Sunday, March 28, 2010

Suzanne Clothier Seminar: Answering the Questions for Maisy

In my last entry, I detailed what the questions are, but I really didn't personalize them. (Seriously, folks, I'm already pretty long-winded for a blog anyway, can you imagine how much worse it would be if I didn't break these things down?) Anyway, today I want to post a bit about how answering these questions have changed my perspective on Maisy.

Question 1: Hello?
Due to our long association with one another, this one is easy. If I say Maisy's name, or any one of her nicknames (and there are many; I have no idea how she understands they all refer to her), she wags her tail. Immediately. Every time. She'll often do this when someone else says her name, too. It is safe to say that Maisy is quite willing to interact with me.

Question 2: Who are you?
Question 3: How is this for you?
I've combined these two questions because I think they're pretty bound up in one another, and I think my post would be far more disjointed if I didn't combine them.

For a long time, when I described Maisy, I described her as "fearful" and "reactive." Those are the two adjectives that came out of my mouth most often, though I often followed it up with "extremely soft." The problem with these descriptors are two-fold. First, they're primarily negative, and second, I'm not sure they're really all that accurate.

I've been watching Maisy's responses lately, and she's surprised me. A lot. For example, I've always thought she's fearful because she's a bit jumpy and startles easily. An unusual noise or unexpected event will make her jump backwards and perhaps tuck her tail and slink a little bit. But her resiliency is amazing; she'll often come back to that scary thing quite quickly. I've written before about Maisy's response to a wobble board. It initially startled her, but she came right back to it, and continued to interact with it. Is this what a fearful dog would do?

And in the past week, I've seen countless examples of her jumping in surprise, and then immediately calming down or returning to work. I'm beginning to think that a better descriptor for her is sensitive. The way I react to something will predict the way she reacts. Lately, I've been paying attention to Maisy's triggers, and making a huge effort not to stiffen up (this was the direct result of Suzanne's seminar, and I'll write about it in more detail soon). When I remain loose, Maisy might look at the trigger, and even take a few steps towards it, but when she sees I'm fine, she relaxes. When the trigger also startles me and I gasp or start breathing differently, or if I tighten the leash or tense my body, then she's far more likely to lunge, growl or bark. Interesting.

She is very sensitive to her environment, and to me.

I've also talked about Maisy as "not liking children," but I'm not sure that's true, either. Yesterday, she actually asked to go say hi to a strange child. We were out in the front yard, and I had Maisy off leash to work on heeling (the reward was throwing her ball), when I saw a mother pushing her toddler in a stroller. I called Maisy to me, put her back on leash, and as they came close, the mother asked if her toddler could say hi. I started to say no, reflexively, but then I looked at Maisy: She was loose, wriggling, and had a "helicopter tail." She wanted to say hi.

The important question of asking "How is this for you?" is about asking it every time the situation comes up. Will she always want to greet a child? No, but sometimes she will.

Some other descriptions of Maisy: she's funny, and loves to play. She's incredibly snuggly, and it's a rare morning that I don't wake up with a dog in my arms. She follows me everywhere, but is quite content to stay with other people she knows. In fact, although she can be a bit shy with people she doesn't know, once she meets someone, she's incredibly friendly. She's very visual, and I sometimes wonder if her sight isn't a stronger sense than smell. She's biddable, smart (too smart, sometimes!), and very willing.

And she's mine.

Question 4: May I...?
Generally, yes, I may. Although Maisy is pretty clear that she hates being groomed. Nails, brushing, baths, all of it. I try to make those times worth her while with lots of treats, but even so, she'd rather not, thank you.

Question 5: Can you...?
Most of the time, yes, she can. Intellectually, she's very smart. She learns quickly, which is both a blessing and a curse. If she's not understanding something I'm trying to teach her, it's pretty much always my fault. We used to really struggle with left pivots, until I began to hold my shoulder slightly differently. Then she nailed them every time.

Emotionally, she's getting better. She still does have some of that reactivity, but it's improving all the time. I'll have to do a separate post on this soon, but I'd say we're down from having a reactive outburst every time we're in public to about 20% of the time.

Physically... well, some days are better than others. She does have some back issues, and she sees a chiropractor and canine massage therapist who does massage, acupressure and reiki every month. These things help a lot, but even so, there are days where she's reluctant to jump. I'm learning to assess her before I ask her to jump, because if I ask, she'll do it, even if it hurts.

Question 6: Can we...?
Yes. We can. Maisy will always try for me. I am, however, aware that my reactions will affect her, and so when she fails to do something properly, I try to always look at myself first. I think our biggest obstacle to trials is my nerves, not the environment, and so I'm starting to work through those issues as best I can so that my half of "we" actually can do it.

I've learned a lot by stepping back and asking the questions on a regular basis, especially "How is this for you?" I've made assumptions that weren't true, like with the child yesterday. Have any of you guys tried asking your dog any of the questions? If so, what did you learn? Was it surprising, or just as you expected?


lessonsfromlayla said...

Hi Crystal,

I really appreciate you outlining some of the info from the seminar. I so wanted to go, but it just wasn't going to work! After reading your posts, I wish even more that I'd been able to attend.

I've been very surprised lately by Layla's response to "how is this for you?" around other dogs. My formerly reactive dog frequently asks to interact with other dogs now, and when I relax and let her take control she continues to surprise me by making good choices. She's even started playing with unfamiliar dogs! This still only happens outdoors, with both dogs starting out on leash and at a comfortable distance (5-10'), but it's becoming more "normal" for both of us. Her ability to "speak dog" is coming back, and she's gaining in confidence as she realizes that she can influence the other dogs' behavior.

Crystal said...

Oh, I wish you could have been there, too. It was really fabulous, partly because it challenged me quite a bit. (And yes, there's a post on that coming up soon!) I have three more posts written already, two outlined, and probably one more percolating away in my brain, so it will almost be like you were there? Kind of?

I'm so happy to hear that Layla is starting to make good choices! I know that's a result of all of your hard work with her. As always, I'm so impressed by your talent and dedication with her. :)