain about doing the test this way- I hate to set her up to fail- but it seems like the best way to see what her maximum duration is each day. Any thoughts on this?

I won't be updating this every day, but here's today's baseline:
1. Get-ins (left, 90 degrees): 40%
2. Attention heeling: 2 steps
3. Straight fronts (re-set with a 90 degree pivot to the right): 60%
4. Duration heeling: 1.25 laps

I'm really pleased with how well she picked up the attention heeling for even one step. I've never required that before, and she's never really offered it either, so it's cool that I got two steps! I'm also surprised by the number of straight fronts she got. I did feel that she was frustrated with the duration heeling, which means it's good I'm working on this, although I'll need to be careful not to raise that criteria too fast.

Anyway, I'd love some feedback! Does this sound reasonable? Is there anything you'd do differently, or not at all? Let me know!

Sunday, January 24, 2010

UKC Rally Trial, Day 2

As you can see, we qualified again today.

It was a pretty good day. Maisy was tired this morning- she didn't really want to get out of bed- and as a result, she was a little edgy initially. She had shark teeth, and was wuffing a lot more than yesterday. She even through a little lunge in there! I thought that I probably wouldn't even bother going in the ring unless she calmed down significantly. Then, I gave her some Rescue Remedy and dosed her with DAP. Remind me that I just need to do that no matter what at trials. She almost immediately calmed down and began taking treats softer. (Incidentally, I also used Rescue Remedy both days, and it really helped me feel calmer. I like this stuff.) She even began to offer "flat dog" (where she lies on her side), so I knew she was feeling okay.

I tried warming her up, using fewer treats to make sure she would be able to transition to fewer treats. She did really well, and gave me lots of attention, even when we heeled the length of the ring and back without anything other than verbal praise. I decided we would go in the ring. I asked the judge if we could excuse ourselves if she was stressed, and he agreed that was fine, so in we went.

I decided that if I saw any stress displacement behaviors- excessive sniffing, yawning, scratching- we'd just end the course there. Otherwise, we'd go for it. And we did. She was distracted, and definitely not her best, but she looked pretty happy. I got video, and on playback, I agree: much happier, though definitely distracted. (I'll try to upload the video later and post it this week.)

So, we have our second leg towards our URO1 title, and she scored a 90, which is an improvement over yesterday. But the more important improvement is that she was able to run the course without being stressed. Since that's what this weekend was all about, I'm pretty happy.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Defining Success

Today was the first day of the UKC trials, and Maisy and I were entered in level 1 of rally.

How did we do? Well, it depends on how you define success. If you define success by ribbons and placements and scores, we didn't do so hot. She scored an 88, which was well below the placements, and frankly, well below her abilities.

Still, I'm going to call the day successful. Sure, I'm mildly disappointed with our score, but Maisy was surprisingly relaxed for being at a trial! She only "wuffed" twice, which is her "I'm on alert" noise, but she was controlled and didn't display any reactivity. For most of the time, she had relaxed body language- looseness through her whole body, a slow, soft helicopter tail, and a happy, open-mouthed expression on her face. She warmed up well, very attentive and snappy, and while she wasn't quite as precise as she is at home, she had excellent enthusiasm.

I'm not sure what happened when we went in the ring. She became distracted and disengaged from me. She sniffed a lot, and twice she had to stop, sit and scratch herself. Those are stress displacement behaviors, and I haven't seen the scratching in a long time.

If we'd been at an APDT trial, I would have whipped out the treats to help transform the ring into a positive space. Since I couldn't do that, I simply waited patiently for her to finish scratching, praised her like crazy for her moments of attention (and really, she had some nice moments), and kept smiling. I knew our score was going to suck, and it didn't matter. Perhaps I should have left the ring. If she was so stressed that she disengaged from me, there wasn't much point in continuing. But I didn't think about that, and I'm not sure how to leave the ring gracefully.

We show again tomorrow, and I need to give some serious thought into going in, doing one or two signs successfully, and then leaving. Of course, I know that if we get a couple of really good signs, I'll want to push for more, for the whole course, so I'm going to have to decide what to do in advance... I'm not sure what my other options are.

What would you do if you were in this situation?

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Trial Management

Maisy and I are going to a trial this weekend- we’ll be making our UKC debut in level 1 rally- and I thought that this would be a good time to review our trial management strategy. I didn’t fully understand the importance of this when Maisy and I began trialing, but over the past year, we have gone to a number of trials, in a number of locations, and I’ve learned a lot about what works and what doesn’t to keep her calm and relaxed.

In the week leading up to a trial, I’ve found that there are a couple of things that contribute to a good trial experience. The most important thing is that I need to ensure that Maisy is getting adequate exercise. There have been lots of studies that link exercise with the production of endorphins- the feel good chemical- in the brain. Some sources even link exercise with a reduction in cortisol, a stress hormone. No matter how it works, it does seem that Maisy is calmer when she gets regular exercise.

Along these same lines, I try to avoid any high stress activities during the week leading up to a trial. I’ve heard (but can’t find any sources right now) that following a reactive episode, the stress hormones remain in the dog’s body for several days. Since stress tends to accumulate, I try to keep things low-key around the house for Maisy in the week building up to a trial.

I also try to keep Maisy to her regular training routine as much as possible without overtraining. The week before a trial is not the time to try out new approaches, hand signals or exercises. We continue to practice what we know- Maisy goes bonkers without mental stimulation- but I don’t drill or introduce new concepts.

On the morning of the trial, I try to keep things as normal as possible. I will give her breakfast, but I go a bit light because I know that I’ll be using lots of treats later in the day and I don’t want her to get an upset tummy. I also take her for a nice long walk. Again, this helps to produce endorphins, but it also ensures that she “empties out.” We’ve never had any embarrassing “ring fouling,” and I’d prefer to keep it that way.

Something I’ve been playing with is giving her a dose of Rescue Remedy, as well as spraying her collar with DAP. I’m not sure how much either of these things help, but they don’t have any negative side effects, and if they ease her anxiety even slightly, it’s probably worth it. I’m also considering giving her a small dose of pain reliever to alleviate any discomfort, since pain really plays into her reactivity. I need to discuss this with her vet, though, since there are plenty of potential side effects to common pain relievers.

My management really goes into full swing once we arrive at the trial site, since I need to minimize stress while still helping her to cope with a busy environment. The biggest and most important thing to do once we arrive is to minimize her exposure to the chaos.

When we arrive at the trial site, I leave her in the car and check in without her, which means I need to park in an out of the way location to minimize stress while I’m gone. Then, I find an isolated spot to set up her crate. This spot needs to be away from other dogs and pathways, and away from the warm up areas. Maisy does really poorly if I leave her in her crate- even if I’m next to it- so I plan to use it only if it’s absolutely necessary, in which case, I’ll leave her with a stuffed Kong.

I’m going to add something new to our car crating routine this week: the CD Through a Dog’s Ear, which we’ve used at home when relaxing. The music itself has been designed and researched to calm dogs. We’ve also used it during calm times at home, so hopefully she’ll also have a conditioned emotional response to it.

At the trials where she’s been most successful, we’ve spent a lot of time walking. Again, the walking helps boost endorphins- for both of us. I’m more relaxed when we’re out moving and connecting together. This reduces my ring nerves, which in turns reduces the possibility that Maisy will pick up on my stress and worry as a result.

We do have to come inside at some point, though, and I plan to do this gradually. We’ll go in for a few minutes, walk around so she can see where we are, and play “Look at That” with a high rate of reinforcement. After a few minutes, we’ll return to the car or go for a walk. We’ll do this several times, increasing the amount of time we spend inside, while hopefully reducing her stress at the same time.

Hopefully, we’ll be later in the running order so that she can wait in the car while I walk the course. If we’re first, I’ll put her in her crate or leave her with my husband. I’m very lucky to have a supportive husband, who often hangs out with Maisy to help keep her calm.

For our warm-ups, I like to start with about five minutes of clicking for eye contact and connection. Then we play “get into heel,” where we do pivots in both directions. Next, we heel straight lines with a high rate of reinforcement. Finally, we practice any of the “tricky” signs in the course. This weekend, I don’t anticipate any of those, but at APDT trials, we might practice a moving down or a stand for exam, just as a refresher.

Finally, one of the most important things I will need to do is to watch her stress levels and be ready to scratch our entry or walk out of the ring at any time. If she’s too stressed to work, it’s not worth trying. This is an area I’m still working on, and hopefully I can live up to it!

All of this management is about being sensitive to Maisy’s needs and connecting with her. The thing I really love about dog sports is the way she and I can come together as a team, as friends, and work together. Some people call it focus, but I call it connection. Our relationship is really what’s at stake here. Each time we interact, we can build our relationship. My whole training philosophy is built on relationship and respect, so I do take my commitment to keeping her calm and relaxed to heart.

So, fellow competitors, what do you do to keep your dog calm and relaxed at trials? Have I missed anything glaringly obvious? Have you found something completely different that works for you? I’d love to hear about it! Drop me a comment on your management strategies.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

...and then there are the good days.

Working with a reactive dog is a bit like riding a roller coaster. There are horrible days that make you cry. You wonder why you ever thought you could do this, and you desperately wish that for once you just had a normal dog. And then there are good days. Wonderful days. Days where you know, without a doubt, you have the best dog in the world.

I had one of those days this week.

Maisy and I had our obedience class on Thursday night, and I had been dreading class, because the last time we’d gone, it had been horrible. We’ve been off since then due to holidays and snow, so that rotten experience has really had time to build itself up in my brain. But we went, and I’m so glad we did.

We had a substitute instructor, which made me worried. Our regular instructor knows that Maisy is a dog with “rules”- her term for Maisy’s reactivity- and is very good about modifying exercises for us. I had intended to tell the sub when we arrived that Maisy is reactive, but we were running a bit late (see above re: not really wanting to go), so I didn’t get the chance.

I’m glad I didn’t, actually, because she would never have believed me. Maisy was that amazing.

We started class with group heeling exercises, something that Maisy has always found a bit too stimulating in the past. All those dogs moving quickly and so close by is crazy-making for her. In fact, during previous classes, I’ve had to take Maisy outside the ring and work on the other side of an opaque barrier in order to get anything resembling heeling out of her. Still, I thought I’d give it a whirl, and positioned myself so that I could make a quick getaway if needed.

And Maisy did just fine! In fact, she did better than fine: she was heads up attentive, making fabulous pivots on the about turns, and in almost perfect position! I reinforced the heck out of her, clicking and treating as fast as I could. After several laps, Maisy began taking treats just a bit harder. This phenomenon, which I call “shark teeth,” is very common with reactive dogs. The harder mouth like this is a sign of stress, and it’s a very reliable predictor of how Maisy is feeling.

Since I felt shark teeth, I opted to quietly move Maisy outside the ring. The instructor looked at us a bit oddly, but didn’t say anything about it. After a few laps, Maisy and I returned to the ring, and she finished up the group heeling exercises admirably! She even did a few laps off leash!

Sometime during all this, a small spaniel, about the same size as Maisy, joined class. Another classmate, a rottie, lunged at the small spaniel and growled. Maisy also growled quietly, but she didn’t lunge, and she remained attentive to me. I quietly left the ring with her, played a bit with her stuffed toy, and gave her a drink of water. Once things calmed down, we rejoined the class.

At this point, I considered leaving. We’d spent about 20 minutes doing some intense work, and Maisy had performed wonderfully. I’m not sure why I decided against this. I guess something inside me just said “stay.” I’m glad I listened, because it got better!

We worked signals next. Since this is a pre-novice class, the instructions were to stand in front of the dog and request position changes with hand gestures only. Maisy and I were working at 20 feet. She did really well, and only confused my sit and down signals once, and that was because I gave the sit signal wrong, and made it look more like a down signal. Good thing to know, and once I figured it out, she did great.

At this point, two people walked up right next to the ring barriers and stared at Maisy. This is against The Rules, and she… well, I want to say she lunged, but that’s not what it really was. It was more like she pulled the leash taut and then returned to me. She was a bit upset about the people Breaking The Rules, but she didn’t freak. Didn’t even make a noise. I ignored the small lunge, avoided eye contact and waited about 10 seconds before asking her to get in heel position. When she did, I gave her a steady stream of treats until the Rule Breakers went away.

Despite that mild blip, Maisy’s mouth grew continually softer, and the shark teeth went away. She took treats softly for at least half the class, which is completely unprecedented. I don’t think that even happened way back when we were in puppy classes!

Next, we did stays. Stays are our nemesis, mostly because Maisy gets so stressed during them. I’m not sure why she finds them stressful, though I think it’s the combination of not moving and feeling like she’s supposed to be doing something rather than nothing. I modified our stays, too, but I didn’t put her behind barriers like I usually do. Instead, I stood about five feet away and gave treats at 5 second intervals. We did 45 second stays in class, and each time, when I released her, there were no sweaty paw prints on the ground! The same thing happened when we worked on stand for exams- no sweaty paw prints! In fact, she had that big, loose tail wag, and she really wanted to say hi to the instructor.

We ended with retrieves. The class is at the level where the dog should pick up a wooden dowel from the ground. Maisy did great, but we’ve been working on this one at home quite a bit. She was even picking up a wooden dumbbell about twice as big as her white plastic one. I was impressed!

Right at the end of class, she did another of those half-hearted “lunges” towards another dog, although I’m not sure why. Maybe he was staring at her? I know that’s against The Rules, and we have a few stare-y dogs in class. Still, she was quiet, and it was more of a rushing than a lunge. I just kept walking, and she did great. I was so proud!

Overall, it was an awesome class. Although she had a few stressy moments, I was really proud that she was able to keep herself together and even relax and enjoy herself. In addition to her shark teeth abating, she had a “helicopter tail” intermittently throughout class. I’m also really proud of myself for being able to recognize when she needed me to adjust criteria to make it easier for her by leaving the ring, and when it was okay to do harder stuff, like go off leash. What a great night! Maisy and I are really becoming a dynamite team!

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

A Little More Orthodox

Last week, I wrote an entry detailing my new approach to working with Maisy’s reactivity. Unsurprisingly, people have reacted with confusion, mostly because this is a rather unorthodox plan, and not at all what is normally recommended. Heck, if someone came to me and asked me how they should work with their reactive dog, I wouldn’t be pulling up that entry! Instead, I’d pull up this one, because today, I’d like to talk about the more usual methods.

Be aware that this entry is just an overview. If you have a reactive dog and you’re just starting out, you really want to find a good positive reinforcement trainer. There is so much at play with reactivity that it’s just easier and safer to have a second set of eyes looking at what’s going on.

Still, there are four main things that basically every good trainer will help you do:
1. Determine the dog’s triggers and thresholds
2. Counter-condition the emotional response
3. Help your dog develop impulse control
4. Teach alternate behaviors

I’ve written about thresholds before, but it needs to be repeated: it is absolutely critical that you do your best to stay under threshold when you’re working with a reactive dog. A dog that is in the throes of a full-out, overly-emotional response is not going to be in a place where he can really work through his issues.

So, the first step in working with a reactive dog is to figure out what causes the dog’s reactive response, and the proximity to the trigger in which the dog reacts. For example, one of the first triggers I identified for Maisy was bicycles going by, but only if they were closer than about 25 feet. Over time, I’ve decreased that threshold to about 6-8 feet, which is far more manageable.

In order to reduce the threshold, you need to start doing counter-conditioning. This addresses the emotional component to your dog’s reactivity. Counter-conditioning is pretty easy, but it takes patience. It does not happen overnight- I’ve spent over a year doing this with Maisy. Here’s how you do it: take your dog close enough to the trigger so that he notices it, but not so close that he loses it. Then feed a constant stream of treats until the trigger leaves. What this does is teach your dog that Big Black Dogs (another of Maisy’s triggers) aren’t scary. Instead, they are a reliable predictor that good things (treats) are going to happen! Therefore, Big Black Dogs become a Really Good Thing, not something to lunge and growl at.

Another component to reactivity is a lack of impulse control. I think this is the part that I’ve actually spent the most time working on with Maisy. Helping her learn that she can control her behavior has really helped boost her confidence and help her relax, which reduces the fear that drives her reactivity.

There are a lot of things you can do to develop impulse control, and again, a good trainer can help you figure out which ones will be best for you and your dog. One of my favorite impulse control games is doggie zen, which teaches the dog that the get what they want, they need to exercise self-control and look to you instead. Another impulse control activity that I really like is the Relaxation Protocol. As the name implies, it is more about relaxation than controlling impulses, but it does help.

Finally, you need to add in some alternate behaviors, something the dog can do instead of lunging and barking. Alternate behaviors (also called incompatible behaviors or default behaviors) should be heavily rewarded when offered. Maisy has a few things she does instead of behaving reactively. The two she does most are lying down (especially with her chin on the ground), and looking at the trigger and then immediately looking at me. Alternate behaviors are helpful because they teach the dog a better behavior, and it helps remind the handler to reinforce good behavior.

There’s a great program out there that combines all of these things: Control Unleashed. It is amazing! It has games for impulse control, for dealing with triggers, and for teaching alternate behaviors. It also helps build your relationship with your dog and creates focus in a distractible dog. All dogs can benefit from Control Unleashed, but anyone who owns a reactive dog absolutely must read this book and incorporate the techniques, and if possible, join a class based on the book.

So, given all of this, how did I arrive at my unorthodox training plan? Well, I’ve worked all of the steps above, and I’ve worked them hard, with regular classes, training plans, and many hours on my own. And it’s worked. My counter-conditioning has been very effective. Her “reactive behavior” isn’t really reactivity any more. Reactivity is primarily fueled by emotions and a lack of impulse control, but that’s not what’s going on with her anymore. Her body language is much more loose and relaxed. It’s not about impulse control either; when I give her a job to do (i.e., a chance to earn reinforcements), she very rarely displays reactive behavior.

It’s also important to note that I’m still following all of my advice. I’m still counter conditioning triggers, I’m still working on impulse control exercises, and I’m still rewarding alternate behaviors (in fact, I’m increasing the amount of treats she gets for alternate behaviors). The only thing that has changed is my response to her behaviors that look like reactivity (i.e., lunging and barking). Like I discussed in my last entry, she figured out that she can make me give her a treat by performing the behavior formerly known as reactivity. So, I’m not doing it anymore on the theory that she’ll quit doing the behavior if it doesn’t pay.

Instead, I’m completely ignoring the outburst. If I feel like she is truly over threshold, I will increase distance between her and the trigger, and then counter-condition by rewarding an appropriate behavior, but I’m not making a big deal about it like I used to. If she’s obviously relaxed- for example, if she has “helicopter tail” (my term for a big, loose tail wag that makes complete circles and engages her entire body), or if the bark is a “play bark” (identifiable by pitch), I am completely ignoring her for 15-30 seconds, and then asking her for something (usually asking her to get into heel position and do pivots, although I’m trying to randomize that as well so it doesn’t create another component to her behavior chain).

It’s definitely working, and I’m really excited to see some of the changes in her. It’s still exhausting at times- we were both worn out after class last night- but I’m seeing a huge difference in her. I can’t wait to share her progress with you.

Friday, January 8, 2010

My Dog is Smarter Than Me, or: Breaking the Reactive Behavior Chain

My dog is smarter than me.

It is often said that whenever you are with your dog, one of you is training the other. Every moment is a subtle yet complex set of interactions in which behaviors are being established, maintained or changed. Sometimes we train the dog, but sometimes the dog trains us. Maisy, in fact, is an excellent trainer, so skilled that I often don't realize that she is shaping my behavior in her favor. She not only has a very clear idea of the behaviors she wants from me, but she also is very good at eliciting the behaviors.

I want you to throw my ball. I want you to give me a treat. What do I have to do to get you to do that? Does this work? No? How about this? No? How about this? Ah-ha! That worked! I’ll do it again! And again! And again!

Of course, this is what good dog training is all about- the dog works for a reward. It’s a win/win situation, really. The handler gets what they want- a dog sitting or coming or whatever- and the dog gets what they want- a treat or a ball. The trick is that the handler has to time the reward to coincide with the behavior she wants; if the timing is off, the dog learns to do something else entirely.

And, I obviously made some mistakes in what I reinforced, because Maisy has figured out that if she displays a reactive behavior, there is a very good chance that I’ll give her a treat.

Here’s how she learned that: in the past, when Maisy would react to something scary by lunging and growling or barking, I would call her name to interrupt the behavior and direct her attention away from the trigger and back to me. I timed my click and treat so that I thought I was reinforcing her becoming silent and looking at me. And I guess I was, because she learned that if she lunged and barked or growled, and then returned to me quietly, she’d get a treat.

Like any dog who has been reinforced for doing something, she started offering that behavior, even if it was a behavior that I didn’t want. She didn't know that. After all, a dog can't know what we intend to train. A dog simply does what works. And acting reactive worked for Maisy.

It took me awhile to realize what was going on. I first noticed that she didn’t seem as scared of things, and that her focus and attention was improving. Then, my amazing trainers, Jane and Robin pointed out that Maisy seemed different in class. She was still displaying reactive behaviors, but her body language didn’t really match up with her actions; she looked loose and relaxed while lunging, and self-interrupt her behavior to turn back to me with this expectant look, as if to say, “Did you see that mom? I did good, huh? Do I get a treat?”

After several weeks of this, I decided that something needed to change. While it was clear that I’d been quite successful in counter conditioning her fear response, I also began to understand that in the process, I had inadvertently created a behavior chain in which she could earn treats by “acting reactive.” After some discussion with Jane and Robin, I decided to take away the rewards so that the behavior didn’t pay off any more (something that is technically called extinction).

So, two weeks ago, I started working with Maisy differently. I decided that I would ignore all future instances of reactive behavior. If she lunges and barks or growls at something, I don’t call her name, I don’t try to interrupt the behavior, I don’t ask her to do something else instead, and I don’t even look at her! The behavior gets absolutely no reward… or even a response, lest that is enough to encourage her.

However, I didn’t feel that it was fair to ignore undesirable behavior without rewarding her for desirable behavior, so I also drastically increased the amount of reinforcement that Maisy gets for appropriate behaviors (such as sitting quietly, lying down, looking at me, etc.), both in general and especially in the face of a trigger.

So far, it’s going fairly well. She’s confused, and doesn’t understand why she is no longer getting a reward for something that’s always paid off in the past. The frequency of the behavior hasn’t lessened at all, but I think maybe the intensity has. I think this will work, though I must confess that I'm worried about the likelihood of an extinction burst. With my luck, it will happen at one of the two trials I am planning to attend with her in the next month.

Still, it will be nice to be smarter than my dog, even if it is just for a fleeting moment.

Saturday, January 2, 2010

One more accomplishment for 2009...

I just found out this morning that Maisy had one more accomplishment in 2009:

She got nationally ranked!!

All dogs who compete in APDT Rally are eligible to earn points towards the national rankings. The higher your score at a trial, the more points you earn. At the end of the year, everyone is ranked according to the highest title they earned for that year.

Maisy's highest title this year was RL1X, and she had 272 points, which made her #6 in the nation for dogs at her level! I am incredibly proud of her!

Friday, January 1, 2010

2010 Goals

In the Star Trek universe, all of the main character’s actions are guided by the Prime Directive, which is their highest law. Basically, the Prime Directive states that, "allowing cultures to develop on their own is an important right and therefore [the characters] must make any sacrifice to protect cultures from contamination."

What does that have to do with dog training? Well, it’s that time of year: time to make resolutions and set goals and dream about the future. As I’ve contemplated my goals for the coming year, I realized that almost every one had a qualifier: if Maisy is comfortable. As a result, I’ve come up with my own dog training Prime Directive: I recognize that Maisy has the right to grow at her own pace, and that I will not interfere in that by pushing her beyond what she can handle.

Or, perhaps a bit less geeky: I will work with the dog I have. I will honor who she is. I will never force her to be someone she is not.

One of the things I adore about Maisy is that she has a heart of gold. She will work her little heart out. She will try her best. She will do everything I ask of her… even if she’s stressed beyond belief. I have been at trials with her where she was clearly stressed out, and she still placed in the ribbons.

In fact, I have only one regret from 2009: there was a trial where I should have excused ourselves, and I didn’t. Ironically, that run was the one that earned us our RL1X, the single-level championship in APDT rally. It was a very hollow victory, and on that day, I learned that high scores, fancy ribbons, and new titles are all well and good, but the victories I really savored were the ones where we were really working together as a team, as friends. For me, dog training and trialing is all about one thing: relationship.

This year, and for the rest of her life, I will do my level best to honor who Maisy is. If I need to excuse ourselves from the ring, I will. If I need to take an NQ in order to make the experience better for her, I will. If she needs a break from training for a day or a month or even a year, I’ll give it to her.

With that in mind, I present my list of goals for 2010. I’ve tried to make these as objective as possible, with specific criteria for what needs to happen in order to consider the goal met. Some goals are more measurable than others, but overall, I’m excited about what I’ve come up with.

1. Complete Dr. Karen Overall’s Relaxation Protocol. More importantly, work on it consistently, at least once or twice a week.

2. Increase Maisy’s physical exercise, specifically by taking her on more walks, and by doing so more consistently. This is a hard goal to start in January since the temp with windchill is below zero right now...

3. Improve her stays. By the end of the year, I would like for Maisy to have a novice-level sit and down stay. This means that she should be able to do sit and down stays with distractions, and while I am 20-30 feet away, for 1 minute and 3 minutes respectively.

4. Improve her heeling. Specifically, I’d like for her to maintain heel position through pace and direction changes without verbal cues. In other words: I’d like her to be able to do a novice-level, off-leash heeling pattern.

5. Improve her fronts. I would like for Maisy to be able to go from heel position to the front position on the first try. Right now she can get there, but she does need to shift around a bit to do so. And, perhaps more importantly, I’d like her to get front and then hold that position until I ask for something else.

6. Improve her jumping ability. I’d like for her to be able to a recall over a (high or bar) jump, and for her to go out to a specified jump, without hesitation or "popping" over the jump. I’d love if she got to her full jump height, but I’ll settle for 2 inches on this one.

7. I will work on reducing my ring nerves and performance anxiety. I will consider this successfully met if I can perform in a trial without dependence on stomach medication!

8. I’m really, really hoping to obtain Maisy’s ARCH this year. It is completely doable, but also completely at the whim of the Prime Directive.

9. I’d also really like to get at least one leg towards a CD of some sort (either the U-CD or the CD-H). Again, completely at the whim of the Prime Directive.

So, there it is- all the things I want to work on this year. I can’t wait to report back on our progress next January. I really, really hope that, regardless of how many of my goals we do or do not reach, I can tell you I honored that Prime Directive. In the process, I’m sure Maisy and I will boldly go places I had never dreamed. But, even if we end the year in exactly the same place, at least I will know that I honored who Maisy is.